A Writing Pause


I’m in one of those incredibly lucky moments in my life that I am stopping (briefly) from writing (well, from books and editing) to just take breath. Everyone is freezing back home in Melbourne (my son returned there from Europe on the days coldest for the year, and felt it); I’m in rural France where the temperature range is from 14 to 31; nights cool enough to sleep and days not too hot (the stone walls of the farm house keep the workplace at a delightful 25). Sunshine and rolling green hills outside my window. Another two weeks before I don a back pack and start walking to Rome (a mere 1200km after the 2000km we did twice to Santiago from the same French farm house). A morning and evening walk just to keep in shape, healthy food (trialling Don Tilman’s standardised meal system for my husband’s new book) and nightly “good” sleep ratings (one excellent even) from my Fitbit.

I can bask in the glow of being shortlisted for the Davitts (not alas for the Ned Kelly’s, though This I Would Kill For would have been eligible last year for that), knowing the company is excellent (and that Jane Harper is a favourite to win I should imagine, but as I loved her book I can’t complain if I lost to it!). All the while editing my new stand alone rural thriller, The Long Shadow. Each edit making it better, word by word. Because its different to the prior ones—a less kick butt heroine but one with her own arc, a rural setting, a good twist—there is always the hope maybe another country or television company will buy it. You don’t stay a wake thinking about it, but still…Then after reading two articles on Adrian McKinty hitting the big time (hell I loved his earlier books and he’d won prizes and was still doing Uber to support his family…a timely reminder of how tough this gig really is) I wonder…should I have set it in USA rather than rural NSW? I’ve also been spending nights talking plots of a new book with my husband and asked the same question but after yet another gun massacre in USA the idea of three months in Montana or New Mexico to do research seemed less appealing.

Just because I don’t already have enough to do, have also been talking about the plot for a sequel to Two Steps Forward (Two Steps South) – which will be set on the upcoming walking path we are doing. Keeping this many plots and characters in my head at once if challenging…but not complaining. All my own doing…

I’ve had some time out to read as well—Joanna Cannon’s Breaking and Mending (prepub copy my husband was sent) which is a thoughtful poignant take on becoming a doctor and psychiatrist. She has then gone onto to be a very successful British author and this book doesn’t cover that transition, but having been a medical student and psychiatrist and knowing she is also a writer, it was interesting to see the overlap and very different reactions we had to the inevitable challenges that being a doctor throws at you. She had a very serious MCA as well (which I thankfully have not) which added to her narrative. I’d have liked more…it’s got me thinking about maybe my own memoir one day. If I run out of other things to write…

So back to the edits.

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Parenting Assessments – Where Mental Illness meets Protective Services

As my work as a psychiatrist often inspires my books perhaps it’s not so surprising I’m talking next Tuesday for the Mental Health Foundation on the above topic – which is something my heroine Natalie King deals with in This I Would Kill For. I wrote a short blog for them and anyone interested. You’ll find it here

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What I was Reading…

Check it out at Meanjin here

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True Crime Podcasts—Why are We Addicted?

It started with Serial—someone suggested I listen and within ten minutes I was addicted. I knew people listened to podcasts and thought I didn’t have the time…since then, I’ve found plenty; every time I’m driving alone, and they have replaced TV and music when I’m in the gym.

Serial was an eye opener—though I do some forensic perinatal work, my contact with the court is limited and virtually never with the police. For those who missed the phenomenon, Serial followed the case related to the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed—who courtesy of the podcast and the questions it raised, has been granted a retrial. It was well presented with Sara Koenig offering balance to a perhaps more invested Rabia Chaudry (she knew the defendant) but who was able to give insights into the town and being Muslim in small town America.

The first secret to their success was that it took you with them. Though much of it was going through prior investigations and trials, it was with fresh eyes and in real time had the promise of change—of righting a wrong.

The second secret was it turned out to be a compelling case with twists and turns, faulty technology reports, witnesses that recanted and changed stories and a legal system that was far from Perry Mason perfect. The twist that the hosts worked out from tapes was extraordinary. Fiction doesn’t get this good—or rather it wouldn’t have been believable if it hadn’t been real. And we were there when they did it.

The weakness was the same as the strength—real time meant we caught up and the law had slowed down to its frustratingly slow tedious self. Something that these podcasts as well as my own experience as an expert, has led me to believe desperately needs change.

Season Two I found less compelling, though it gave an insight into the military with Bowe Bergdahl going AWOL in Afghanistan. There were some interesting moments, some philosophical questions—but at the end of the day the military should never have enlisted him and he should never have joined if he wasn’t prepared to take orders. For me, there was not the same ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Perhaps there would have been if I’d been in a military family.

Season Three has taken a different approach—Sara Koenig and new offsider Emmanuelle Dzotsi (who is apparently from Ohio but sounds very English)—spend time in a Cleveland court. After Season Two I’d stopped listening but then found myself at a loose end and started this, and thought I wouldn’t continue because multiple superficial cases held little appeal. To my surprise its kept me engrossed. Its like being beamed into a different universe—the life of petty crime and autocratic judges who think they know best and to hell with best-practice evidence. At times its almost funny (if not so horrendous) and often sad. Its also an eye opener—insights into the downhill slide for poor black men especially, being forced into guilty pleas to misdemeanour  to save risk, only to have fines mount and then real charges and gaol time become inevitable.

Rabia Chaudry who was one of the lawyers involved in the first Serial series subsequently wrote a book about Adnan Sayed (who was a family friend) and then joined with two other lawyers in another podcast series—Undisclosed. They’ve gone through the cases of Gary Mitchum (a murdered barwoman who was his on/off partner) and Joey Watkins (a driveby shooting) and now are onto Dennis Perry—a case of a church shooting and murder of the pastor and his wife. This is the least interesting of the three—it was along time ago and most of the notes and tapes have been lost and the witnesses changing testimony hard to fathom after so many years.

Speaking of which—memory and witness description, a common problem in these cases, I tested myself out. I saw a group of four at dinner, then saw them again the next morning at breakfast. I’d spent a bit of time looking at one of the guys—thought he would have passed for Nick Cave’s brother. I looked away and a minute later described the other three; two of my descriptions would have fitted half the middle aged population and the other I got her hair colour wrong and though I said glasses, omitted that the glasses were BRIGHT red. Some of these people got less of a look than I had, and were being asked after a much longer period of time…

Along the way (after diverging to S-Town, well worth it, and a sort of crime), I started another series—Truth and Justice. Bob Ruff, ex-fireman, is kind of like Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard series. Heart of gold and rough around the edges. He started out with following Series with updates on Adnan Sayed, then Kenny Snow, Edward Ates (Elnora Griffin murder), Jesse Eldridge (Keow Gove murder), George Powell III which I missed, West Memphis 3 (there is also a movie) and currently Season 6: The Melgars where Sandy is convicted of murdering her husband.

In the middle of watching these Australia got on the band wagon. Phoebe’s Fall was followed by Trace (now also a book), The Teacher’s Pet and Wrong Skin. There’s another one that does an episode per case which hasn’t captivated me (though there was a thoughtful episode where the mother of a murder victim made a good case about who owns the court information). Of course there was my own involvement in the Keli Lane documentary which I also wrote about for ABC, here. That, like Making a Murderer had  high viewer ratings—more evidence of our true crime addiction.

My interest is flagging though.

There is, eventually, a common thread, across cases, across countries. Justice is not what I had naively thought it to be—it has different faces depending on your colour, which state you live in (I should know this—NSW is much more likely to give long sentences for child murder versus community service for Infanticide in the Victoria, and it varies wildly in the USA) and how much money you have. It can rest on how smart or biased the police or DA or judge is, or whether they are having a bad day. In USA if you’re unlucky you’re the case the DA or police chief will use to ensure they get voted in. At least we don’t have that in Australia. Perhaps the worst part is how even well meaning people can be so certain…of things you just can’t be certain of. And even a smart sounding DA in the Melgar case just didn’t seem to be aware of some gross inconsistencies. These cases are complicated and of course the podcast hosts aren’t necessarily right—but what they show is how easily a case can go one way or the other. As happened in the Keli Lane case, a smart prosecutor out to win (more so, arguably, than for the truth), can sway a jury.

The feeling of being part of something happening and changing gets swamped with the realisation that so much needs changing and little is being done about it, as well as what I’m sure criminal defence lawyers suffer all the time—compassion burnout. There is also this increasing conviction that things are never black and white, and that the only person who can ever be truly know if they did it or not, is the person charged. In the Melgar case, given Sandy had medical causes for loss of memory and consciousness, maybe in some cases, not even then. Hopefully this helps people be more tolerant, less likely to opt for mandatory sentences and (in the USA) the death penalty. Its likely to make for better informed juries—let’s also hope that enough law enforcement people listen and also ask how can we stop this and how can we make things better?

I will continue to listen, though maybe more selectively. For me the interest comes from humanising the millions we hear are locked away in USA prisons and gives sense to a group that in many other ways is often not sympathetic. The podcast hosts choose carefully—no one wants to set someone free and have them kill again because you got it wrong—but Serial 3 has managed to show the petty crime and unlikeable characters in context, surely journalism at its best and certainly what I want to do in my psychological thrillers. I guess for me, also, these podcasts given me food for thought in future books.

There’s a prurient interest too, I’m sure—fiction crime readers like to read to assay and allay their fears of what the news bombards them with, in a way that they know the hero/ine will win through (and they will survive!). True Crime podcasts take you a step closer to the real action, but still from the safety of your own home—even more than fiction we all get to be the detective (my husband kept telling me that people on Twitter thought I had it wrong on Keli Lane—I said there was  reasonable doubt—and they may be right…but I had read all the case notes and spent four hours interviewing her. Had they?). The only problem is that these are real people, real tragedies. The dead person is still dead, the families are still grieving and the convicted person is still in gaol (and if wrongly, the true culprit is at large). We need to remind ourselves of that.


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Getting to Know Yourself on a Greek Island

When I first embarked on training to be a psychiatrist I was on the verge of throwing away my medical training and returning to university to do an Arts course, and follow my passion to be a writer. I had to finish the year as a second year registrar first—three months of anxiety (and a bout of mumps) doing paediatrics where the well-meaning parents bypassed their GP of thirty years’ experience to see me; three months rehab which just convinced me I never wanted to grow old (I was too young to think that this was better than the alternative), three months in general practice where I saw a relentless line of the worried well (the senior partners must have seen the real patients) and the three months that saved me; psychiatry.

What had attracted me about psychiatry was the world it opened up to me—different ways of thinking and being, and at both the practical experiential level and the philosophical. I found it riveting. I soaked in DM Thomas’s The White Hotel (a fictional account of one Freud’s patients), watched behind a one-way mirror to paradoxical therapy (my most dysfunctional patient and their partner were being told what they were doing was brilliant—it wasn’t, but the therapy was) and was bear-hugged by a manic patient with BO. It was stimulating, challenging, and fascinating.

Training to be a psychiatrist however, was less Freud and more neuroscience. I abandoned a DPM degree because I would have had to dissect a brain (I wanted to be a psychiatrist, not a neurosurgeon) and eventually supplemented the neuroscience with psychotherapy supervision, group and family therapy training and attachment therapy courses.

But what was it like on the other side of the couch? I had a brief stint (three months) in a chair opposite a therapist to solve a specific issue and a one off brilliant intervention for grief, but I’d never really allowed myself to be vulnerable—which is what laying on the couch (seven to fifteen years, once to three or even five times a week) renders you. Given I have a job, a relationship and two grown kids and a fabulous life, intensive therapy of the analytic kind seemed unnecessary and, well, a bit self-indulgent.

So what better place to check out the idea while being indulgent as I wanted to be, for two weeks ‘holiday’ on the Greek Island of Skyros? Skyros Holidays have been doing this for forty years—one location does the ‘we’re all still young’ stuff—everything from canoeing to trapeze, and the town location does writing courses and…’self-improvement and self-development’ courses about which curiously little is said, apart from old reviews (for some reason TripAdvisor thought it wasn’t operating) which uses words like ‘intense’. As a writer, surely I would do the writing course…well, no…my husband was giving it. So this left…self-development.

Of course everything was totally confidential so I can’t say anything about anyone else’s experience except to say I wasn’t in the room alone (eight participants and one psychologist). But let’s say that the boxes of tissues were there for a reason…

What stunned me most was having given myself over to the experience, how quickly it became confronting. Not everyone wants or is ready to make themselves that vulnerable, possibly some shouldn’t; individual therapy might suit them better…in the case of some people (not naming anyone except the narcissist everyone mentions…and for this purpose also add in Hannibal Lecter) then I wouldn’t expect therapy to work and wouldn’t wish it upon any poor therapist!

The process depends on people entering into the therapy setting in good faith…and having some self-awareness/psychological mindedness helps (I believe DM Thomas, after running a writing course on Skyros wrote a book—Lady with a Laptop—as a parody of his experience but I have NO intention of doing so of mine). I did keep oscillating between the belief that knowing myself at a deeper level would open me up to changing some of my annoying habits, to feeling this was RIDICULOUS and I was a operating, functioning, normal person so why the hell was I crying and putting my head in someone’s lap?

All but one of us made it to the end (and they only left because of a family emergency); I looked a little less shell-shocked when emerging for lunch in the second week than the first, and now we’re arranging catch-ups and group chats (the reunions will be challenging but not for psychological reasons; I’m the only non-Brit so I suspect I’ll be expected to travel, not them, though camping in my living room in Australia would be no more challenging than those 30 hours therapy).

So what did I learn?

I learnt to be humble. Well, a little.

I learnt what I think is enthusiasm and lust for life can be read as nervous energy. Sometimes it is.

Being vulnerable is scary—but not challenging yourself constantly risks bigger things. And it makes for deeper connections. After all, that is what we are wired for. I may not keep these new friends forever, but they were important connections in the overall trajectory of my life. I thank them for that.

I learnt (okay, I knew this already, but it was reinforced in such a clarifying way that I will never forget it) that one should never prejudge anyone—that when you know them deeply(well more than you know those casual friends that annoy you)—‘walk a moon in their moccasins’—then really, prejudice is virtually impossible.

None of this seems a bad thing. And I still got to eat Greek food, swim and have fun. Most of all I got to eat the best Greek pastry, ever, every day for two weeks.


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Lessons in Learning

What I loved first perinatal psychiatry and now love about writing, is that no matter how much you know (or think you know…), there is always so much more to learn. On the face of it, this is daunting.

So, first this hurdle (one that keeps popping up to be renegotiated); sometimes with a gentle ‘its okay not to know everything, and no one expects you to be Lee Child’ to ‘Pull your bloody finger out or you won’t even get to be (put in name of favorite author who doesn’t sell well – yes, I know selling isn’t everything but expecting awards is too disappointing, and I want to go to Sisters in Crime/Aussie Crime Writers events to have a good time!)’

Note to self – you probably need to learn more about excess use of brackets ie don’t. And long sentences – its ok, they go on the third edit, but this is only get two edits…

Second lesson: embrace learning with excitement. Because in writing it is exciting. Well, thrillers anyway. From realizing you described the place your novel is set perfectly and could have avoided a four day trip to central NSW (long way, flat, dry…) to thinking of all the ways you can use the museum, the bar, the language, the birds…so yes, of course you had to travel there! This pretty much summarizes most of my learning…I kind of know it, but need to be reminded, and keep at it. Some of the freshness of the people in books come from real people who inspired your character, but more often it is little things from people along the way that you pick and tweek and add. Being passionate about what you do is the recipe for good health. It may not mean you earn the most, but it makes the time pass so much faster – and you feel the achievements at a deep level. You’re also likely to achieve more.

Third lesson: even when you are listening or reading someone give a talk/ lecture that you yourself could give (I do a lot of lecturing in psychiatry, and there are always questions at literary festivals about the writing process, and I have done a few beginner workshops), there is something to take away. If all else fails, maybe the speaker has a mannerism you can use for your character, or they’ll suggest a great wine bar to drown your sorrows in after the next rejection.

Fourth: Just because your first readers hate your draft, it doesn’t mean you have to completely re-write. One of the interesting things I’ve found in writing, is how small subtle things on the page change the readers attitude. In my latest The Long Shadow, going to the editor in August), I’m doing a stand alone rural thriller with a new character. I have got used to Natalie King (and there are more NK books coming too), and this lead character is completely different. Trouble was I kept telling myself how different she was ie sweet and naive relative to Natalie’s kick-butt attitude, and ended up with a very passive indecisive character…but  a ‘delete all’ maybes and perhaps and she was transformed! Okay, a little more than that, but the story was still solid with a great twist (I think…), so that got to stay intact!

Final lesson: don’t EVER think I won’t have to re-write and edit. Now that would be a recipe for disappointment! And I’d stop learning – which I don’t ever want to do.





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Do Lead Characters Need to be Like-able in Crime Books?

The New Yorker published an article (May 16 2013) that in the title posed the question ‘would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’ (in case you haven’t read Lolita, the answer is no), and talked about reader’s resistance to unlikeable characters—especially female characters. Claire Messud was interviewed about her own female character (that she also did not want to be friends with) as well as other novelists who expected empathy for their characters but commented that if the author looks for identifiability it may represent their own insecurities and that a ‘flawless character is insufferable’.

Messud and Attwood testified to their experience over years as novelists as likeability of female characters being an issue—need for more ‘sugar and spice’. In light of how Australia tore down its female prime minister and Trump’s continued rants of locking up Hilary, it’s hard not to wonder if this is true.  I have no doubt it is in romance (though men have to be noble, and largely doctors (800) if the tweet I saw recently is true re how often they turn up, compared to poets (2)); in one of my husband’s books his editors (female) suggested that he make the unlikeable female character more likeable by having her do some vacuuming.

But surely its not true in crime? I mean, we aren’t meant to like the bad guy obviously (serial killer especially depicted as heinous)…but what about the protagonists?


Examine my own experience of lead crime series characters and their genders and like-ability—and hopefully stimulate you to think about this and send me your own versions of the below table. Be warned—it takes a while!


(non-researchers—please note that hypotheses are statements to be proven or disproven, not statements of the researchers beliefs)

That gender of author will be strongly correlated to gender of their main character.

The likeability of male characters is going to be higher than female characters.

The likeability will be less correlated to success of books for male characters than it will be for women characters (I admittedly don’t rate success here, but will include as general knowledge in discussion).


So I did my own test on crime series protagonists. I rated on three factors:

  1. Their moral/heroic compass,
  2. How like the common man they were (identifiability) and finally
  3. Would you like to have them to dinner.

I then split them up according to country (of where it is set, not always the case as to where the author lives), and gender of authors and main characters. I might be mostly working as an author these days, but the researcher academic is lingering not far beneath the surface…Of course I need you to all give me your own ratings for this to be valid, and in doing so not know the hypothesis (in which case don’t read the discussion below the tables!).

As it’s my opinion only, it will show my bias to kickass strong women and (sadly), classical heroic men, also with strong integrity, but I have given a range (in brackets) where I think there might be (or in Jack Reacher’s case, should be), a significant disagreement.

The books included had to be in a series (with an intent, if not actual, of more than two, some were more than 30), and if other than Australian (where I was much more generous), had to be well known/readily found on crime book shelves around the world. And I had to have read at least one—my ratings are a tad more robust in the books where I have read most or all (underlined authors). I excluded spy books, and Sophie Hannah and Tana French—even though they both write series, they follow different characters.

Zero is lowest (A. most immoral, B. either least like you or least like someone you WANT to identify with, and C. no dinner invitation going to happen)

Five is highest—A. moral, high integrity B. like most people re family/job OR someone you WANT to identify with and C. comfortable/fun at dinner

[For the * see discussion below]
















Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes (private eye)   5 2 3-5
Michael Robotham Joe O’loughlin (psychologist)


4 5 5
Peter Robinson Alan Banks (Cop) 4-5 3-4 3
Stuart McBride Logan McRae (Cop)   3-4 4 4
Adrian McKinty Sean Duffy, (cop) 4-5 4 5
Ian Rankin John Rebus, (cop) 3-4 3-4 3 (the whiskey bill would be too high)
Colin Dexter Inspector Endeavour Morse (cop) 4 4 2-3
Val McDermid Tony Hill (psychologist) 4-5 3-4 3-4
  Carol Jordan (cop) same series 3 2 2
Elizabeth George Thomas Lynley (cop) 5 3 (5) 5(3)
  Barbara Havers (cop) same series 3-4 3(4) 3(4)
PD James Adam Dalgleish (cop) 5 3 (5) 3 (5)
Lynda La Plante Tennison (cop)

Separate series

Its possible my ratings are heavily biased by Helen Mirren’s portrayal

5 5 5
  Anna Travers (cop) 4 4 4
  James Langton

Same series

3 3-4 3
Faith Martin Hillary Greene 5 5 but… 2 (sorry, she’s boring)
Agatha Christie Miss Marple

(general busybody…)

5 5 but… 3 (5 is someone gets murdered over dinner)
Hercule Poirot

(private eye)

5 1(5…he’s smart after all) (3)5
Nicci French Frieda Klein


2-3 2-3 (should be 5) 2




Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe (private eye) 4-5 3 (5 for men) 5
Dashiell Hammitt Sam Spade

(private eye)

4-5 3 (5 for men) 5
Jonathan Kellerman Alex Delaware


4-5 4-5 3
  Milo (cop)

Same series

3-4 3-4 3
Lee Child Jack Reacher (ex-Military cop) 0-5* 0-5* 2 (for god’s sake he doesn’t talk and he might kill someone)
James Patterson (yes, he’s done more, just picked the ones I’ve read) Alex Cross (cop) 5 4-5 4
Lindsay Boxer (cop) different series 5 4-5 4
Michael Connolly Harry Bosch (cop) 3-4 3-4 3-4
Stephen White Alan Gregory (psychologist) 5 5 5
  Sam Purdy (cop)

Same series

3-4 4-5 4
Sue Grafton Kinsey Milhone (private eye) 4-5 4-5 4-5
Linda Fairstein Alexander Cooper


4 4 4
Tess Gerristen Jane Rizzoli (cop) 5 5 3
Maura Isles (pathologist)

Same series

4 4 3
Patricia Cornwall (up until when she went to UK then occasional) Kay Scarpetta

(forensic pathologist)

5(beg of series) 4-5(beg of series) 4-5 (beg of series)
Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan 5 3 3 (er… wouldn’t be able to have wine)
Karin Slaughter Sara Linton (paediatrican/pathologist) 5 3 (sorry, this is because as a doctor I find the combination of roles wrong, otherwise 5) 3
Lena Adams(cop)

Same series

3 3 3
Jeffrey Tolliver (cop)

Same series

4-5 5 4-5
Will Trent (agent)

Same series

3 3 3
Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum

(private eye)

4-5 5 (women) 5
Louise Penny Armand Gamache 4-5 4-5 4-5






Steig Larsson Lisbeth Salander 0-5* 0-5* 2 (she isn’t a dinner party gal)
  Mikael Blomkvist


Same series

4-5 5 4
Jo Nesbo Harry Hole (cop) 4-5 3-4 3-4
Henning Mankell Kurt Wallander (cop) 4 3-4 3
Fred Vargas Commissaire Adamsberg (cop) 4-5 3-4

(he’s just so…French!)

Anne Holt Hanne Wilhelmsen


4-5 3-4 3-4
Camille Lackburg Patrick Hedstrom


4-5 4-5 4-5
 Erica Falck

(crime writer)

Same series

4-5 4-5 4-5





Peter Temple Jack Irish (private eye) 4-5 3-4 4
Garry Disher Hal Challis (cop) 4-5 3-4 4
Ellen Destry (cop)

Same series

4-5 4-5 4-5


Jane Harper Aaron Falk (cop) 4-5 4-5 3
Kerry Greenwood Miss Fisher 4-5 4-5 4-5
Corinna chapman (cook)

Different series

4-5 4-5 4-5
Emma Viskic Caleb Zelic

(private eye)

5 5 3-4
JM Green Stella Hardy

(social worker)

5 5 5
Sue Williams


Cass Tuplin (fish shop busybody) 4-5 5 5
Kathryn Ledson Erica Jewell

(IT worker/private eye)

4-5 4-5 (women) 5
Tara Moss Makedde Vanderwall (model/psychol) 5 3(5) 4-5
Kathryn Fox Anya Crichton (pathologist) 5 5 4
Katherine Howell Ella Macroni (cop) 4 4-5 3
Anne Buist Natalie King


3-5 2-3 (might want to 5) 5 for fun (2)



  1. There’s a lot of crime book series…
  2. Likeability was hard to measure. I included three measures to try and make sense of this but still struggled.
  3. The moral/ heroic picked up basically solidly good (and often boring), those that wavered who tended to be moody drunks (Rebus) or ones with strong moral codes, you just might not agree with them—Reacher and Salander. Both these characters are strongly moral—but to their own code, not the Law which let’s face it, outside fiction, we really do want people to stick to.
  4. Identifiability. Boring arose a bit here—or strong correlation if they were in anyway medical/psychologist (for me). I included here having families/ kids though that isn’t strong for me, age didn’t seem to matter too much—but admirable qualities did. The identifiability had me including those I’d like to identify, maybe, (eg Lynley, though I suspect the average British Lord is very dull, ex-Lord Jeffrey Archer the exception) and also gave me someone too ordinary character I didn’t want to dinner with (eg Hilary Greene).
  5. Dinner question: There were some people you just didn’t want to dinner (sullen, alcoholic, non talkers, poets and classical music people who I think would be boring…) and others I just want there for entertainment value. In who I want to dinner I am look for interesting people with social skills—and neither this, nor the other markers actually relate to how much I like the book. However boring characters—too gritty (men only), too stodgy, too main stream, too moody, too boring—also correlates with me not wanting them to dinner.
  6. The majority of authors, especially female American authors, stick to their own gender for their main character; interesting to note that this isn’t the case with two recent Australian award winners, Jane Harper and Emma Viskic. Its less true of the British female authors too, who often have two main characters, one of each gender. This may be a bias of sampling with respect to the Australian authors—as a relatively new author in Australia I know a lot of the new writers and their series (virtually all female bar the above exceptions), and haven’t included the equivalents from other countries because they aren’t published here!
  7. I am a little harder on the female characters physicality than the male, and if they are indecisive or morally bankrupt—but I am equally behind them if they are decisive and have a strong moral compass (even if I don’t agree with it). Lena is morally questionable and Will is weak (Slaughter)—I rate her worse. Carol Jordan is infuriating and then just frankly criminal (and I rate her lower than the weak Tony Hill). Poor Hilary Greene. I’m ashamed to say her worrying about her weight annoys me. I don’t care if she’s overweight—just either do something about it or shut up. Barbara Havers clothes sense makes me want to scream. I’m not as unsympathetic to my friends…(sigh).
  8. My favourite authors from this lot (ie if see their new book and take straight to the counter/click on my kindle if I can’t wait that long) are 5 male authors (two Americans, two Australians who set them in the British Isles and one Scandinavian), all with main male characters (and one with a female co-lead)—an ex-military cop, a cop, and two psychologists, and a journalist with…well whatever Lizbeth Salander is; and two female authors, both with joint leads, one of each gender.


I started off wanting to know if we more critical of female characters in crime books. To be Attwood’s ‘sugar and spice’ there is a tendency for women to be portrayed as softer/weaker/ less decisive. In thrillers, even if the protagonist, these women are the ‘victim’.

In a crime book we want some moral integrity—we need this to separate the good and the bad guys. Wishy washy doesn’t work for me. While I felt I was a bit more critical of the female leads, and overall seemed to be drawn more strongly to the male ones,  I want to look at this a little closer.

From the above table are five male authors and two female authors of whom I click and buy everything; they are all currently International best sellers (Child, Robotham, Larsson, McDermid, George) or have been (White) or are on the ascent if he isn’t there already (McKinty). What do they have in common, if anything, regarding this question of female protagonist likeability?

Robotham and White’s characters are both male psychologists, and as a psychiatrist I have a natural affinity for them—so they do well, even though they are male, on being ‘like me’. I don’t feel this about Nicci French’s Freida even though she’s a woman (though to date I have read them all)—the reason French doesn’t fit into my top group is because I don’t like the character—she’s morally weak and makes very dubious decisions from an unclear platform. I was very nearly at the same point with McDermid—as far as I’m concerned she finished the series in the nick of time and both male and female characters were driving me to distraction; Tony Hill was increasingly pathetic and Carol Jordan had me screaming with anger. You’ll note in in my ratings I’ve been harder on Carol.

Loughlin and Gregory as characters (Robotham and White) don’t tax me, and the stories are great.

The others writers don’t have characters of either gender that I identify strongly with on the face of it. But I wanted to with Salander and Reacher. The characters, in my mind done equally well, have gender forming the character, but that didn’t affect  my response which was the same; total escapism, the delight of having complete confidence in yourself (as you become them) and knowing you are right and better than the Law. Hell, I’m a vehement anti-gun person and somehow I can overlook Reacher is using them left right and centre.

With McKinty? Not sure if its plot (or the setting in the Troubles) or his writing, but he’s succeeded where a lot of other procedural male crime writers haven’t—I’m with Sean Duffy all the way. Just less gritty—it must be because he has daughters (so does Robotham)—not sure about any of the other though!

Which only leaves Elizabeth George. One character is a male toff I’d probably hate, but, well, he’s a gentleman…(didn’t feel this about Dalgleish who was too stuffy)…maybe its because she makes him suffer in his personal life and a one person cheerleader for the disaster that is Barbara Havers; and Barbra herself who George really has it in for. I nearly stopped reading when she did something morally and ethically a ‘would strike you off in an instant’ offence (about the Pakistani girl), and in the latest she’s off tapdancing for Christ sake. But she isn’t weak…just wrong. And even Isabelle Ardery another unlikeable character who is a drunk bad mother shows strength at the end. And that I am fairly sure why I keep clicking/walking out of the bookshop with her books.

In contrast to these top picks, when I looked at the character faults in the table overall, the only thing that stopped me reading a whole series was gritty male characters written by male authors; they score medium to high on moral/heroic, mostly okay on dinner invitations, but low on identifiability—including whether I wanted to identify. I have zero in common with Jack Reacher, but he gets 5 on heroic and a  5 on wanting to identify with him. I actively don’t aspire however to being overweight and having alcohol issues…

So perhaps rather than likeability per se, it’s about whether we identify or want to identify with the character. There are more women readers than men overall, but I suspect more male readers of those gritty male crime books percentage wise compared to women. It would be reversed in many of the other books, particularly with the Stephanie Plum/Erica Jewell type heroines which would be I think the mirror image of the gritty male protagonist.

Probably the safest bet is to write a likeable bloke with a few relationship problems and if they have a challenge not one that makes them too moody or difficult. Seemed to have worked for Robotham, White, Harper, Viskic, and McKinty. The characters around them can be more difficult.

And being a woman reader, when I read a female character, there are going to be more things I don’t want to identify with, that I gloss over with male characters—if they are a bad father, overweight, drink too much…it annoys me, but not as much.


I have better research skills than demonstrated here—but maybe the real reason to write this was to get you to think and tell me your ratings and what you conclude.A good topic for a PhD maybe!

I still think we are harder on female characters—but if the fabulously successful Larsson and Child can be pinups—when you take a great risk with your character, perhaps there are also great gains to be made. But even—or rather, especially in crime books—integrity and morality is critical. You may not want them to dinner, but they won’t bore you, and just maybe make you think.

And if the plot and writing is good enough, I’ll read on anyway.

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