Columns > Published on February 24th, 2012

LURID: Deadlier Than The Male

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.


Murder is a man’s, man’s, man’s world, supposedly.  There's a rigid gender equation at work in both newspaper headlines and airport paperbacks: male killer, female victim(s).  The traditional view has been that female killers are rare, that those of the “gentler sex” have to be provoked into murder most foul by extreme circumstances, usually sexual abuse.  Even in fiction, they have to be (in Shirley Maclaine’s telling categorization) a “victim, doormat or hooker” first, before they are permitted (by their usually male creator) to embark on a vengeful rampage.  In order to be a sympathetic character for the reader, they must maintain their fragile, feminine core.  Yes, Lisbeth Salander, I’m looking at you.

It gets off-putting for female readers if women keep ending up on the mutilated-and-dumped-on-an-empty-lot side of the crime thriller equation. Especially when there are five seasons of Investigation Discovery’s most decidedly Lurid true crime show, Deadly Women, in my Netflix queue that suggest that the tables are often turned.  While male killers seem to grab the headlines and the stereotypes, over the centuries the female of the species has been quietly poisoning, suffocating, and even stabbing and shooting her victims.  It’s just that you never noticed.  She’s clever like that.

FACT: female serial killers escape detection for, on average, eight years, almost twice as long as their male counterparts, and may even go for decades before anyone even realizes that there is a serial killer at work.  Put that in your electric chair and smoke up a side of beef.  No, wait: juries are often reluctant to give women the death penalty, and prefer to hand down life sentences, unless the convicted’s crimes are heinous indeed. Carol Bundy, one half of the Sunset Strip Killers, got a life sentence (although she died in jail) while her partner, Doug Clark, was sent to Death Row.  Not all murderers are equal under the law and sexism cuts both ways.

There is a long-established culture of females who kill (and kill again) that gets less and less underground by the day. The number of women convicted of homicide has exploded since 1970, and on the other side of the law, governments are recognizing that women operatives represent a valuable resource. My top secret source (thanks “J”) tells me that many new Delta Force assassins are women, and I’m sure you all saw that story about Iranian female ninjas.

So where are their fictional sisters, goes the cry? Where are the female Hannibal Lecters, Dexter Morgans, Patrick Batemans, James Bonds, Tyler Durdens and Tom Ripleys?  It’s true they’re more difficult to spot than their butcherly brethren, and are often the far-off object rather than the first person subject of narratives.  Nonetheless, deadly damsels have been a staple of Bad Books for centuries – where would Shakespeare be without Lady Macbeth and Tamora, Queen of the Goths?

Aside from revenge killers, like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or Dawn Kincaid in the Kay Scarpetta books, female multiple murderers can be categorized into six basic types, according to Michael & C. Kelleher’s Typology (Murder Most Rare, 1998).  Although this list was derived from US studies in the 1990s, the real life categories have plenty of fictional antecedents. You just have to look in some of the less obvious places. 

Angels of Death

Topping the female killer league tables in terms of sheer numbers of victims are the Angels of Death: nurses, baby farmers and caretakers of the elderly.  An early documented example is “Jolly” Jane Toppan, who killed an estimated 31 (including patients who she sexually molested as they died, as well as members of her own family) during a sixteen-year spree ending with her arrest in 1901.  She said that her ambition was “to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived”. 

Not even close, Jane.  A decade or so later, Amy Archer-Gilligan, nursing home proprietress, was blamed for the deaths of 60, and Japanese nurse Miyuki Ishikawa claimed the lives of 103 newborn babies in the 1940s.  With Angels of Death, murder is an eye-popping numbers game.

Toppan is said to be the inspiration for Bessie Denker, the redoubtable Rhoda’s grandmother in The Bad Seed.  She also has a definite fictional descendant in Annie Wilkes, the psychopathic nurse who pulls author Paul Sheldon out of a car wreck and into the worst trouble he’s ever been in his life in Stephen King’s Misery

Whenever [Wilkes] came into the room he thought of the graven images worshipped by superstitious African tribes in the novels of H. Rider Haggard, and stones, and doom. …There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks”. 

Wilkes, like other Angels of Death, likes to straddle the line between killer and savior.  She pumps Paul full of painkillers, and when his heart stops, resuscitates him.  This being a King novel, she also gets jiggy with an ax and an electric knife, a rather unusual manifestation of Munchausen’s by Proxy that involves removing her patient's limbs.  Paul learns that his captor has left a long trail of suspicious deaths (relatives who died under mysterious circumstances, thirty nine dead babies in a Colorado hospital).  This makes her Stephen King’s most prolific serial killer too – especially as she hasn’t a supernatural bone in her lumpen body.

Black Widows

While male serial killers tend to select strangers as their victims, there’s a specific category of multiple murderesses who kill close to home.  Husbands, children, siblings, lodgers, staff, neighbors – the closer they can get to their prey, building a relationship of trust, the easier they find it to strike the fatal blow, or deliver the fatal dose.

H. G. de Lisser’s 1928 novel The White Witch of Rose Hall is a gloriously lurid tale of colonial depravity with a memorable Black Widow at its core.  Annie Palmer is “white, lovely, imperious, strong, fearless”, and, thanks to her Haitian upbringing, well-versed in folk magic.  She uses her powers to lure and then dispatch three husbands; gaining wealth, power, and a fearsome reputation for abusing slaves along the way (she takes slaves as lovers and then kills them, as well as whipping others to death).  Although local gossip convicts her of viricide, her status means that she never has to face the penalty of the law.  Neither does she fear retribution from beyond the grave.  Of her deceased spouses, she says:

It is not of them I am afraid. I despise them in death as I despised them in life. They were weaker than I when alive, and I am still stronger than they are now that they are dead.”

Interestingly, while the white patriarchy tolerates Annie’s behavior (plantation owners weren’t in the habit of calling each other out on human rights abuses), it’s the slaves who bring her spree to a close.  She is killed during an uprising by a voodoo priest seeking vengeance for the death of one of his kin.

All this is fiction, but de Lisser’s novel has become so tightly woven into Jamaican legend that tours of Rose Hall today treat Annie as a historical character, even suggesting that her ghost still haunts the corridors of the plantation mansion where she shed so much blood. 

Sexual Predators

Of all the Kelleher types, the Sexual Predator is the rarest, with Aileen Wuornos usually given as the only known example of a solo woman hunting for sexual thrills.  Given the way that female sexuality is constructed within our culture, it seems that this category of killer isn’t deemed appropriate for popular entertainment.  This seems unfair, given that sadistic male killers take up so many spots in the bestseller lists.  But there are fictional female sexual predators out there; they’re often presented in supernatural terms, as vampires (say hello to Akasha, in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned), succubi (as seen in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files) or as the victim of demonic possession (Amanda in Come Closer by Sara Gran). 

Bram Stoker got especially creative with this archetype in The Lair of The White Worm (1911).  Stoker gave us some memorable predatory women in the form of the three wanton sisters in Dracula, who come very close to draining Jonathan Harker dry.  However, in The Lair of The White Worm, Stoker gives the femme fatale another spin of the wheel.

His protagonist, Adam Salton, is struck by the strange nature of Lady Arabella March from their first meeting.  She’s seductive, but oddly repugnant (at least to our wholesome hero)-

...clad in some kind of soft white stuff, which clung close to her form, showing to the full every movement of her sinuous figure  …Her voice was peculiar, very low and sweet, and so soft that the dominant note was of sibilation.  Her hands, too, were peculiar—long, flexible, white, with a strange movement as of waving gently to and fro.

As well as being a rapacious gold-digger (she sets her sights on local landowner Edgar Caswell, as her own property is “mortgaged to the hilt”), Lady Arabella follows a classic serial killer trajectory by first attacking an animal (she tears a mongoose to pieces), then a small child, before dragging a servant into an underground pit.  This same underground pit is associated with the Worm of the title, not a wriggly little earthworm, but “ a monster of vast size and power—a veritable dragon or serpent, such as legend attributes to vast fens or quags where there was illimitable room for expansion.”  It becomes increasingly clear to Adam and his associates that Lady Arabella and the fearsome Worm (a perfect storm of vagina dentata and giant phallus) are one and the same creature, and they resolve to dynamite her to oblivion. 

Stoker was very ill during the last year of his life, and although his fevered imagination can still be seen at work in the trappings of the story (the giant, bird and villager scaring kite, and Caswell’s steampunk roofie, the Mesmer box), The Lair of The White Worm doesn’t make a lot of sense (neither did the 1988 Ken Russell movie version starring Hugh Grant).  Nonetheless, Lady Arabella is a chillingly cold-blooded sexual predator — with all that crazy phallic worm shit thrown in for extra kicks.

For Profit

Money is the most common motive for murderous women, and there is a big crossover between the 'For Profits' and the Black Widows.  Female killers get their thrills from fantasizing about their crime in advance, often through meticulous planning, going over every detail again and again.  If a woman is going to go to the trouble of actually committing murder, rather than just fantasizing, then often she needs to gain more from it than a momentary sadistic thrill at the point of death. A substantial cash bonus can really sweeten the deal.

The calculating killer who executes a grandiose plan is the lifeblood of the detective novel, so, in the service of authenticity, there should be plenty of ‘shedunits’.  No one understood this better than the doyenne of the genre, Agatha Christie.  Almost half her fictional killers are female (especially the ones who are investigated by Miss Marple), and from greedy showgirl Josie Turner in The Body In The Library to five-times-married Marina Gregg in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side, she presents us with some memorably conniving and self-interested women who devise elaborate plans of dispatch in order to inherit, or claim on a life insurance policy.

There are also killers who profit from killing by accepting payment for their act.  In contemporary popular fiction, female assassins seem to be mainly concerned with bringing down supernatural targets in exchange for cash.  No wayward vamp, werewolf or witch wants to get within range of Gin Blanco’s throwing knives (from Jennifer Estep’s ‘Elemental Assassin’ series) or Anita Blake’s trusty Browning Hi-Power loaded with silver bullets.

Question of Sanity

Women, unlike men, almost never hear the voice of God telling them to carve up hookers, and there aren’t many female killers out there who conform to this typology.  Insanity is always difficult to prove in a court of law, especially where there is any evidence at all that the crime was premeditated, and juries are notoriously unsympathetic to defendants who play the crazy card.  There can be a crossover with the Angel of Death typology as these women tend to be suffering from Munchausen’s by Proxy, but this doesn't necessarily mean they'll pass an insanity test.   

Nonetheless, the Madwoman in the Attic is a well-worn literary trope, and she’s usually wielding a knife.  Crazy, out-of-control women in fiction are often thought of as representing unbridled female sexuality (stand up, Bertha Mason), functioning as metaphors for the repression of women, rather than being realistic characterizations.   It's refreshing to encounter a character who's not a symbol, but simply has murder on her mind.

Forget Lady Macbeth and her damn spot, or that woman obsessing about her moldy wallpaper; Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, gives us the definitive deranged dame.  Jane (so memorably brought to the screen by Bette Davis in the 1963 movie) is a former child star who still dresses like she’s ten years old (rather spookily, like Rhoda Penmark).  She shares a house with her disabled sister, Blanche, who also found fame as an actor, until a mysterious car accident put an end to her career.  Jane occupies the endless Los Angeles days drinking, practicing her hideously inappropriate dance routines, and torturing wheelchair-bound Blanche.  She also kills anyone who threatens her fantasy world – with a hammer.   Campy, over-the-top, and the inspiration for drag queen routines the world over, Farrell’s novel is genuinely shocking:  there is never any question that Baby Jane Hudson is anything but an overcrowded clown car short of a circus.  No jury alive could send her to the chair, especially after hearing her signature rendition of “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy”.

Team Killers

Team killers come in three types (male/female, female/female and family).  Male/female pairings are most common, with a typically teenage  female pairing up with an older man and embarking on a spree.  Reality and fiction are forever tangled in the tale of James Dean-obsessed Charlie Starkweather and his then-fourteen year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.  They tore through Wyoming and Nebraska in textbook style in 1958, leaving eleven corpses in their wake and providing the inspiration for two movies, Badlands and Natural Born Killers (which stars Woody Harrelson, whose father was a hitman). Continuing to behave by the book, they turned on each other after they were arrested, with Fugate claiming to be a hostage, rather than accomplice.  He got the electric chair.  She was released after serving eighteen years.

Pulp fiction is bursting at the seams with prototypical team killers.  Cora and Frank fit the bill admirably in James M. Cain’s classic noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice.  The story comes from Frank’s death row perspective: the way he tells it, he met the wrong girl, made some bad choices and had some bad luck.  He’s a drifter who one day wanders into the roadhouse run by Nick the Greek and his wife, Cora.  Frank’s so entranced by Cora that he never realizes he’s her dupe from the start, right from the moment she lets “her dress fall open for a second” so he can “see her leg.” 

Cora’s a Hollywood reject, and describes herself as a “cheap Des Moines trollop, that had as much chance in pictures as a monkey has.  Not as much.  A monkey, anyway, can make you laugh.  All I did was make you sick.”  Nonetheless, she gives an award-winning performance as a miserable wife, telling Frank exactly why she prefers him to Nick:

…you’re clean.  You’re not greasy… No man can know what that means to a woman.  To have to be around somebody that’s greasy and makes you sick at the stomach when he touches you.  I’m not really such a hell cat, Frank.  I just can’t stand it any more.”

“Hell cat” is Cora’s coy euphemism for ‘woman who plans to kill her husband’, and pretty soon poor, lovestruck Frank thinks he’s the one who came up with the plan.  Cora manipulates her lover through one botched attempt and one successful murder (the couple celebrate by getting it on at the scene of the crime), and, like most of her team killer sisters, is ready to give him up to the cops as soon as the going gets tough. But Frank loves her till the end.

Cora remains one of the genre's greatest enigmas.  It's a shame we never get to peek inside her twisted, manipulative mind, and have to be satisfied with Frank's cloudy perspective.  One day, more noir will be told from the femme fatale’s point of view.

There are plenty of homicidal homegirls out there, both in real life and in fiction.  However, unlike their male counterparts, they’re not dancing to Beethoven in a bowler hat, or tearing off a nurse’s cheek with their teeth, or even babbling about their Dark Passenger.  Female killers form a subtle sisterhood, dissembling from the shadows, wary of the spotlight, plying their deadly craft with great success.  Don’t dismiss them as unique, or anomalous.  They are everywhere, and unless you pay close attention, you could be next on a Black Widow or an Angel of Death’s kill list.  Watch your back.

Who are your favorite deadly women in fiction?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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