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Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burton

before she dies mary burton1 Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burton

At a crime writing convention I went to last year, there was a good deal of discussion on one panel about why it is that the victims in crime novels are almost always women. Needless to say, it was a heated debate, and a good many reasons were offered. Among these were the fact that its easier to elicit an emotional reaction when a female is involvedparticularly when that reaction needs to be elicited in the opening pages before the story begins and main characters are introduced. But theres a good deal more to it than that, and although Im not going to get into a messy discussion about raunch, sadism and misogyny, well, theres a reason that I dont typically read crime novels. (I should also note that I prevaricated over which cover of this book to use in my review. I eventually opted for the cover from the version I read, although frankly I find it quite appalling.)

Before She Dies'opens with the crime novel trope of a young woman being murdered for her sins (in this case, apparently for being a witch), and its an extended, graphic scene in which the victim is paralysed, overpowered, sexually brutalised, and then tortured before being killed. Following this, her body is marked and further debased. Throughout, the killer is described as being sexually aroused in his fanaticism and desire for power and dominance.

Needless to say, it was with trepidation that I continued reading.

Now, I have no issue with reading whodunnits and with reading about bodies and the psyche of a murderer. But the use of sexual and physical violence against women for titillation is something that I really struggle with as a reader, and I honestly cannot fathom what it is about this sort of visceral, sadistic writing that appeals to audiences. I resent the fact that Im supposed to be entertained by these sorts of scenarios, and that were apparently so desensitised to rape and murder that it has to be continually escalated to achieve the desired effect from the audience.

And there are numerous such scenes between murderer and victims. Perhaps whats worst is that all but the very last of the victims plays no other role in the narrative other than to be horribly tortured and killed. These women are nothing more than narrative playthings: theyre interchangeable, faceless and utterly disposable, and it unnerves me that this seems to be an unquestioned method of progressing the plot.

In between these scenes, however, weve given somewhat of a reprieve, with the bulk of the book following Charlotte Wellington, an upmarket attorney with a base carnie past shes spent her entire professional life attempting to forget. Charlotte is your standard career-focused, emotionally crippled heroine, and her carefully created facade faces attacks from two fronts: on the romantic side of things, and also from the past that is destined to rear its ugly head now that the carnival is back in town. And with the carnival comes an array of secrets that may well lead not just to Charlottes professional downfall, but perhaps her death as well.

Although theres nothing especially outstanding about the premise, Charlottes a likeable enough character, and her love interest Daniel is saved from everyman status by his entertaining Russian familythis alone helps to kick things up a notch or two. But theres just such a sense of inexorability about the whole thing: everything progresses in the way one would expect, and it all feels like a bit of a chore (particularly given the painfully stilted dialogue. I do appreciate a good contraction or two in dialogue).

Theres also a sense of guilt being forced upon certain of the characters by the author in order to keep the reader guessing about the murderers true identity. Its an unsuccessful approach, particularly given that the murderer is only ever described as he until the big reveal (a lazy approach, I cant help but feel), and the other suspect is called by name throughout. The eventual solving of the mystery is also heavily reliant on happenstance and coincidence, and I found it difficult to believe the supposed, and retrospectively announced, relationship between two of the characters that was apparently the catalyst for all this torturing and killing.

The carnival element of this one lends an interesting perspective, and Charlotte and Daniel are sympathetic enough as main characters, but I have to admit that this one wasnt to my tastes. Hardened crime lovers may feel differently, however.


Rating: star Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burtonstar Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burtonblankstar Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burtonblankstar Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burtonblankstar Book Review: Before She Dies by Mary Burton (okay)

With thanks to JOAN SCHULHAFER PUBLISHING & MEDIA CONSULTING'for the review copy

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  1. Regarding your question of why crime novels are so filled with violence against women. A while ago I came across a post by Tess Gerritsen on this subject. Here is a quote from it:

    Women make up the bulk of the reading public, and these women dont identify with the hero or the villain. They identify with the victim. [...] for women and kids, the world can look like a scary place, and weve learned to pay attention to the things that can harm us. Take a look at where the kids congregate at the aquarium: the shark tank. Or in the zoo: at the snake house or the lions and tigers. As a species, our survival depended on our knowing and understanding the creatures that can harm us, and thats what kids at the zoo are doing. Studying the creatures that can eat them. Women readers who prefer books about female victims arent victim wannabes; were behaving like those kids in the zoo, confronting our fears. We are placing themselves in the role of victim, and mentally rehearsing what we would do to survive. But that fantasy cant happen if were unable to imagine ourselves in the victims role.

    The full post can be found at Murderati.

    Now I dont know whether women have constituted the bulk of the crime fiction reading public from the start, nor whether violence against women in crime fiction has been the norm from the beginnings of that genre or whether it is in fact a later development, so I am reluctant to accept the first part of Gerritsens argument at face value. I do find her conclusion interesting (studying the creatures that can eat them). Personally, I stay clear of graphic crime fiction partly because of the consistent victimisation of women in these books. The empowerment or value Gerritsen posits seems to me a rationale that justifies the trend while sidestepping the larger, to me very problematic, message of such narratives.

    • Stephanie /

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Danielle. I find Gerritsens argument quite problematic as well, in that it compares violence against women with things that are natural phenomenaa shark attack or snake bite is not, in my mind, to be equated with a rape or a murder. Like you, I cant comment about the readership of crime novels, but I do feel that the depiction of graphic violence has increased over time. There was an article in the Guardian some years ago about a crime fiction reviewer who decided not to review in the genre any longer due to the increasing levels of violence and misogyny in the books she was reading.

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