When Women Kill

Four Crimes Retold
Alia Trabucco Zerán
Translated by Sophie Hughes

Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Henry Hietala

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s latest book is not about femicide. This is a necessary disclaimer: many recent Latin American books about crime, both fiction and nonfiction, feature women as victims, including Selva Almada’s Dead Girls, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, and Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Trabucco Zerán, on the other hand, has written about gender violence from another angle, with women as the perpetrators.

When Women Kill focuses on four murderers from Chilean history. These aren’t likable femme fatales: they kill their husbands, poison innocent children, and engage in SVU-style dismemberment. Drawing on these cases, Trabucco Zerán makes an unconventional argument, that “remembering ‘bad’ women is also a task of feminism.” The author isn’t exonerating these women; she is reclaiming them, a hazardous task she performs with rigor. Trabucco Zerán isn’t interested in motive so much as the public reactions to the murders, which follow similar patterns. Faced with “feminine violence,” the media and legal system turn to gender stereotypes, arguing that women only kill out of jealousy or hysteria. Reporters dissect the killers’ sex lives and frame an interaction with an Indigenous woman as witchcraft. One lawyer even mentions menopause as a likely motive.

As the trials drag on, the killers and their defense teams exploit these sexist stereotypes to their own advantage. If violent women are hysterical, then how can they be held responsible for their actions? The media and courts almost uniformly buy these informal insanity pleas. The women receive little prison time, or none at all. Trabucco Zerán doesn’t frame these light sentences as a victory for homicidal girl bosses, but as a consequence of patriarchy. If violence is the province of men, then how can you explain a killer woman? The only sensible response is labeling her “crazy.”

In propulsive prose impeccably translated by Sophie Hughes, Trabucco Zerán recounts each case in the present tense. At crucial points in the narrative, she integrates diaristic asides about her research process, which reveal the Chilean government’s efforts to hide the existence of these violent femmes. There are echoes here of other buried histories, other disappearances.

Trabucco Zerán also brings in other works of art related to the crimes. The strangest is an exhibition involving photographs of a victim’s limbs; in a brilliant piece of analysis, the author writes, “And what better than an unidentifiable, mutilated body as the metaphor for the dismembered patria of the early 1990s.” Not every observation is a win, like a meandering passage about the French surrealists, yet even when Trabucco Zerán overstretches her argument, readers can still appreciate the experiment.

Like other great books of crime writing, When Women Kill is more about society’s response to violence than the violence itself. Trabucco Zerán doesn’t excuse her killer women, nor does she condemn them. Instead, she explores how, in a sexist society, the reaction to their crimes is all too predictable. As one mid-century Chilean magazine wrote, “Gone are the days when women would drink vinegar in order to faint like damsels before their cheating partners. No, now they wield automatic pistols and settle hateful betrayals with bullets.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022