The single female becomes the lady killer

ELAINE PARENT is known as the Chameleon Killer. She stalks single women, murders them and then steals their identity. And now she has been traced to Britain. Sisters beware.

According to a Sunday tabloid, Parent is wanted in connection with the gruesome murder of a woman called Beverley Ann McGowan and is wanted for questioning about five other murders. She says that she is fascinated by numerology, and cons women into revealing their driving licence, passport and credit card numbers, then using this information to commit fraud.

Serial killers always fascinate. But what is particularly interesting about this case is that it feeds into both men's - and women's - fear of single women.

In the past, women who did not marry were seen as an object of pity. But as Jane Austen's eponymous heroine points out in Emma there was nothing wrong with refusing to marry if you had means. Now, with more and more women having enough money of their own as well as no desire to live off any man, the well-off singleton is seen as both victim and attacker.

Yvonne Roberts, in her novel The Trouble With Single Women skewers our fear of women who refuse the play the game. Her heroine, Fiona announces her desire to live without a man and is viewed with suspicion by her friend Gill, who cannot believe this wish to be genuine and assumes that married men - particularly her husband - are Fiona's target. Fiona's pleas that she is just not prepared to settle on Mr Wrong fall on deaf ears.

Likewise in Madeleine Wickham's new novel, The Gatecrasher, Fleur Daxeny "beautiful, unscrupulous and [with] a large collection of black designer suits" reads the death notices in the Times, turns up at funerals of the wealthy, preying on rich vulnerable men, charming her way into their lives and their gold credit cards, takes what she can and moves swiftly on.

Horrors! Single women are refusing to conform to the stereotype and live in decent obscurity. Instead they are going out earning decent money, choosing to live their lives in the way they wish, and having a fantastic time. In the past we'd have taken a long look at their cat and called them a witch. In these modern times we patronisingly whisper about their emotional emptiness and think that, despite the designer clothes and beautiful flats, what they really want is a man - as the popularity of sub-Bridget Jones books testifies.

But now, when single women continue to remain perfectly happy, it's getting nasty. Live without a man? You'll end up with a Single White Female flatmate. Spinsters can't rely on their sisters: it's women beware women out there. Fictional Fleur may have preyed on men, but now single women without a masculine arm to protect them will find Elaine Parent ready to milk them for all they've got. Or people think they are Elaine Parent in disguise - about to wreak havoc.

The situation is akin to children being told that if they are not good the bogeyman will get them. If you don't accept that what society wants is decent wives and mothers - despite the fact that one in five women will now remain childless - then being stalked by the Chameleon Killer is your fate.

"It is incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage," said Jane Austen sardonically, herself a woman who never married. Two centuries on she would be appalled to see that what society still appears to want from spinsters is that they should be happy to remain like her other character, Miss Bates, humble and grateful for charity and resigned to being the butt of Emma Woodhouse's wit. Otherwise, who knows what might happen to you?