Let’s have a chat about the issue of ethnic diversity in commercial crime fiction shall we? We watch TV series like The Wire and Breaking Bad that hold the gold standard in representing the ethnic diversity of our communities. They boast casts of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) characters who are just as likely to be successful, educated and at top of their game as they are to be petty criminals or tragic victims, welded to the bottom of society’s collective shoe. Cedric Daniels, Kima Greggs, “Bunny Colvin”, Stringer Bell, Gustavo Fring, Tuco Salamanca, Steven Gomez. Fab! Right? Not many BAME characters in British crime fiction though, are there? There are certainly no Black women main protagonists.
Except, wait! There is one - Georgina McKenzie.
Yes, if you’ve read any of the books in my George McKenzie series, you’ll know that my heroine is a young mixed-race woman who hails from the tough streets of South East London. She’s loud, abrasive, sexually confident and has had more than a brush with the law. But is she a racial stereotype - a ghetto-fabulous gangsta or a poorly-paid rookie cop? Absolutely not! In The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die – the first book in the series – George is studying in Amsterdam on an Erasmus year as part of her Cambridge University degree in Social and Political Sciences. In The Girl Who Broke the Rules, she’s conducting a study into the use of violent hardcore pornography by Class A prison inmates for her PhD in Criminology. And when we meet her for a third time in The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows, she’s a Doctor of Criminology, conducting studies in women’s prisons as an academic, attached to St. John’s College, Cambridge. She’s an impressive, multi-lingual character, balancing the pursuit of dangerous serial killers in Amsterdam with cleaning her Aunty Sharon’s bathroom grouting in Catford at the same time as carving her own niche in Cambridge.
Why did I create her?
Well, though I’m quite clearly white, I’m from a working class, single-parent minority ethnic background and I suffered appalling, violent xenophobia from the kids on my estate, whilst growing up. Petrol bombs. Bricks through the window. Attempted beatings, where I was regularly chased at speed through shitty backstreets by disenfranchised, scary teens, whose parents were often National Front sympathisers. Small wonder that in places where educational and economic opportunity is poor, crime, drug and alcohol misuse, the EDL, religious extremism and poor cultural integration flourishes. Things haven’t changed much on council estates around Britain since the 1970s. But I digress…
When I began to write seriously, I realised that there were few characters in books that resonated with me. The cops in our British crime fiction are often wonderful, tortured individuals. But they’re almost always white, Christian, straight and simply don’t have that backstory. The fire in their belly or chip on their shoulder doesn’t come from being racially abused and having to work harder than most to get out of the ghetto. Their families are not a sprawling network of uncles, aunties, cousins, second cousins… Their story was not my story, and if I’m white and was finding it hard to connect to protagonists in existing fiction, how on earth must Black and Asian readers feel?
At the time when I wrote The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, I was also working as the Development Manager for an organisation called Commonword – the grass roots literary development agency where Cath Staincliffe and Lemn Sissay cut their teeth. There were many BAME writers, writing brilliant prose and poetry and yet, little genre fiction is being commercially published that reflects the lives of those who worked there or attended the workshops. So, the character of Georgina McKenzie didn’t just “come to me”. I chose to make her a mixed-race academic of Jamaican descent, with an extended family to die for. I hope I’ve done her justice.
To create a heroine that the reader would invest in, I decided to make George a conundrum. She has an inner steel, super focus and iron self-discipline that propel her up to the top of the ivory tower in what is a predominantly white academic domain. But what happens, when you subject a Black girl from a rough estate whose mother has narcissistic personality disorder to the rigors and rituals of Cambridge? Well, I decided that George would suffer with borderline OCD, which gets worse when she’s stressed. She has a combustible personality and loses her temper where she should err on the side of caution. But she carries any chip on her shoulder that she may have as a result of coming from an impoverished background with such panache! I wanted to make her determined and strong – more kickass than Salander. Less of a victim. Intelligent enough to argue brilliant criminal mastermind, Silas Holm into a corner (he’s my homage to Hannibal Lecter) but street smart enough to know how to pick a lock, disable an alarm or pulverise a gangster in a fight.
Someone recently left a review, saying it was somewhat less than credible that George should be connected to some very nasty criminals. But why wouldn't she? I'm not writing a comfortable, middle class woman from a white family who lives in a semi-rural market town. I'm writing about a tough cookie, living with her relatives who must overcome racism and disadvantage on a daily basis. Her Aunty Sharon is a tax paying grafter - a barmaid in a strip club who works long, long hours yet still manages to keep her family together and her home spotless. But they live in South East London, where dealers and thieves disrupt the communities built by the majority who are wholesome, honest folk. I lived for years in South East London, so I know what I'm talking about. On the estate where I grew up in Manchester, everyone knew someone who knew someone who knew at least one major criminal. That's urban life. That's poverty. Drama and chaos provide a breeding ground for heroic fighters like George.
The George McKenzie e-series is published by Avon – the commercial imprint of HarperCollins. And it has done very well, winning a Dead Good Reader Award and garnering critical acclaim as well as enjoying Amazon bestseller success. So why aren’t more crime fiction writers incorporating more ethnic diversity into their stories? I think we are starting to see change but there needs to be more than one or two BAME secondary characters in the lengthy cast list of our favourite genre. Look around you. Our cities are not all white and neither should our fiction be. Change will start to happen in earnest when readers clamour for it. So tweet or email your favourite publisher and ask for it. Demand diversity, and an already rich, multi-faceted genre will become richer still.
The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows by Marnie Riches (Avon) March 31, 2016
Europe is in the grip of an extreme Arctic blast and at the mercy of a killer, who leaves no trace. His weapons of choice are razor-sharp icicles. This is Jack Frost. Now a fully qualified criminologist, Georgina McKenzie is called upon by the Dutch police to profile this cunning and brutal murderer. Are they looking for a hit man or a frenzied serial-killer? Could there be a link to a cold missing persons’ case that George had worked with Chief Inspector Paul van den Bergen – two abducted toddlers he could never quite give up on? The hunt for Jack Frost sparks a dangerous, heart-rending journey through the toughest neighbourhoods in Europe, where refugees and Roma gypsies scratch a living on the edge of society. Walking into the dark, violent world of a trans-national trafficking ring, can George outrun death to shed light on two terrible mysteries?
You can find out more information about Marnie Riches and her books on her website.
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