Crime fiction that breaks the mould of silencing the victims

Ivy Pochoda's 'These Women' is visceral, brutal and utterly heartbreaking

14 September 2021 - 11:34 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
Ivy Pochoda's 'These Women'.
Ivy Pochoda's 'These Women'.
Image: Supplied

These Women
Ivy Pochoda
Faber & Faber

In Sabine Binder’s Women and Crime in Post-Transitional South African Crime Fiction she says the following: “Crime novels are either narratives of investigators or narratives of criminals — rarely are they narratives of victims. While the murderer and, subsequently, the detective in some sense write their stories on the victim’s body, the victim seldom gets a chance to tell her story.”

Binder’s research is focused on South African crime fiction but could just as well be applied to crime fiction across the world. Fortunately this approach to crime writing is gradually changing. Recently there has been an upsurge in crime fiction with female victims as narrators. These Women perfectly encapsulates this shift and leads the way for a new perspective in the genre.

A serial killer is on the rampage in south Los Angeles and targeting young street workers. Yet, he hardly plays a role in the narrative. Here the perpetrator is not allowed a voice; he’s not allowed to tell of his unfortunate childhood or difficult circumstances which led him to killing. In fact, he’s rendered completely silent.

This isn’t about him. It’s about the victims, the sex workers and the drug addicts, giving them and women in similar situations a voice, about putting the power in their hands.

These Women tells the story of five women whose lives are in some way impacted by a serial killer over more than 15 years: a dancer; a mother; an artist; a wife, and a police officer.

In 1994 a serial killer terrorises West Adams, a neighbourhood of Los Angeles, murdering 13 street women. Their bodies are found in a street alley, throats slit with bags over their heads, disposed of like garbage. No arrests are made. The cases aren’t given priority by the police because the victims were sex workers and drug users, women who put themselves in dangerous situations. After killing Leicia Williams, a young girl who was not a sex worker, the killings stop. Until 15 years later, in 2014, when another four women are found murdered, killed in the same way.

Fortunately, Ophelia Jeffries escaped the serial killer when he attacked her. Years later, when she reports a stalker to the police, Essie, an LAPD detective, makes the connection between the past and current murders.

Ivy Pochoda provides a haunting depiction of women whose lives were directly affected by the murders. The reader is drawn into the lives of those who live on the fringes of society. They are real people, not unnamed victims, but larger than life characters who tell their gut-wrenching stories in their own words and their own, vivid language.

From page one the reader is involved when directly addressed by Ophelia. It’s impossible not to become emotionally involved and moved by her straight-talking and honest view of a brutal world where women are considered disposable objects and need to be streetwise to survive.

She knows what the driver wants. She knows what he thinks she is. He’s right. Doesn’t matter that she’s not dressed for the game. The game is in her. She is the game.

The inevitability of violence and fear for safety is an accepted way of life. Women are the prey and men are the predators.

West Adams is streaked with taillights and headlights. Men on the crawl, prowling for women like Jessica. Women like Julianna. The need is endless. It’s never satisfied. Men are always hungry for more and the streets will provide.

The marginalisation of these women and how they are perceived and labelled by society is what stands out in Pochoda’s novel.

These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved.

These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved.

This distinction based on a moral judgement is felt throughout the novel. It’s echoed in the self-righteous behaviour of Anneke, an upper-class white woman who works to remove the sex workers from Jefferson Park and of her daughter, Marella, who uses dancer Juliana’s photos for her exhibition.

Dorian, the mother of the killer’s last victim, still carries the weight of her loss, a never-ending grief. She is the embodiment of a mother in anguish who blames herself and is blamed by society for not protecting her daughter.

And still people look at me like it’s my fault she was like wildfire.

In an attempt to make up for her loss, Dorian tries to save Juliana, a dancer who her daughter once babysat, from the same fate.

Pochoda turns Los Angeles into a character rather than merely the setting for the murders. It’s a city riddled with crime, where helicopters frequently pass overhead, their searchlights “slicing through the dark”. The restlessness of the raging Santa Anna and looming presence of wildfires like “little electrodes in the dark” add to the oppressive atmosphere.

Despite this permeating unease and darkness there are moments of pure beauty,  such as observations of the trees’ movements and flocks of parrots. These stand in stark contrast to the depiction of the city and characters which is almost reminiscent of American hard-boiled crime fiction. However, unlike hard-boiled crime fiction, here male characters take the back seat.

Pochoda breaks the crime fiction mould of silencing the victims and putting the spotlight on either the detective or killer. These are the voices of the women, the unheard, the unseen and the ignored. These Women is visceral, brutal and utterly heartbreaking at the same time — a plea for empowering the powerless and for social change.

  • These Women is locally published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, R225