Female villains are all the rage these days. I suspect this is partly due to the success of Gillian Flynn’s excellent novel, Gone Girl. But there’s another reason female villains are having their moment in the spotlight: quite simply, this moment is long overdue.
Traditionally, women in crime fiction have been two-dimensional figures falling neatly into one of two categories: the innocent (usually young, mostly pretty, often delicate) victim or the deadly femme fatale. It’s the classic ‘virgin/whore’ stereotype, as lazy as it is inaccurate in its portrayal of women.
Of course, there are exceptions: Miss Marple, Kay Scarpetta and VI Warshawski, for example. On the whole, though, women have had a rough time of it. Not anymore. Largely thanks to authors such as Louise Welsh, Gillian Flynn, Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, Lin Anderson and Denise Mina, a new breed of female is now stalking the pages of contemporary crime fiction. She’s complex, she’s clever and she’s very dangerous.
To celebrate this, and as a reminder that some authors have always broken the mould, I’ve pulled together my own list of the ten best female villains in crime fiction. It’s not definitive and it’s entirely subjective. Feel free to nominate your own favourites and do let me know if you disagree with any of my choices.
10. IRENE ADLER (A Scandal in Bohemia, Arthur Conan Doyle)
Irene Adler only appeared in one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories but it was enough to make a lasting impression. Apart from Moriarty, Adler is the only character across all the stories who is Holmes’ equal. TV and film adaptations characterise her as a deviant, amoral woman out to get what she wants at any costs. In fact, Conan Doyle’s original creation is more complex than that.
‘To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.’
For many female Holmes fans, Adler has become an icon of female independence. Intelligent, resourceful and sexually liberated, she is a thoroughly modern woman. And she runs rings around Holmes. I adore her. In fact, if you’ve ever read the original story, you’ll know that Adler isn’t quite the villain she’s made out to be on TV and film. But if I was to tell you why, that would ruin a classic story for you. Best read it yourself and form your own opinion on the woman who came closest to stealing Holmes’s heart.
9. HELEN GRAYLE/VELMA VALENTO (Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler)
Okay. So I had a little moan earlier about the two-dimensional portrayal of women in crime fiction. And, to an extent, Helen Grayle could fall into the classic femme fatale stereotype. Could. She doesn’t for one simple reason: the sheer brilliance of Chandler’s writing. Grayle, ‘a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window’ (how could any sane person not love this description?), sizzles across the pages of Chandler’s classic novel. Does it matter that her name’s not really Helen Grayle? Or that she’s not even a real blonde? No. Especially when we learn that she is really flame-haired Velma Valento, the one-time nightclub singer who’s busy hiding her past by killing anyone who knows her real identify.
Farewell, My Lovely is one of my all-time favourite crime novels and Helen/Velma is one of Chandler’s greatest creations.
8. SAMANTHA LAMB (Weirdo, Cathi Unsworth)
Samantha Lamb is the truly evil heart of Cathi Unsworth’s excellent novel, Weirdo. I am a huge fan of Unsworth’s work and this novel is one of her best. As with all of her work, Weirdo is steeped in atmosphere and empathy for life’s misfits and outsiders. Set in the fictional Norfolk town of Ernemouth, Weirdo explores the dark underbelly of seaside living in the eighties, a time of New Romantics, big hair and the inexorable rise of Thatcherism.
Samantha isn’t the only evil presence in Weirdo but, for me, she is the most memorable. She is an amoral, manipulative murderer who – quite literally – will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
7. MATRON MARY TAYLOR (A Shroud for a Nightingale, PD James)
Mary Taylor is the beautiful, murderous matron in PD James’s excellent Dalgleish novel, Shroud for a Nightingale. Taylor is a special character because, although she commits terrible crimes, we can’t help empathising with her - up to a point. James does such a good job portraying the claustrophobic world of a nurses’ training hospital that we end up understanding why Matron acts the way she does. It’s because she cares. In a crazy, murderous sort of way.
6. ANNIE WILKES (Misery, Stephen King)
Described by one reviewer as ‘the book Stephen King wrote in an attempt to keep other people from becoming authors’, it’s not difficult to see why Misery is such a popular novel.
When author Paul Sheldon is trapped in the snow, he is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse. She claims that she is his number one fan and loves his Misery novels, as well as their main heroine Misery Chastain. Unfortunately for Sheldon, the next Misery novel is released while he's in Annie’s care. Unfortunate because Sheldon’s decision to kill off Misery doesn’t please his carer one little bit. In a fit of deranged anger, Annie forces Paul to write a new novel that undoes Misery's death – no matter what it takes...
One word sums up Annie Wilkes. Terrifying. She scared the living hell out of me. Watching Kathy Bates depict her in the film version of Stephen King’s Misery didn’t help, either. Quite simply, the scenario King creates in Misery is terrifying. As any King fan will tell you, Annie doesn’t use a sledgehammer in the novel. Instead, she devises an equally horrific way of crippling Sheldon and ensuring he can’t escape her deadly miserations. It’s a scene that stayed with me for a long time. Annie Wilkes is, in no uncertain terms, a nightmare.
5. BETH CASSIDY (Dare me, Megan Abbott)
Dare Me is a story about a group of female cheerleaders and their obsessive, destructive relationship with their obsessive, destructive coach, Colette French. At the heart of the novel is the friendship between the narrator, Addy, and her best friend, the charismatic Beth.
Along with everyone else, Addy has always played second fiddle to Beth. Until Coach French arrives on the scene and everything changes. The battle between Coach and Beth for top position becomes the focus of everything, it seems, with Addy stuck in the middle as she tries to work out her own place in the delicate hierarchy.
For Addy, Coach represents a way to escape Beth’s suffocating, unhealthy love. For Beth, Coach is a threat who must be removed from her world, no matter what the cost.
Like all Abbott’s novels, Dare Me pulls apart the complicated, sometimes damaging ties that bind women together. Beth Cassidy is a glowing, memorable character who stays with you long after you’ve closed the final page of this great book.
4. ADORA PREAKER-CRELIN (Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn)
Sharp Objects is Flynn’s first novel and, boy, does it pack a punch. Adora Preaker-Crelin is the very antithesis of a loving mother. The novel is narrated from the viewpoint of Camille Preaker, a journalist who has returned to her home town to investigate the disappearance of a number of teenage girls. From the outset, we know Camille is damaged. She’s just done a stint in an institution for cutting herself. She is a self-harmer; her body covered in words she has carved into her skin – WICKED above her hipbone, NASTY on her kneecap.
At first, we believe Camille’s self-harming is caused by grief; she started to self-harm after the death of her sister. Soon, however, we realise there are other reasons for this. Reasons that stem from the behaviour of her mother, Adora. The damage Adora has wreaked on her two remaining daughters is – possibly – irreversible.
This is a novel about the terrible, long-lasting effects of a damaged childhood that brings to mind Larkin’s famous lines: Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like the coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.
Replace ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and you’ve got a good picture of the sort of mother Adora Preaker-Crelin makes.
3. GLORIA DENTON (Queenpin, Megan Abbott)
My second Abbott villain is every bit as complex, self-serving and utterly amoral as Beth Cassidy. While Cassidy exudes youth and nascent sexuality, Denton is an older, wiser, more experienced villain. She takes the nameless protagonist in Queenpin under her wing, showing her the ropes and helping her navigate the dangerous underworld, of which Denton is – make no doubt about it – the Queenpin. But when Denton’s protégée starts to get ideas above her station, she has no choice but to destroy the woman she’s spent so long protecting.
As with all Abbott’s characters, Denton is a complex, clever and utterly unforgettable character.
2. AMY DUNNE (Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn)
What’s not to love about Amy Dunne? Clever, cunning, cruel, amoral, and completely, delusionally bonkers, she is a wonderful character. Nothing or nobody is going to get in the way of Amy Dunne’s greatest creation: herself.
Gone Girl has been a huge hit for Gillian Flynn and it’s easy to see why. It’s a tale told by two unreliable narrators (or is there only one?): Amy and her husband, Nick. As we race through this story, we are unsure who’s version of the truth to believe. Slowly and so skilfully, Flynn draws us into Amy’s warped world view. It’s only once we’re in there, seeing the world as Amy sees it, that we realise this is a dark, deeply uncomfortable place to be. We want to get out as quickly as we can, but is it too late?
A wonderful, original novel, Gillian Flynn has set high expectations for her next book.
1. MRS DANVERS (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)
I read this novel when I was a teenager and it haunted me for years. Mrs Danvers, the maid and housekeeper of Manderlay, is a great, Gothic villain. Dark and deadly, we know we shouldn’t trust her but we can’t begin to imagine how far she’d go in her desire to prevent the new Mrs de Winter from taking the place of Danvers’ beloved Rebecca.
Rebecca herself, of course, is another of the novel’s antagonists. Max de Winter’s first wife, she was lauded for her sophistication, elegance and beauty. But she was also an evil woman who committed evil acts. And yet, the adoration of her most loyal servant, Danvers, never waivers.
All manner of theories abound on the true nature of Danvers’s relationship with Rebecca. I don’t think I care one way or the other if they were lovers or not. Whatever their relationship, Danvers is a towering, memorable villain who stands alongside the best of the classic villains of crime fiction. Oh, and you know what? I don’t for one second believe she died in that fire. Do you?
Hunting Shadows, is now on sale. She adores crime fiction and has never wanted to write anything else. She’d be delighted to share her recommendations and to hear yours too. If you’d like contact Sheila, you can do so through her website: www.sheilabugler.co.uk or via Twitter: @sheilab10.