‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’, by Ajay Close

It is difficult to read What Doesn’t Kill Us by Ajay Close as a crime novel in the traditional sense. In several ways it is what one expects from a contemporary police procedural, ostensibly inspired by the sins of the Yorkshire Ripper, transplanted to late 1970s Leeds. It presents a series of seemingly random murders, which leave the forever ill-funded, ill-equipped, ill-tempered police force baffled. The killer is only caught out of blind luck, whilst the detection methods are a handbook on how not to catch a murderer, and how instead to create a protracted, fumbling, clearly futile criminal investigation of almost four hundred pages. Close is at pains to show the near-insurmountable task of catching a serial killer before the forensic technology that define such processes today. Whilst many of these coppers, particularly male superior officers, are genuinely useless, readers may gain some sympathy for the investigators of real-life serial killers like the Ripper.

What Doesn’t Kill Us does not read well as a crime novel, as it is no such thing – at least when compared to other works within the literary space its blurb places the book within. The focus of the novel is not the Ripper wannabe at all, but the much greater crimes of a more pervasive, institutionalised issue: misogyny. This is a story of the women’s liberation movement, a snapshot of British social history that highlights and nuances how far we have come as a culture, and how far we still have left to go. 

The true story of this novel are the lives and experiences of a collection of women living in a commune (for want of a better word; it is deliberately undefined). Although there are perhaps too many key characters for each to be uniquely characterised – the less prominent roommates at times merge together – between them they depict a thought-provoking range of British femininity, spanning race, age, class, and sexuality. The first we are introduced to is Liz, a police officer on the trail of the murderous Butcher. Her opponents include not only the killer themselves but the blatant oppression of female officers within the force, and her physically and psychologically abusive boyfriend. Next is Charmaine, a young Black working-class artist struggling to express and defend herself on multiple fronts, and Rowena: a moneyed, militant, self-appointed revolutionary leader. The intersection of race, gender, sexuality, politics, and class as presented by these characters, and how these women juggle all attendant issues in their own way, is one of the greatest strengths of this novel. It champions womanhood without constricting what the term means, or telling the reader what it should look like. It makes clear that feminism never exists in a vacuum, and that, try as one might, real life inevitably complicates feminist discussions.

This is particularly important given how much of this book is dedicated to feminist discourse, some chapters bordering on lectures. These were my favourite sections, but it is easy to see how dry others may find them, and how little they contribute to the plot and the pacing of the narrative. These elements are nonetheless at the heart of What Doesn’t Kill Us.  

What it means to be a woman in a world made by and for men is different for each character, and it is the tension between conflicting feminist viewpoints that motivates the plot, building the pressure to a breaking point. Feminism is ultimately nuanced as an ideal; Close expertly and sensitively shows how dark the fight for women’s liberation can become. Personal relationships between characters come to reflect wider society, where women live under a cloud of paranoia and hatred that the killer has placed over Leeds. Every woman is in danger of becoming a victim – of the murderer, the patriarchy, and/or social justice taken too far. Perhaps the most important message is that the oppression of women as shown in this novel is by no means new, or unique to the streets along which a serial killer prowls. The killings only brings pre-existing abuse, control, and violence into stronger relief.

For those looking for an easy read: look elsewhere. Same for those looking for a tightly plotted thriller, or a satisfying ending. One could remove the criminal investigation element of this book entirely and still be left with intimate character studies, complex and insightful philosophies, and a fascinating, well-researched portrait of Britain in the 1970s (Close conscientiously cites her sources at the end). It almost feels as if the cliché of the serial killer investigation is used just to lure in the usual readers of crime fiction. It is not necessary – or even productive. It ties this novel to a genre label that may cut it off from readers who would otherwise love and be inspired by it. Perhaps my issue then is less with the narrative itself and more with current trends in publishing and bookselling, which are all excusable if it lets us access this curious, enlightening work. To conclude, What Doesn’t Kill Us is not a crime novel – it is perhaps where the crime novel should go next. 

What Doesn’t Kill Us is published by Saraband

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Benjamin Parris

Benjamin Parris is a PhD student in the School of English at the University of St Andrews.

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