My extreme love for Eva Dolan’s activist-noir This Is How It Ends (Bloomsbury, 2018) stems from the fact that it’s one of the first crime novels I’ve come across to feature powerful, complex, and dedicated women activists in starring roles that are not tied to their gender. There are plenty of communists, anarchists, union activists, protestors, and socialists in crime fiction, but they trend overwhelmingly male, and the activist women of crime fiction tend to work for the UN, or the state, rather than for their community. Can we please have a series featuring Emma Goldman solving murders? Or Rosa Luxembourg? But I digress.
Dolan has incorporated social justice into a number of works, calling the police procedural “a Trojan horse which allowed me to smuggle some pretty contentious politics into a crime story.” This is How it Ends is her first standalone, and with its well-laid plot and well-grounded context, it’s not one to miss. In a row of apartments slated for demolition, tenants have been organizing against their pending forcible removal. Two women—Ella and Molly—are at the heart of the action: Ella, a young, media-savvy student protestor, and Molly, a battle-hardened activist who believes in direct action. When one commits a crime, their relationship is stretched to the breaking point. Eva Dolan uses their characters and their relationship to explore activism through the generations, female friendship, gentrification, police power, and the surveillance state.
Dolan was kind enough to let me ask her a few questions about activists, feminism, and changing cities.
Molly Odintz: When activists are represented sympathetically in mass culture, they are frequently cast as the “reluctant activist,” honored by non-activists precisely because they did not choose to stand for something, are not considered professional and are therefore seen by the non-activist as more relatable and thus somehow more genuine. Professional activists are almost as maligned in general society as professional politicians, as if knowing how to do one’s job and wanting to make a living at it somehow makes one less suited for it, a holdover from a patrician and puritanical moral code that limits respect for activism to those wealthy enough to perform social kindness as an act of charity. I’m curious to know your thoughts on long-term activism. You write about characters who’ve campaigned for decades. What keeps an activist an activist? How do you feel about the “reluctant activist”—is it a myth, a skewed perception, or just one of many kinds of activist?
Eva Dolan: One of the interesting points which keeps cropping up in reviews is the idea that Molly has wasted her life on activism. In fact I believe the exact opposite; Molly has chosen a life for herself outside the pathway she was expected to follow as working class girl of the 1950s, she’s stubbornly carved out a place for herself in a counterculture very distant from her roots, she’s willingly, gladly, sacrificed her bad marriage and the opportunity for a better one to it, she’s done what she thinks is right and fought for the greater good. And I’m not sure why some readers resist the idea that you can live a full and worthwhile life through fighting. It seems incredibly worthwhile to me.
Maybe they’re uncomfortable with women—and I do think this is a gendered issue—walking away from the home to adopt a stereotypically male role, the action-taker, the warrior. I think women marching scares some people because it’s still seen as an overturning of the natural order. Are you going to be happy making dinner after you’ve occupied a nuclear site? It was very much the way the Greenham Common protests were covered in the UK. The women’s efforts were minimized as a way of putting them back in their place.
But, yes, I absolutely agree that more committed activists are treated with suspicion. As long as you’re pushing back against something which directly affects you that’s fine. If you move onto the next fight, the next issue, and find yourself acting on someone else’s behalf, suddenly you’re just an attention seeker or a troublemaker. I guess, at base, it’s part of the divide and conquer strategy the upper order use to the keep the rest of us in our place.
Odintz: Your two main characters, Molly and Ella, mirror each other in interesting ways that bring out the archetype of the female activist. Molly represents the older, lifelong activist of the sixties through to the earth first generation, who embraces direct action, loyalty, and security, while Ella is her young, media-savvy mentee who’s fighting the revolution via twitter and through academic research. What did you want to explore about different generations of activism, and in particular, the social media warriors of today versus the more diversified activists of yesteryear?
Dolan: As a crime writer I felt compelled to explore the suspicion between the generations. I’m always looking for cracks and conflicts within groups, the genre pretty much demands it. And one of the themes I’d identified early on in planning the book was intergenerational conflict in general, as it inevitably arises when you start talking about gentrification. The sense of wealth being held onto by older people and a perceived lack of sympathy towards the young who are trying to make their way in a much harsher economic climate, without the benefit of free education and cheap housing and stable employment. I felt this book would always be about the generations rubbing each other the wrong way.
And that manifests partly through the suspicion, by older activists, that Ella with her blog and crowdfunding and media savvy might be using the movement to expand her personal platform, with an eye towards a book deal or, even more reprehensibly, a well-paid job in some think tank.
I think there’s always a tendency among groups on the margins of society to view incomers as potentially dangerous, not fully committed or, in the case of a privileged youngster like Ella, playing at rebellion to annoy their parents. And I can understand that suspicion. If you’ve lived through a time where protest meant getting your head kicked in or being repeatedly arrested, then perhaps protest via social media and petition does look rather lightweight and ineffectual.
I wanted to pit the generations against each other on this subject and see what happens when someone as respected as Molly puts their good name on the line for new arrival.
Odintz: The characters in This is How It Ends are fighting to preserve an apartment complex from being razed and replaced with expensive new housing. Can you talk a bit about gentrification, London, real estate, and your interest in portraying a changing city?
Dolan: Gentrification is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for several years but I couldn’t do it justice within my previous series, which was set in a much smaller city than London. Although it’s a problem which touches most communities. Even the little village I live in lacks affordable housing, meaning young people are priced out of the market there and can’t live as adults in the place where they grew up.
And if you can’t afford to move out of the family home and buy your own place how do really become an adult? Gentrification is putting the brake on a whole generation. I feel that it’s probably one of the most pressing problem we face as a society and I wanted to write about how we’ve come to this place. How governments and councils collude with developers, how so many homes are never lived in, instead being bought as investments and left to sit vacant while keyworkers rent overpriced house shares and bedsits and great swathes of the population live incredibly unstable lives even while they’re working hard and paying taxes and desperately trying to get on.
Placing Molly and a handful of stubborn holdouts in a condemned building, surrounded by glittering new developments bought by the block and never inhabited, was my way of showing how alien and unpeopled parts of London are becoming.
Odintz: Just to unpack Ella’s character a bit, she’s experienced a lot of harassment in her past, and that’s the source of her public anger against the police, something Molly sympathizes with as she’s stood up against sexual harassment by police in the past and born heavy consequences. A story broke recently on the number of US states where police can legally have sex with detainees—34 out of 50—and how police in these states frequently claim sexual consent when facing rape charges from detainees, even when intercourse was with restrained prisoners in a scenario of extreme power differentials. There’s some material in This is How It Ends that ties in to the #metoo movement within the context of police abuse and workplace politics. What did you want to explore about vulnerability and harassment within organizations and at the hands of authority figures?
Dolan: I was looking back through some of my unpublished books recently and realized that my mistrust of the police runs even deeper than I thought. Abuse of power and sexual and non-sexual assault by officers feature in several books and crop up in three of my published ones. It’s a theme I’ve never moved too far away from, even when writing detective novels.
And it all goes back to growing up in a small town with a blatantly corrupt police presence. Officers who brushed away the offences of influential local families, ones who extorted sexual favors from vulnerable women to keep their pettily criminal children out of trouble. That kind of thing doesn’t stay secret in a small town.
I wanted to look at how people like that operate when they’re in a position of unfettered power, dealing with a marginalized and maligned group whose complaints won’t be taken seriously. I don’t think it’s even up for debate any more that this power is frequently abused and the abuse is then covered up by whatever means necessary.
But I didn’t want my women to be passive victims. Molly and Ella both fight back.
For Ella, having come from a police family, the trauma she suffers is less physical and more a loss of innocence, as she sees the police force she has been raised to respect and admire being revealed as something rotten and unworthy of the dedication she has given it.
For Molly there are no scales to fall from her eyes. She is steeped in mistrust of hierarchies and organizations, she expects to have to fight them. Molly would march in solidarity with #metoo but she’d be planning a more direct retribution in secret.
Odintz: Your previous mysteries have been procedurals, while this is your first standalone thriller, yet all your books share a social justice angle.This is How It Ends is part of one of my favorite subgenres in crime fiction—women working together to cover up a crime that one has committed. How did working in the procedural form compare to the standalone? Do the two forms provide different possibilities for social critique, or would that be a reductionist view of their possibilities?
Dolan: The procedural is great when you want a comfortable framework in place before you start writing and it helped to…normalize maybe, my Zigic and Ferreira series, which dealt with some subjects which hadn’t been covered much in crime before. So, the detective novel was effectively a Trojan horse which allowed me to smuggle some pretty contentious politics into a crime story.
But, published and unpublished, I’ve written about fifteen procedurals and I really wanted to escape that comfort zone and see what else I could do.
And it was so liberating!
In retrospect it seems strange to me that I let myself laze in the form for so long when I’m generally a chaotic, contrary sort of person. Maybe it was because I needed that enforced order for awhile, a chance to find my feet as a public author rather than the private one I’ve been since I was a teenager.“The detective novel was effectively a Trojan horse which allowed me to smuggle some pretty contentious politics into a crime story.”
Both forms create plenty of space for social critique—there are a great many authors who do excellent political and social exposes within the detective genre; Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Mark Billingham, John Harvey, I could go on at length. The procedural is perfect if you feel the need for justice to be served and I think that’s possibly more important to readers than authors. I don’t like always seeing a neat resolution in books because, as much as it soothes people, it seems unrealistic to me. You should end a book feeling something, but I don’t know why we always have to feel that right has been done.
With a standalone the justice can be messier and more true.
Odintz: Let’s keep talking about genre—in a previous interview, you said that you started with horror and dystopian fiction before moving to crime, a set of genre affiliations I thoroughly approve of. What drew you to crime writing? Are there affinities between what you wrote as a teen and what you write now, despite the different genres?
Dolan: The single thing I took over from dystopia to crime was a suspicion of power. My teenage writing was all about the little guy versus big, shadowy power structures, untrustworthy law enforcement elements and the foregrounding of marginal groups. I suppose those are things a lot of authors play with in their earliest writings, because at that age you’re kicking against everything, testing boundaries and just trying to break stuff. For whatever reason, I never grew out of it.
But as I got older and started paying more attention to the world around me I realized those sorts of stories would be easier for me to write if I grounded them in contemporary reality. It was important that the crime novels I was writing dealt with pressing political or social concerns and ideally I wanted to stay slightly ahead of the curve, so that the books would feel like they were written just as they were published, rather than the actual year or two before. It’s tough to do anything original in crime fiction but always looking for the next big problem was the way I hoped to make my work stand out.
Perversely, crime fiction is the perfect genre to question the status quo. You get to run amok from the top to the bottom of the social scale, especially in detective novels, because your copper is one of the few people who can go anywhere. And I tried to take full advantage of that in my Zigic and Ferreira series by exploring how the extremes of society can intertwine around a murder.
Odintz: What are some of the inspirations for your writing? Did you set out to appropriate symbols of male violence and redirect them for a feminist vision?“Working class girls are probably readier with our fists. Women doing violence doesn’t seem remarkable to me.”
Dolan: I was always getting in fights growing up so I don’t see violence as so much of a male preserve. Actually I think this might be a class issue as well. Working class girls are probably readier with our fists. Women doing violence doesn’t seem remarkable to me. I appreciate that physical imbalances between men and women exist, but a woman who wants or needs to do damage can and should do it. Both Ella and Molly are well capable of defending themselves when pressed and one influence which stayed with me for Ella was Nikita. And because Ella gets in a few scraps in the book I thought of the way the fights were choreographed in Haywire and Atomic Blonde, the fact of a woman’s bones being smaller so punching comes second to using things in your environment as weapons. Ella has been raised by a police officer father who understands the dangers she faces just for being female and he has given her the tools to defend herself. This is something I see a lot of men I know doing for their daughters, because they’re scared what will happen to them out there and they want to arm them as well as they can.
Odintz: I just want to thank you for including a serious, older woman character named Molly. Maybe this is why you chose the name, but there is a severe shortage of dignified, adult, human Mollies in literature—aside from Molly Bloom, most of the fictional Mollies I come across are children or animals. I know that’s a rather specific thing to point out, but to turn in the direction of a discussion question, what would you like to see more of in fictional representations of women? (The answer for me, of course, is more characters named Molly and more dignified, older, human characters named Molly in particular. Preferably activists.).
Dolan: My Molly came from the William Gibson character, Molly Millions. His work was a huge influence on me as a teenaged writer of terribly derivative cyber punk.
I definitely want to see more Mollys in fiction. We’re still stuck in the archaic crone mode for older women and I don’t know why it’s so pernicious, when there are plenty of older women writing books who understand that age doesn’t limit you and that sixty isn’t at all ancient like it was for previous generations. I’m amazed how many fifty and sixtysomething characters I come across who are portrayed as downright decrepit and it bears no relation to the reality of women of that age who I know. I think it’s high time we saw a shift from young women’s stories centered around getting or keeping the man and more books which explore the interesting corners of older women’s lives without sweeping back to the point where they were young and beautiful and conventionally ‘high value.’ I fear we’ll need to see a lot more work done on ageism in society before we get these books, though.
And, please for the love of god, can we retire the question of likeability for female characters? Likeable is so damn boring.