Jennifer Lipman questions why our appetite for novels about
dangerous and flawed women has never been greater …
Browse any bookshop these days, and you’ll be struck by the number of novels about damaged, dark or dangerous women. You can spot them a mile off, with their tell-tale shadowy covers flagging up stories of women with treacherous personal entanglements, women who are being hunted and hounded, women seeking the truth at any cost. Women who are as flawed as men have been for centuries – but who live to tell the tale.
From Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne to Rachel Watson, the eponymous Girl on the Train, female-led thrillers are having their day in the sun (or gloom). In the two years since the latter was published, there have been scores more books about troubled ‘girls’, including Emma Cline’s recent hit The Girls, about teenagers caught up in cult murders. “We’ve seen a raft of similar titles,” says Sam Eades, senior commissioning editor at Orion. “This increase in volume, plus a genuine reader appetite for darker stories has led to a thriving psychological thriller genre.”
This month sees the release of Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, about a mother suspected of murdering her children one smouldering summer in 1960s New York. It’s unashamedly dark and edgy, and features a heroine who is unapologetic about her sexuality; in short, it’s perfectly in line with the times. Hot on its heels will be Sarah J Naughton’s Tattleface – tagline: The perfect brother. The perfect fiancé. The perfect lie – and Isabel Ashdown’s Little Sister, out in July.
“It definitely feels like there has been a groundswell of really well-written female-led crime novels,” agrees Holly Seddon, author of Try Not to Breathe, about an alcoholic journalist searching for clues 15 years after a brutal attack on a teenager. She suggests that a series of bestsellers, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, left audiences – and publishers – looking for books ‘to scratch that itch’.
Clearly, these books span a wide range. “There have been several subgenres; domestic noir, psychological dramas, unreliable narrators,” says Alison Barrow, director of media relations at Transworld. “Some involve fragmented families and fractured relationships.”
Nor are the heroines all the same; for every scheming Amy Dunne, there’s a Rachel Watson, damaged, but in danger rather than dangerous. “I don’t think many women crime writers would conflate ‘troubled’ with ‘dangerous’ necessarily,” points out Melanie McGrath, co-founder of the Killer Women Collective, a group of female crime writers, including Hawkins.
What these books have in common is that they involve the domestic becoming menacing; what Eades has dubbed ‘domestic noir’. Instead of the chain-smoking detective in a gritty cityscape, the threat is in the room next door and the heroine looks like someone you know.
Ruth Ware, whose thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, is being adapted by Reese Witherspoon, says that in these books, the narrators are usually women, and the main fears being explored are often female-centric. “Both men and women get to be baddies – but the experience is more often seen from ‘inside’ the female perspective.”
Across the country, women are lapping up these books; one 2010 survey found that more than two thirds of thriller readers were female. It’s obvious why publishers keep selling these tales, often featuring murder or sexual violence – but why do we keep buying them?
Partly, says Ware, it’s that Gone Girl left readers wanting more. But she thinks it also fits the wider mood of the country and the unrelenting bad news from the media. “There was a huge upsurge of crime publishing between the first and second world wars, as people looked for literature that grappled with life and death, but ultimately reassured,” she notes. The difference now is trust – or lack of it – in our leaders; instead of the omnipotent detective, “we’re looking for books that wrestle with the problem of unreliable sources and flawed protagonists”.
“When life is uncertain it could be reassuring to have a defined ending,” echoes Barrow. But she also points out that audiences have long devoured psychological drama, from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, to Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters. “The diary use of the term psychological thriller was used in a review of a Somerset Maugham story about 100 years ago,” says Barrow. “Readers have long been fascinated by the machinations of unreliable narrators and twists in plot.”
Equally, the femme fatale – or femme fatality – is hardly new. “Writers have always shone a spotlight into the darker recesses of a character’s mind,” says Eades. What has changed, says McGrath, is the portrayal of dark, troubled or dangerous women in crime fiction. Nowadays, they are “about women who are flawed and often powerful without necessarily being ‘sexy’”.
If these books would once have been categorised as crime, nowadays they are mainstream reads, and far more than paint-by-numbers whodunnits. “The idea of a crime novel has become more flexible. There doesn’t even have to be a murder,” says Seddon. “There’s such a wide spectrum of style, setting, criminal act, subject and approach to these novels that often the only similar thread is the presence of a female character facing a dark or frightening situation”.
Ware says she doesn’t find it patronising to have her books grouped together with other thrillers. “Where it becomes reductive is when the genre trumps the book – when books are squeezed into a niche that doesn’t fit, or when people assume that all books in a particular niche are the same,” she says.
So what does our love of books featuring troubled or dangerous women – who invariably find themselves running from something, or someone – say about us as readers?
To an extent, it’s that these books allow us to confine horror: stalking, rape, murder, or simply marital breakdown and tragedy, to fiction. “Some of our darkest fears are played out across the pages of a crime thriller,” says Barrow. ‘Our imagination can run and yet we know we are safe because we can close the copy.” Equally, the characters often deal with the worst – but come out the other side. They are not victims; they are survivors.
Seddon, whose heroine repeatedly takes risks to solve a mystery, suggests it’s also appealing to put ourselves in these character’s shoes. “We see ourselves reflected in these dangerous women, not because we are necessarily dangerous people, but because the very best of these books makes us ask, “What would I do? How far would I go to save myself, or the people I love?”
But are these books, so often focused on male violence against women or on the consequences of female sexuality, gratuitous or even irresponsible? The same criticism was levelled against the Gillian Anderson series The Fall, in which the camera lingered over the bodies of female victims.
“I wonder sometimes whether I should be cautious of perpetuating the ‘woman as victim’ stereotype,” admits Eades. But, as she says, violence against women is real, and often perpetrated by those known to the victim; these books reflect the real fears of female readers.
Ultimately, we’re attracted because they’re are entertaining; they keep us on the edge of our seats. As Ware says, she was drawn to writing thrillers because they’re fun and juicy, and full of conflict. Her second book, The Woman in Cabin 10, involves a murder on a cruiseship full of the rich and beautiful.
The question is whether this trend will sustain, or whether readers will get bored, just as we did eventually with the 50 Shades-esque ‘mummy porn’ genre. Ware predicts the next ‘big thing’ will be something entirely different, pointing out that the thrillers she’s been reading most recently “are by no means exclusively about dangerous women – men do their fair share of dirty dealings.” But she doubts we will ever stop being fascinated by the questions these books ask.
In one way, perhaps, the tide is turning. “I think there’s a backlash against the word ‘girl’ in titles. And as a fully grown woman – very much not a girl! – that makes me do a celebration knee slide,” laughs Seddon. “But, in their gut, the books we’re talking about are brilliant stories, full of surprises, with interesting characters and exciting plots. Books like that aren’t going anywhere.”