One nervous night in Iceland

Sunday Times, 7 August 2016

A chilling tale of lethal retribution opens Joan Smith’s round-up

Iceland is a small country but it has produced some outstanding crime novelists in the past few years. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of the best-known, and she made her name with a series of tense psychological dramas. Her latest, Why Did You Lie? (Hodder £16.99), translated by Victoria Cribb, is a tour de force.

Four strangers gather to spend a nervous night on a rocky outcrop off the Icelandic coast. A family returns from a house swap in Florida to find no sign of the American couple who are supposed to have stayed in their home. And a young policewoman searches through dusty files, trying to discover what drove her husband to attempt suicide.

The only thing that links these apparently unconnected characters is a series of anonymous notes. In an atmosphere of growing unease, they start questioning themselves and each other, desperately trying to work out what the writer wants. The answer is retribution in an almost biblical sense, sought by a killer who has been nursing a lethal grudge for many years. Sigurdardottir handles the different plot strands brilliantly, bringing them together in an unforgettable climax.

Val McDermid’s engaging new novel, Out of Bounds (Little, Brown £18.99) begins with a joyrider causing a fatal accident. A DNA sample provides a match to the unsolved rape and murder of a hairdresser in Glasgow two decades earlier, even though the driver wasn’t even born at the time.

The blood sample suggests he is a close relative of the murderer, presenting an apparently straightforward case to DCI Karen Pirie of the Police Scotland historic cases unit. But getting the evidence she needs to establish the murderer’s identity involves persuading a sceptical judge, and DCI Pirie finds herself distracted by another unsolved case. Back in 1994, four people died when a light aircraft blew up and the IRA were the chief suspects. Now the son of one of the victims has been found dead on the shore of a loch, and Pirie thinks two suspicious deaths in the same family is more than a coincidence. McDermid’s 30th novel offers fascinating insights into the ethical dilemmas thrown up by advances in forensic science.

Laura McHugh’s stunning first novel, The Weight of Blood, was set in an isolated community in the Ozarks.  Her second, Arrowood (Century £12.99), takes place in southern Iowa where decaying 19th century mansions line the streets of a historic town that’s dying on its feet. Arden Arrowood returns to Keokuk when she inherits the family home, bringing back painful memories of the disappearance of her twin sisters 17 years earlier. Arden was only a child when she witnessed this event and new evidence challenges the accuracy of her recollections. McHugh’s slow exposure of an old crime is a pitch-perfect example of Southern Gothic.

Leif G W Persson is a criminologist and psychological profiler as well as one of Sweden’s leading crime novelists. The Dying Detective (Doubleday £20), translated by Neil Smith, begins with a retired chief of police suffering a stroke. Lars Martin Johansson chafes at being in hospital and he’s intrigued when one of the consultants asks for his advice about an unsolved murder.

The doctor’s late father was a vicar. Shortly before his death, the priest heard a confession from a woman who knew the identity of the killer of a nine-year-old girl. The knowledge tormented him but he did nothing about it, and now the doctor wants to know if Johansson can use this tenuous piece of information to find the murderer. The bored detective promptly launches an unofficial investigation, using a lifetime’s expertise in a profoundly moving novel about endings.

Inside the horror of ISIS

Farida Khalaf’s harrowing account of sadism and sexual torture is lifted by her bravery

The Observer, 31 July 2016

First, some good news. The young Yazidi woman whose story is told in this harrowing book is now safe in Germany, where she is finishing her education. She has been reunited with her mother and younger brothers, who were taken from their village in north-eastern Iraq and kept prisoner by Isis for months. Despite what has happened to her, she is determined to fulfil her long-held ambition to become a maths teacher.

But Farida’s father is missing, presumed dead, and her best friend is still a captive of the self-styled caliphate in Iraq. Even Farida’s name is a pseudonym, adopted to protect her from Isis sympathisers in Europe and the “shame” of having been repeatedly raped by her captors. The book is an unflinching account of the sadistic beatings and sexual torture imposed on a 19-year-old girl by one of the most misogynistic terrorist organisations operating anywhere in the world.

The fact that Isis explicitly encourages its fanatical followers to buy, sell and rape women is well known. Most of the girls enslaved in this way are from Yazidi villages near Mount Sinjar, where their families have lived side by side with Muslim villages for centuries. The Yazidi religion is wrongly regarded by hardline Muslims as a form of devil worship, and in August 2014, Isis fighters gave the inhabitants of Farida’s village three days to convert to Islam or suffer the fate of “infidels”.

What is extraordinary about Farida’s story is the way it goes behind the headlines, offering first-hand testimony of what it is like to be subjected to ethnic cleansing and sexual slavery. She offers a chilling account of how the men in her village were loaded into lorries at gunpoint and driven away to almost certain death. Her 16-year-old brother Serhad was one of only four survivors of the massacre, playing dead among a pile of corpses belonging to neighbours and friends.

Farida and the other unmarried girls were separated from the older women and taken first to the occupied city of Mosul and then to the slave market in Raqqa. “Are all of these girls really still virgins?” an excited “customer” asked the guards. When a Saudi prospective buyer stuck his fingers into Farida’s mouth, she bit him and was beaten senseless.

This terrible story is told in the first person, transcribed from lengthy interviews conducted by a German journalist, Andrea C Hoffmann, while Farida was living in a refugee camp near Dohuk in Iraq. Hoffmann met Farida a few weeks after she and five other girls managed to escape from an Isis military camp near the Omar gas field in eastern Syria, where they had been kept prisoner in shipping containers. At the time, Farida was still recovering from the physical injuries, psychological trauma and malnutrition she had experienced as a captive.

In one of the most chilling vignettes in the book, Farida describes how Amjed, a portly fighter from Azerbaijan, always made a point of praying in front of her before he assaulted her. “Each time he would carry out his religious ritual beforehand,” she recalls. A much younger girl called Besma, who eventually escaped with Farida, was beaten within an inch of her life after she used a pair of scissors to stab the Isis fighter who was raping her.

What these men are doing is not a side-effect of fighting for Isis but an essential element of their ideology. Misogyny is as encoded into the idea of the caliphate as religion, and no doubt all the more attractive to its followers as a result. It allows utterly selfish men who reject modern notions of gender equality to revel in their power over women, deliberately making the sexual act as violent as possible and leaving their young victims bruised and bleeding.

Even when Farida and her friends escaped and were helped by a people-smuggler to reach the refugee camp, their ordeal was not over. Yazidi culture regards rape victims as “defiled”, something confirmed by an elderly woman who cruelly observed that none of the girls would ever be able to marry. Her words had a devastating effect on Farida, who felt as though they “had severed the artery providing me with the will to live”. It is one of many reasons she was ready to leave the camp and start a new life in Germany.

This is one of those rare volumes that offers astonishing insights into the human spirit. Farida resists her captors from the very first moment, fighting them with every ounce of strength she has. Even after months of beatings, she is still fighting and encouraging her friends to look for ways to escape. A catalogue of horror is made bearable only by her extraordinary courage, and the solidarity among girls who literally keep one another alive.

The Girl Who Beat Isis: My Story by Farida Khalaf with Andrea C Hoffman, Square Peg (£14.99)

The Born Identity

Literary Review, August 2016

In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi (William Collins £16.99)

In 2004, the American author Susan Faludi received an email from her father, a retired commercial photographer. They had had little contact for the last quarter century and Steven Faludi had been living in Hungary, the country of his birth, for several years. That was not the cause, however, of the long estrangement between Faludi, a well-known feminist, and her 76-year-old parent. She records matter-of-factly in this harrowing book that her father was a violent abuser, describing how he almost killed her mother’s new boyfriend after their marriage ended in 1976.

Even before the attack, which put the victim in hospital with multiple stab wounds, Steven Faludi treated his family appallingly. When his wife suggested she might get a part-time job, he swept the dishes to the floor and slammed his fists on the table. When his daughter did something that displeased him, he dragged her out of bed and banged her head against the floor. When his wife filed for divorce, he picked up a dining chair and brought it down on her back.

Susan Faludi describes these incidents as manifestations of a rage ‘so ancient it seemed foundational’, long preceding the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. At first sight, they make what happened in 2004 all the more unexpected: in that email to his daughter, laconically entitled ‘Changes’, Steven Faludi revealed that he had undergone sex reassignment surgery and was now called Stefanie. ‘I have decided,’ she explained, ‘that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.’

This startling event marked the beginning of a kind of reconciliation between Faludi and her father, as she refers to Stefi (her father’s preferred name) throughout the book. Over the next few years, Faludi visited Stefi many times in Budapest, getting to know her and trying to answer questions about how the two of them came to be in this strange situation. Right at the beginning, Stefi challenged Faludi to write a book about her, a task she completed shortly before her father’s death in 2015.

Naturally the book is about identity, that most current of pre-occupations, although not perhaps in the sense that Faludi’s father would have expected. The transformation of Steven into Stefanie was not the first big change in Faludi’s father’s life; his birth name was Istvan Friedman and he was known to his wealthy Jewish family in Budapest by the diminutive ‘Pista’. At the end of the Second World War Pista changed his name to Steven Faludi and settled in the US, where he built a business re-touching photos for some of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the period. He raised his family in a Catholic neighbourhood in New York State, hiding his Jewish identity behind showy celebrations of Christian festivals.

The fate of Hungary’s Jewish population is one of many tragic stories in this book. Faludi offers a history of the country’s anti-Semitism in the 20th century, which led to the deaths of 56 members of her Hungarian family in the Second World War, as well as its alarming resurgence in the 21st. In one of the book’s most startling episodes, her teenage father saves his parents, who were at risk of imminent deportation in 1944, by pretending to their guards that he was a fellow-member of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.

Faludi tells the story in her father’s words but points out immediately afterwards that Stefi is an unreliable narrator: ‘How could I begin to assess the truth of a story whose very point was to confirm the storyteller as an extremely effective liar?’ Her father’s subsequent reluctance to have anything but the most cursory contact with his parents suggests he had complex, hostile feelings towards them, something Faludi ascribes to her grandparents’ bitter separation before the Second World War.

The problem with the book lies in this matter of character. Much of it consists of conversations between Faludi and her father after 2004, when they are engaged in a project with very different aims: Faludi wants to understand the past, while her father is intent upon showing off her new, thoroughly feminine identity. Faludi is generous and accepting throughout, researching the history of transsexuality in an attempt to understand Stefi better, but even she baulks when her father tries to give her some unwanted bras.

It is evident from these pages that Faludi’s father adopted and abandoned identities at will, but never stopped being a narcissistic bully. The physical violence Faludi witnessed in her parents’ marriage no longer features in their resumed relationship but her father is as prone to psychological abuse – what we now know as ‘coercive control’ – as ever. That makes the book a disturbing read, not because Faludi’s father is transsexual but because she is still a deeply unpleasant human being.

Woman-hating has come roaring back – now we must confront it

The new misogyny is being borne on a tide of recession, economic uncertainty and extremism

The Guardian, Thursday 28 July 2016

Misogyny is like a virus. It can be fatal – something I realised when I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders in the late 1970s. It has the capacity to mutate, which is why I wrote a book called Misogynies in the plural. And it is infectious, which is why public life is so toxic for women at present.

Just think about it. Last month an inspirational Labour MP, who also happened to be the mother of two children, was shot and stabbed in her constituency. The murder of Jo Cox rightly caused an outpouring of emotion, from shocked disbelief to calls for more civility in public discourse. But memories are short, especially in the feverish atmosphere of a Labour leadership contest. I could hardly believe my ears when Owen Smith, in a campaign speech about equality, said he was upset that Labour did not have the power to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”.

Smith’s careless use of language is not just offensive to women who have painful memories of domestic violence. In recent weeks, the Labour MP Angela Eagle has had a brick lobbed through a window at her constituency office. She has received a torrent of abuse, including death threats. Her colleague Luciana Berger has contacted police after being sent a picture of a kitchen knife and a message telling her that
she was going to “get it like Jo Cox did”.

I have never known a time when woman-hating has been so seething or so widespread. When Misogynies was published in 1989, I believed I had identified something that was on the way out. I was angry when I wrote the book, mainly because it wasn’t long since I had witnessed the hopeless police investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper murders at close quarters. Between 1975 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe killed 13 women, while the police chased after a hoaxer who taunted them on an audiotape. After years of nightmares, I realised that the murders were part of a wider and age-old phenomenon.

Researching the book, I found plenty of evidence of misogyny, from Roman poetry in the first century BC to Page 3 of the Sun. But it was bearable because equality legislation was coming thick and fast and job opportunities were opening up for women. I counted myself lucky that I had missed out on witch trials and the selling of captured women into slavery. I never imagined that, all these years later, that I would begin to see photographs of men with long hair and straggly beards in Syria, crammed into the back of trucks under a sinister black flag. It is hard to believe, but if I were writing Misogynies today, I would have to include a chapter about Yazidi girls being sold in slave markets in the Isis stronghold of Raqqa. Or Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation so implacably opposed to girls’ education that it kidnaps Nigerian schoolgirls and forces them into sexual slavery.

Woman-hating has come roaring back, borne on a tide of recession, economic uncertainty and religious extremism. In this country, we have just witnessed misogyny in its “jokey” form, prompted by May’s arrival at No 10 Downing Street. “Heel, Boys” declared the Sun, showing a pair of kitten heels trampling on the heads of six of her most senior colleagues. Haven’t you got a sense of humour, love? It revived memories of an old trope of Margaret Thatcher as the Conservative party’s dominatrix, confirming that some people cannot see a woman assuming power without thinking of men being humiliated.

Tragically, the presence of women in powerful positions seems to unleash misogyny rather than curb it. Hillary Clinton’s first attempt to win her party’s presidential nomination was accompanied by a campaign of breath-taking nastiness. Last week’s Republican convention ramped up the misogyny with witch-hunting chants of “Lock her up!” Angela Eagle’s courageous bid to challenge Jeremy Corbyn ended when more of her colleagues backed Smith, a man with much less experience. Anyone who thinks Eagle’s campaign was flat should bear in mind the fact that she was receiving so much abuse that her constituency staff had to take the phones off the hook.

Misogyny has deep roots. It sometimes becomes dormant – usually when the economy is doing well – but it never really goes away. It is a mistake to regard it as just another form of abuse; it is a peculiarly intimate form of hatred, rooted in relationships carried on behind closed doors that frequently spill over into the public world. (Racists rarely marry their victims but misogynists often do.)

It needs to be met with zero tolerance because once it is culturally sanctioned, there is no end to it. When a well-known woman starts receiving rape threats on Twitter, hundreds of other people join in. In a more extreme example, the prohibition of rape has been abolished in areas of Iraq and Syria occupied by Isis, attracting recruits who like the idea of having coercive sex with 14-year-old girls.

Misogyny flourishes when politics become polarised, for a simple reason: it is as prevalent on the hard left as it is among religious extremists. Look at the number of supposedly radical men who rushed to defend the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, when he faced accusations of sexual assault and rape in Sweden. Some of them are still batting for this narcissistic misogynist, four years after he became a fugitive from justice in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

A day after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the three great offices of state in his shadow cabinet were given to men. It came as no surprise to feminists, who know that the hard left rarely pays more than lip service to a movement it regards as a distraction from the struggle against imperialism. Nor am I surprised that Labour has become a poisonous environment for women MPs. Last week 45 of them signed a letter to Corbyn, demanding that he do more to stop harassment, vilification and intimidation.

I have watched these developments with outrage – and a weary sense of deja vu. Many brave women died for freedoms that are under attack once again, all over the world. And I am as offended by people who play down outbursts of misogyny as I am by those who unashamedly revel in it. After the murder of Jo Cox, I don’t want to hear anyone telling worried female MPs to toughen up or whining that they have received death threats, too.

Woman-hating should be a nasty anachronism, but it’s back and we have to confront it. I know what I’m talking about: when it comes to misogyny, I really did write the book.

Brexit: Literature knows no boundaries

ALCS News, July 2016

Literature knows no boundaries. Among the contemporary authors I admire most are Kate Atkinson, Arnaldur Indridason and Orhan Pamuk – English, Icelandic and Turkish respectively. I’ve always been aware of the debt my own culture owes to other civilisations, especially the Greeks and Romans, and I think of myself as European as well as British. So I make no apology for saying that the result of the EU referendum felt to me – and still feels, a month later – like a bereavement.

For most of my life, the UK has played a leading role in one of the great peacetime projects, challenging the poisonous nationalisms that spawned two world wars in the 20th century. Only four years ago, the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize for contributing to ‘the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’. At least three generations have grown up without having to deal with the day-by-day fear and loss experienced by my parents and grandparents. Now some of my fellow-citizens have decided, by the most slender of majorities, to turn their backs on everything the EU has achieved.


For most of my life, the UK has played a leading role in one of the great peacetime projects, challenging the poisonous nationalisms that spawned two world wars in the 20th century.

In the wake of this momentous decision, given that we’ve already seen the disastrous impact on the pound and the UK’s financial prospects, I want to focus on ideas and values rather than economics. But first I want to highlight the potential impact on authors and creators of being shut out of future discussions about copyright and the digital economy across Europe.

Most Members of ALCS will be aware that the European Commission is currently in the process of modernising copyright rules as part of its digital market strategy. It is looking at issues that may appear technical at first sight – cross-border portability of films, music and e-books, for instance – but are of vital importance to creators. None of us knows when the British Government will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism to begin our withdrawal from the EU. The UK could go its own way but it’s far more likely that we will have to go along with decisions in which we’ve had no say. But let’s get back to ideas.


It’s often forgotten that EU membership is dependent on abolition of capital punishment, putting pressure on would-be members to get rid of this barbarous practice.

We all have multiple identities, which are not always easy to reconcile, and part of the trick of peaceful co-existence is recognising what we have in common rather than the things that divide us. The UK was never in Schengen but I love being able to travel across most of Europe without encountering border posts or having to show a passport, offering a reminder of how national barriers have come down. A union of 500 million people, sharing common values after centuries of discord, is a powerful example to the world. For all its faults – and they include a hesitant and confused response to the international refugee crisis – the EU has been at the forefront of supporting human rights in countries where they are not recognised or respected.

It’s often forgotten that EU membership is dependent on abolition of capital punishment, putting pressure on would-be members to get rid of this barbarous practice. Turkey is not likely to become a member of the EU for decades, but it abolished the death penalty in 2004 when the country’s accession did not seem quite as remote a prospect as it does now. That’s only one example of the way in which the EU has been a progressive alliance. Member states have to sign up to a raft of social policies that promote ‘respect for and protection of minorities’, prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race, religion, age, sex or sexual orientation. Governments which might otherwise have resisted change have been willing to get rid of repressive laws in return for the economic benefits of EU membership. Homosexuality is legal throughout the EU, even in countries such as Poland where public attitudes lag behind the law.


The greater loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the prospect of being shut out of a European community I still feel connected to and love.

Contrast that with the dire situation of LGBT people in the Commonwealth, where many member states – 39 at the most recent count – retain laws criminalising homosexuality. We didn’t hear enough of these arguments during the feverish and frequently unpleasant referendum campaign. Some Members of ALCS will be pleased with the result but I’m sure that many woke up the next morning in as profound a state of shock and despondency as I did.

Make no mistake, the effects are already being felt: I am a patron of a human rights NGO which spent months trying to get a meeting with Franz Timmermans, Vice-president of the EU Commission. Following the referendum decision, that meeting has now been cancelled. Even when I try to be optimistic, it’s hard to see many benefits in the pipeline for writers. But the greater loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the prospect of being shut out of a European community I still feel connected to and love.

 

Mass murderers have something in common – and it’s not a ‘women’s problem’

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 20 July 2016

Terror, it seems, often starts at home. Whether they are self-proclaimed jihadists or men with a grievance, a pattern is emerging among the mass killers whose murderous rages have claimed so many victims in recent times. A history of grudges against women and a record of domestic violence have been common factors in a number of such attacks, offering startling insights into the psychology of men who set out to kill complete strangers.

One night last week, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel deliberately drove a lorry into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront in Nice. Eighty-four people died, including 10 children. The terrorist organisation Isil claimed responsibility for the attack but French investigators have not disclosed any direct evidence of a link.

What has emerged in the days since is Bouhlel’s undisputed history of domestic abuse. “He beat his wife, my cousin, he was a nasty piece of work’” said a relative of his estranged spouse. Similar stories emerged last month after Omar Mateen murdered 49 people at gay club Pulse in Orlando. His ex-wife claimed that he beat her and denied contact with her family and friends during the four months they lived together. She was rescued by relatives, who she says literally dragged her from his arms.

A third would-be jihadist, Man Haron Monis, was on bail after being charged with more than 40 counts of sexual assault when he took hostages in a coffee shop in Sydney in December 2013. Monis was also charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, who had been stabbed 18 times and set alight in the stairwell of an apartment block. Monis and two of his hostages died when the siege was ended by armed police.

These ‘lone wolf’ attacks are a nightmare for the police and intelligence services, who are more used to tracking groups of young men in contact with known jihadists, or who have returned from Syria. Men who are planning attacks apparently out of the blue are harder to detect, which is why the common factor of domestic abuse is so important. In each case, these mass attacks on strangers appear to represent an escalation of violent impulses they liberally indulged at home until their wives (understandably) left them.

Crucially, it links them to other mass killers who don’t try to dress up their murderous rage as a political act – this isn’t an issue focused just on men with Muslim backgrounds. Violence against family members and deep-rooted misogyny have been implicated in several of the worst mass shootings in the US, including the school massacre in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in December 2012.

When Adam Lanza opened fire on teachers and children as young as six, he had already left his mother lying dead in bed at home. Nancy Lanza, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was shot four times in the face by her son, offering a shocking glimpse into his matricidal fury.

Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in California two years ago, made no secret about his seething hatred of women in a video he left behind. Rodger stabbed and shot his victims, as well as hitting several people with his car before killing himself. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it,” he declared on film. “You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male.”

There are other examples from recent history of a hugely dangerous connection between personal rage towards mothers, girlfriends and wives and outbursts of impersonal violence, coldly executed against people unknown. It’s not so long since abuse against female family members was dismissed by some police as ‘just a domestic; those days are gone, in terms of rhetoric at least, but it now seems that domestic violence may be an early warning sign of the sort of destructive impulses we should all fear. And it’s certainly not just a ‘women’s problem’.

It also seems likely that Isil has deliberately framed its rhetoric to appeal to angry and disturbed young men living in countries where gender equality is the norm. It explicitly projects an ideology in which women are subservient, bragging about the way in which its followers are encouraged to rape captive girls and women from the Yazidi ethnic minority. Its leader, Abu Bark al-Baghdadi, is said to have repeatedly raped an American hostage, Kayla Mueller, before her death.

Islamist terror groups offer young men with a record of petty crime an opportunity to re-invent themselves first as victims and then as holy warriors. They are exploiting men who flatly refuse to come to terms with the modern world, with results almost too horrific to contemplate. Other angry men don’t even bother to claim an ideology, but the link between domestic violence and acts of inhumane political terrorism can no longer be ignored.

 

Theresa May has promoted women. But she’s a Tory first and a feminist second

The prime minister has an excellent track record on equality until it comes into conflict with her conservative instincts – above all on immigration

The Guardian, Thursday 14 July 2016

Theresa May hasn’t wasted any time. Some of the biggest names in politics – figures who dominated the headlines in the last few months – lost their jobs on her first full day as prime minister. There are big posts for women – Liz Truss, Justine Greening, Amber Rudd – but Theresa Villiers has resigned from the government and Nicky Morgan is out. Morgan’s sacking as education secretary was overshadowed by the departure of justice secretary Michael Gove, exactly two weeks after he announced an unexpected ambition to become prime minister.

May had already achieved a first when she promoted Rudd from energy and climate change to the Home Office. For the first time ever, two of the top four jobs in cabinet are held simultaneously by women; Labour’s Margaret Beckett stepped down as foreign secretary as Jacqui Smith became home secretary in June 2007, missing each other by a single day. May has also appointed the first female lord chancellor, giving Gove’s old post to Truss.

It is a far cry from Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet. In 1979, there were only eight female Conservative MPs, and the country’s first woman prime minister famously appointed a cabinet consisting entirely of men. May’s appointments appear not so much a conscious attempt at gender balance as modern, reflecting the very different composition of the House of Commons in 2016.

Even so, the past couple of days have demonstrated that fevered discussions about gender are impossible to avoid. There is something depressingly sexist about the idea that everything a powerful woman does is to do with her gender, although no one was clear whether May was supposed to be more consensual than David Cameron or a contemporary version of the Iron Lady. As news of a clear-out of former cabinet colleagues began to emerge, the verdict shifted inevitably in the latter direction.

Something much more interesting tends to get lost in all this pointless dancing around the idea of biological essentialism. It is a paradox of modern democratic politics that it is right-wing parties, the Conservatives in this country and the Christian Democrats in Germany, which have produced women leaders with real power. That is because the right is better at ditching losers and identifying winners, something cruelly illustrated by the contrast between May’s swift coronation and the shambles currently engulfing the Labour party.

Right-wing parties have a ruthless instinct for success. If a woman is the leading candidate, most Tories can live with that. May’s acceptance speech was all about one-nation Conservatism but they know her record in government includes support for totemic policies such as the bedroom tax. When she was home secretary, her department even came up with a pilot scheme to send two vans on a tour of London boroughs, telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

It is around the issue of immigration that May’s reforming and hard-line instincts most obviously collide. It is massively to her credit that she introduced the government’s first strategy to end violence against women and girls, something that was promised in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election. May talked privately to women’s organisations, listening to their anxieties about a whole range of issues, including domestic and sexual violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

After the election, she published a “call to end VAWG” (violence against women and girls) which became government strategy in 2011. Crucially, she understood that the threat of violence doesn’t just damage women, but actually holds them back in every aspect of their lives. She can point to an impressive list of achievements, from protection orders for women at risk of domestic violence and FGM to a new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour.

She was not reluctant to take on the police, ordering a review in 2013 of how they handled domestic violence, and bluntly telling the Police Federation conference two months ago that victims are still being let down. She is thought to support compulsory sex education in schools – a measure fiercely opposed by academies and blocked by Cameron, it is believed. She has committed to spend £80m over the next four years on support services for victims, such as rape crisis centres.

But there are limits to May’s political imagination. Services for women from Bame (black and minority ethnic) communities have suffered disproportionately from government spending cuts, even though victims often suffer multiple forms of abuse. Most notoriously, she has refused to end the detention of vulnerable asylum-seekers, including victims of sexual violence and pregnant women, at Yarl’s Wood.

May’s vision is clouded, in other words, when her laudable ambition to promote equality comes up against her Tory instinct to be tough on immigration. No one should doubt that she wants to improve the lives of women from less fortunate backgrounds. But make no mistake: our new prime minister is a Conservative first, and a feminist second.

In coldest blood

Sunday Times, 10 July 2016

A stunning novel set in France and Iceland kicks off Joan Smith’s roundup of crime fiction
For more than a decade, the bestselling French novelist Fred Vargas has surprised readers with plots of startling ingenuity. She has won the CWA international dagger four times, confirming her place in the top rank of contemporary crime writers. Her latest novel, A Climate of Fear, translated by Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker £14.99), has an anodyne title but it is easily the best thing she has ever done.
Vargas is a historian and archaeologist, a training she has put to good use in her earlier fiction. But it is hard to imagine anyone else daring to combine a secretive society dedicated to studying the writings of Robespierre and a doomed tourist expedition to Iceland in the same novel.
Ten years ago, two people died on a trip to a remote Icelandic island, and now other members of the party are being picked off by a clever killer. Vargas’s detective, Commissaire Adamsberg, has always understood that myths and archetypes influence even the most modern minds. But his closest colleagues are sceptical when he insists that the solution to the murders lies within an arcane association that reenacts episodes from the bloodiest period of the French Revolution. The idea of history repeating itself is at the heart of this stunning novel, which confirms Vargas’s fine understanding of the unchanging nature of human passions.
Michel Bussi was unknown in this country until last year, when his extraordinary novel After the Crash appeared in English for the first time. French crime writing is enjoying a renaissance and Bussi’s latest book, Black Water Lilies, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Weidenfeld £12.99), reveals a very different side to his imagination. The action
takes place in Giverny, the picture-postcard village in Normandy where Claude Monet created his famous garden, but Bussi is more interested in the inhabitants than the tourists who flock to the artist’s house.
The arrival of so many visitors is a strain on the village, and the murder of a local man, an ophthalmologist with a successful practice in Paris, brings simmering class conflicts into the open. Bussi’s detective, Laurenç Sérénac, is from Toulouse and lacks local knowledge, but being an outsider has its advantages; he brings a fresh eye to mysteries that stretch back to the 1920s, including a rumoured final painting created by Monet just before he died. Bussi’s portrait of the difficulties of investigating a closed community is fascinating, and the novel ends with one of the most reverberating shocks in modern crime fiction.
Ruth Ware’s first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was a bestseller. Her second, The Woman in Cabin 10 (Harvill Secker £9.99), is a tense, moody drama set on a press trip that goes horribly wrong. A travel writer, Lo Blacklock, jumps at the chance of going to see the northern lights on a boutique cruise ship owned by a millionaire entrepreneur and his wife. On the first night, Lo sees a body heaved overboard from the balcony of the next cabin, but the crew insists the room was unoccupied. Ware has produced a fantastic variation on the woman-in-peril theme, with a plucky protagonist and a brilliantly claustrophobic setting.
The veteran American novelist Laura Lippman effortlessly occupies the territory where crime writing meets literary fiction. Wilde Lake (Faber £12.99) is set in a small town in Maryland where Luisa Brant is the first woman to be elected state’s attorney. Her father held the same job for 16 years and is still a force to be reckoned with, but Luisa’s first case, prosecuting a homeless man who broke into an apartment and murdered the female occupant, looks straightforward.
However, the motive for the killing lies in the summer of 1980, when a young woman from a poor family accused a group of posh boys of rape. Luisa finds a cover-up that tears her own family apart, in a novel that offers a devastating critique of class and privilege.

Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality by Kat Banyard

This vital study exposes the myths promoted by defenders of the sex trade

The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2016

It is a paradox: it has never been so easy to get free sex, yet the evidence suggests that more men than ever are paying for it. In this country, the number of men reporting they had paid for sex almost doubled during the 1990s. In Germany, the number of women paid for sex is said to have reached 400,000 in recent years, leading some commentators to describe the country as the “bordello of Europe”.

Depressing though these statistics are, they do at least give the lie to the widely held assumption that men pay for sex because they can’t get it by any other means. Sex buyers are not the single loners they were often assumed to be in the past. As Kat Banyard demonstrates in her excoriating account of the modern trade in women’s bodies, they seek variety, sex acts they can’t get in voluntary relationships and, above all, power.

The unequal relationship between men who pay for sex and women who sell it is at the heart of this book. In the past, arguments around prostitution and pornography (which Banyard characterises as “filmed prostitution”) centred on morality, with women in the trade dismissed as vectors of disease and immorality. Men’s role was almost entirely overlooked, reserving moral condemnation and legal penalties for women.

In recent years, the terms of the debate have been reframed, moving away from the language of traditional morality. For feminists such as Banyard, who is the co-founder of UK Feminista, prostitution and the mass of degrading pornographic material available on the internet are forms of abuse. They belong in a spectrum of behaviour that includes domestic abuse, and it follows that any attempt to legalise prostitution, no matter how well meaning, amounts to the state legitimising violence against women. Hence Banyard’s title, Pimp State, which she defines as governments taking a direct cut from the commercial sex industry by licensing brothels and taxing the people who own them.

Such approaches may appear modern – and people with a stake in the industry push that line at every possible opportunity – but they run counter to the principle of gender equality endorsed by many European democracies. This proposition poses a greater risk to the commercial sex industry than taxation, health and safety laws or any requirement to provide employment contracts to women in brothels. It needs to be resisted at all costs and people with commercial interests in prostitution have opposed it by redefining prostitution as work, shamelessly appropriating the language of feminism to claim that selling sex empowers women.

They have created a series of myths to disguise the true nature of the trade, persuading some politicians and much of the media that prostitution is just another job, to a point where anyone who disagrees can expect a torrent of misogynist abuse. The debate has become poisonous and Banyard’s book provides a much-needed corrective, skewering the myths promoted by the commercial industry with forensic intelligence.

The oldest profession? Only if you believe our ancestors placed trading for sex before growing crops. Prostitution is inevitable? So is murder, but we still have laws to deter and punish killers. This latter myth serves an important function, obscuring the choices of men who decide to become consumers of the commercial sex industry. Decriminalisation does not stop verbal abuse and physical violence – if you want to see the research, it is quoted extensively in Banyard’s book – but provides legal space in which abuse can happen.

That is why Banyard supports what’s known as the Sex Buyer Law or Nordic model, which places responsibility where it belongs by targeting men who pay for sex (it also decriminalises women who sell it). Some version of the law is now in operation in Sweden, Norway and Iceland – three countries with the best records anywhere in the world on gender equality – while France and Northern Ireland have recently followed suit.

Germany has not, offering a case study of what happens when politicians listen to the rhetoric of the prostitution-is-work industry. (Jeremy Corbyn, please take note.) The federal government legalised prostitution in 2002, supposedly to create safer working conditions for women, and the result has been a huge increase in the size of the commercial sex industry. Because there will never be sufficient women to fulfil demand of their own free will, it has been accompanied by what a German police officer has described as “the emergence of a complete industry in the trafficking of women, with both small and large retailers delivering women to the brothels”.

If the idea of pimps as “retailers” jars, it is what happens when prostitution is normalised. “The reality is, highly visible, above-board prostitution systems don’t erase the harm; they hide it in plain sight,” says Banyard. By putting equality and human rights at the heart of this vital debate, she has done us a tremendous service.

Pimp State is published by Faber (£12.99)