Tender Murderers: Women Who Kill

Review by Adam Blair

by Trina Robbins
193 pages, published (2003) by Conari Press, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser

There's a wonderful moment in the play The Front Page. Ace reporter Hildy Johnson is explaining to his unscrupulous boss Walter Burns why he so desperately wants to leave the crazed newspaper racket for marriage and respectability. The main reason Hildy gives is that he's in love with his fiancée. Burns - who has no intention of letting Hildy out of his clutches - coolly replies by citing an escalatingly grisly list of wives who killed their husbands. He finishes with (I'm paraphrasing): "When you've been in this business as long as I have, you'll know what women are.

"Murderers."

That delicious demeaning of an entire sex came to mind as I read Tender Murderers: Women Who Kill, a compendium of homicidal hens ranging from the real-life inspirations for the film Chicago to the (in)famous likes of Bonnie Parker, Lizzie Borden, Jean Harris and female serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

This might sound gruesome (and there are certainly some quease-inducing elements) but it's mostly equal parts funny and fascinating, though a bit repetitive for a relatively short book. Author Trina Robbins' sense of humor is evident in her final chapter heading, "Shoots Like a Girl: Women Who Missed," which profiles such unsteady shots as Gerald Ford assassin-wannabe and Manson Family member Squeaky Fromme, as well as Long Island Lolita Amy Fisher and proto-feminist nutcase Valerie Solanas. (Technically the last two didn't miss, they just didn't actually kill their targets, Mary Jo Buttafuoco and Andy Warhol respectively.)

Robbins also shows the subtle (and not so subtle) ways the media shapes our perceptions of murders and murderesses, with well-chosen photos and drawings. For example, she places two newspaper drawings of 1930s killer Ruth Snyder side by side. One shows her looking pretty but vacant, the other depicting her as at least 10 years older and sticking out what Damon Runyon described as the "marble you-bet-you-will chin." So whether you thought Snyder was the innocent dupe of her shady lover or a femme fatale who dragged a weak man to his doom depended on which paper you read - or who was on drawing duty that day.

There's also the impact of more lasting media. At the end of each chapter Robbins notes the movies, plays or folk ballads that the murders inspired, with comments on how they diverged from the known facts as well as how they hold up as entertainment. She's fairly on the mark about most of these as well, though I haven't seen all the killer flicks. For instance, about Arthur Penn's 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, Robbins mostly approves, but writes: "Some of the movie is odd; the film hints that Clyde was either impotent or gay, yet there doesn't seem to be any evidence of this in any of the histories I've read. Faye Dunaway, as Bonnie, is about a foot taller than the real thing, and looks like she stepped out of the pages of a 1967 Vogue magazine, but she does a great Texas accent."

Robbins' strongest refutation of Walter Burns' misogynistic slander is her ability to provide enough detail about each of her 21 killers and would-be killers to at least give them some kind of context, if not an explanation or excuse for their behavior. Obviously most women (and most men) are not murderers; otherwise it would be much easier to find a parking space. In the case of these particular lady killers, Robbins notes that poverty, early and/or repeated abuse (both physical and sexual) and in some cases simple greed are frequent elements that drove these members of the "weaker" sex to homicide.

Robbins also makes the point that, for the most part, female killers, even serial killers, differ from their male counterparts in that there's rarely a sexual/fetishistic side to their crimes. In other words, they are more likely to lure people in, take their money, quietly poison them and bury their bodies in the backyard rather than play out some sick Silence of the Lambs-type scenario. Of course - and Robbins is careful to point this out - the victims are just as dead.

Overall, Tender Murderers is a slight book but a thought-provoking diversion. Its portraits don't add up to a convincing explanation of why women - or anybody - kills, but perhaps its point is that nobody really knows why. Sometimes not even the murderers.

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