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Punk Prayer: How punk and Riot Grrrl music inspired queer mystery novel Scorched Grace 

The debut mystery novel from Margot Douaihy combines punk music and queer culture. It's also won the support of 'Gone Girl' author Gillian Flynn. Here, Margot explains some of the key influences behind the book.

By Margot Douaihy

Scorched Grace arrives on April 6

Sister Holiday Walsh—a tattooed, gold-toothed, chain-smoking, guitar-playing queer nun—is the unlikely protagonist of new debut mystery novel, Scorched Grace. Published by Gillian Flynn Books in the US and Pushkin Vertigo in the UK, the book is animated by punk voltage, kinetic worship, and music as an avenue to salvation. Forget what you think you know about a mystery led by a nun sleuth; this is as far as you can get from cosy. Holiday, a former guitarist turned amateur gumshoe and Sister of the Sublime Blood, loses and finds herself in punk and Riot Grrrl fever dreams, the same soul-piercing music that informed the writing of author Margot Douaihy.

Here, Margot explains her main inspirations behind the book.

Female Rage, Ecstasy, & Power

My first encounter with the divine wasn’t in the grand Catholic church of my youth—it was getting thrown around like a rag doll in the sweaty mosh pits of the DIY punk scene in 1990s, Scranton, Pennsylvania. These spaces—and that music—were vital refuge for queer kids growing up in the hostile Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era. My friends and I blasted X-Ray Spex, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear as we drove each other to our after-school jobs at the drugstore, mall, and nursing home. Our punk mixtapes were our love letters, to one another and to ourselves. Those early experiences with music’s bone-shaking intensity—as a companion in isolation, inspiration during awful times, a lightning storm you could hold—richly informed Sister Holiday’s character.

Sister Holiday loves the continuum of punk music, specifically the thrashing, smart, primal-scream torrent of Riot Grrrl. In the early 1990s, Riot Grrrl emerged as a musical movement that broke the vise grip of the male-dominated industry, giving voice to women, girls, and queer firebrands. The music is characterized by a female-led post-punk sound, an aural experience that’s often raw, consumptive, and totally electrifying. Bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear (just to name a few) spoke to my experiences as a young queer woman struggling to find a place in a heteronormative, male-dominated world. These bands offered anthems of defiance, snark, and resistance, encouraging me to take up space and get loud.

Riot Grrrl music wasn’t just a platform for women’s voices; the lyrics tackled issues that women and girls face daily. There’s a state of the nation polemic clawing inside most Riot Grrrl tracks. The movement also inspired a new generation of feminist activism rooted in solidarity and community. Like most punk happenings, the shows were messy, gorgeous gatherings of the hungry, the angry, the faithful, the joyful. In my book, this dialectic fury is integral to Holiday’s arc.

Punk & Pulp 

Scorched Grace marries three of my loves: Riot Grrrl defiance, poetry, and the hardboiled sensibility of pulpy mysteries by writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Sue Grafton. I strive for this convergence in a few ways: varied and unpredictable line lengths. Transgressive interiority and exteriority. Slang. Brio. Vulgarity. Bar fights. Quiet prayer. Women and queer people taking care of each other. Devastating lyricism. Power in the unexpected.

My book’s anti-hero lone wolf sleuth, Holiday Walsh, is a thirty-three-year-old nun with a hot temper and a cold worldview. Her tattooed body, musical talent, and stubborn, extremist proclivities get her into trouble and bring her close to redemption as a Sister of the Sublime Blood. Punk music and prayer are guttural, visceral, and kinetic experiences for Sister Holiday. She often improvises her own prayers—riffing and swerving around the originals—as she discovers her own nervy music. As she tries to solve an arson-and-murder case, she interrogates her community, herself, and her own imbricated identities. My goal for Scorched Grace is to overlay multiple mysteries and introduce a queer sleuth who is both an investigator and instigator. Punk’s perennial middle finger was crucial to this flip of the noir script.

Scrappy DIY Style

I love how mysteries insist on an intense reciprocity between the reader and writer. My first-person narrated detection tale asks the reader to surrender to the singular voice of Sister Holiday while also becoming the sleuth yourself. To craft Sister Holiday’s PoV, I wanted to write a character who bleeds, burns, gets pushed, and pushes back hard. Holiday surprises herself so she can surprise the reader. In the world of noir, every character is compromised, and Sister Holiday falls with force. A steady stream of punk and Riot Grrrl played in the background as I drafted scenes of double crosses, temptation, and breaking free.

The Riot Grrrl movement rippled with DIY ethos, another touchstone for Holiday. She adopts a similar sensibility as she tries to take control of their own narrative and craft a pathway into life as a nun. She fights and asks for forgiveness. She smokes, curses, and prays. She dyes her hair with the convent’s baking soda and peroxide. Sister Holiday plays in a key all her own.

Voice Driven

Discovering Riot Grrrl music was a lifeline, a rope to climb out of the pit of erasure. Sister Holiday’s punk heart serves as a reminder that individuality can be healing, even when it’s scary, and every voice is inherently worthy.

I hope Scorched Grace drops readers into an inferno of heat, passion, and obsession— sustaining suspense from the first sentence until the fiery end. Punk and Riot Grrrl tracks were key ingredients to the propulsion, fueling the dissonant thrums of ecstasy, terror, hope, and female anger that invites us to pound the ground and scream-sing along. Front the front row.

Scorched Grace Playlist

A- and B-side gems approved by Sister Holiday: punk, post-punk, Riot Grrrl, & beyond—iconoclastic cuts & sonic brass knuckles.

‘Rebel Girl’ by Bikini Kill
‘Guided by Angels’ by Amyl and the Sniffers
‘High Priestess’ by Santigold
‘Holiday’ by Madonna
‘Cherry Bomb’ by The Runaways
‘Ha Ha Ha Armageddon’ by The Julie Ruin
‘Erase You’ by ESG
‘Love Thing’ by Bratmobile
‘I’m on Fire’ by The Chromatics
‘I Am a Poseur’ by X-Ray Spex
‘My My Metro Card’ by Le Tigre
‘Smash Hit’ by Potty Mouth
‘Me & Her’ by Heavens to Betsy
‘Pray’ by Mothermary
‘Her Jazz’ by Huggy Bear
‘Fire’ by Waxahatchee
‘Pretend We’re Dead’ by L7