by Trina Robbins
193 pages, published (2003) by Conari Press, an imprint of
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.
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
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
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.