Thrillers Have Always Been A Feminist Battleground — We're Just Finally Noticing It Again

by Sadie Trombetta
Anne Marie Fox/HBO

It was once a genre where steely-eyed male detectives looked over the porcelain blue body of their female victims, noting that her beautiful face and delicate curves made the murder a damn shame. It was a genre where troubled yet handsome men with nothing to lose rooted around in the mysterious pasts of the goody two-shoes girls they swore to avenge. It was a genre where male characters and their authors reigned supreme, while women were reduced to stereotypical roles and sexist tropes — or was it? In today’s literary scene, the works of female thriller and crime writers are consistently among the bestselling titles — as of this writing, Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects and Elin Hilderbrand's The Perfect Couple are sitting comfortable in the fourth and eighth spot on the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List. Despite the fact that, for decades, this genre appeared to rest on the shoulders of rugged male crime solvers and female victims, thrillers and crime novels have always been a feminist battleground, a place where women characters fight for their lives, and where their authors fight for their livelihood.

After the publication of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in 2012, the popularity of female-centric thriller and crime novels exploded. Suddenly, the hottest books of the year were not only action-packed mysteries or spy novels by major authors like Dan Brown and David Baldacci, but psychological suspense novels and domestic thrillers by writers like Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and Ruth Ware. For the casual reader, the book market was a place suddenly and unexpectedly flooded with titles by women and about women with the word "girl" in the title. Despite popular rhetoric, though, female-centric thriller and crime novels have always been around. They just haven't always been on readers’ radars, according to CrimeReads editor Molly Odintz.

"Before the domestic noir, the marriage thriller, grip lit, psychological suspense, or whatever you want to use as the term du jour, there were plenty of gothic novels filled with gaslighting, dangerous husbands, and other tropes of the modern female-centric thriller,” Odintz tells Bustle. “There’s a tendency in modern feminism to kill our mothers, culturally speaking, in order to define ourselves, and I wonder if we need to feel that we are always moving forward, always expanding more on feminist possibilities, or if occasionally we can take a step back and notice that sophisticated thrillers concerned with exploring women’s experience have always been around, they just go in and out of favor (and in and out of print)."

"...there were plenty of gothic novels filled with gaslighting, dangerous husbands, and other tropes of the modern female-centric thriller."

Perhaps that is why, when readers talk about the thriller and crime genre, many have the bad habit of labeling a male-dominated one — because they just aren't seeing the full picture. It's impossible to ignore big-name authors like Lee Child, James Patterson, and Jo Nesbo, who have the marketing dollars behind them to garner ads on the subway. It's a lot easier to overlook female authors and their work when did not benefit from the same name recognition or marketing push. They simply don't get the same attention, especially in reviews which heavily skew male. Or at least, they didn't until runaway bestsellers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train pointed a bright new spotlight on female-centric thrillers and crime novels.

"Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins seemed to tap directly into an undercurrent that had been building for a long time," says Crime by the Book blogger and Penguin Random House publicist Abby Endler, who traces female-oriented crime novels back to Agatha Christie's detective fiction and Celia Fremlin's domestic thrillers. "Flynn and Hawkins had a bit of magic behind their publications — and the world suddenly took notice of female-centric crime fiction with new intensity."

That is, the world took notice again. Since the genre's beginning, women have been present as authors and as leading characters. There are, of course, the popular series of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and the highly praised standalone thrillers of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, but these are just a few examples of the generations of women who flocked to a genre that allowed them to explore social and cultural issues through crime writing.

Sarah Weinman, a crime fiction writer and the author of the forthcoming The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, tells Bustle that if you look outside of the two traditional sub-genres of crime fiction — gentile and hard-boiled — you'll find an impressive group of women writers whose work has defined the genre for decades. Popular thriller and crime novelists like Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong, and Margaret Millar not only crafted incredible stories, but they used those stories to process, explore, and criticize the world around them.

"I really felt like they were commenting on what was happening in American society at the time, what was happening to women at the time," Weinman says of the women authored and female-centric stories coming out of the 1940s, 1950s, and even through second-wave feminism of the 1960s. "They were looking at society and the fears that women had in a really special way."

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The truth is, women have always been a part of the fabric of thriller and crime fiction because the genre allows them to tell their stories in truly liberating ways. For generations of readers and writers, thrillers have been a lens through which to explore female pain, frustration, obsession, and dysfunction, topics that, according to Odintz, are much more difficult to address in real life.

"Horror, exploitation, and crime are all much kinder to dysfunctional, angry and frustrated women characters than general fiction seems to be, or society seems to be," Odintz says. "They are front and center. Their wants are acknowledged. Their fears are treated seriously. And their vengeance is sweet, and much-deserved. The heightened camp aspect of crime fiction [...] means the genre can take everyday frustrations and anger, express them in extremes, and serve as an outlet and space of fantasy where we can fall apart in a way that we’re not allowed to do in real life."

"Horror, exploitation, and crime are all much kinder to dysfunctional, angry and frustrated women characters than general fiction seems to be, or society seems to be."

Still, there are critics who doubt the genre's ability to serve up truly feminist literature, largely in part because of the way thrillers and crime fiction rely on violence towards women. In January, author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless announced the Staunch book prize, a new literary award for the best thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” While there are some who applaud this attempt to minimize women’s pain, others like Endler and Odintz point to the many ways in which violence can be used as a powerful tool to explore, not exploit, women’s issues.

"Denying the existence of violence against women doesn’t make violence against women in real life disappear. Are we not to explore and challenge this reality in our fiction?" says Endler. "The author’s handling of the story’s violence really makes all the difference. I’ve actually found some of the most empowering and resonant crime books I’ve read are those that tackle violence against women head-on, sparing no detail — but that do so with intelligence and with a sharp eye towards building strong female characters who fight back against the injustice done to their peers, or to themselves."

"Denying the existence of violence against women doesn’t make violence against women in real life disappear. Are we not to explore and challenge this reality in our fiction?"

That is perhaps what makes recent female-centric thrillers so satisfying and so empowering, despite their violence. In Paula Hawkins Into the Water and Girl on the Train, Shari Lapena’s A Stranger in the House, and Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls, to name a few, readers will stumble over battered corpses, bear witness to domestic violence, and encounter stomach-turning sexual assault, but none of the violence is there to simply drive the plot or satisfy the consumer’s morbid obsession with the macabre. Instead, it serves a much greater purpose: to provide readers with a new way of confronting the very real issues of female pain, trauma, and violence that are otherwise difficult, and often painful, to face in the real world.

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"To paraphrase Joan Didion, perhaps we tell ourselves crime stories in order to survive,” Odintz says. "Violence against women in crime fiction can be, at its best, a warning, a kind of information sharing, and a way of processing collective trauma – these are the red flags, these are the moments you need to trust yourself, these are the ways you are reduced to a body, and these are the ways you recover your personhood. I think writers today are fully immersed in using crime fiction to process the traumas and concerns of lived female experience, and that includes violence."

"Violence against women in crime fiction can be, at its best, a warning, a kind of information sharing, and a way of processing collective trauma."

Women authors and female-centric narratives have always played a crucial role in the history of the thriller and crime genre, and they will continue to shape its future, as will movements like #MeToo, Times Up, and Black Lives Matter.

"I think we are going to find out what kind of amazing crime novels are coming that both anticipate but also arrive on the heels of certain societal moments," Weinman says. "Crime writers are constantly paying attention, that’s the greatest gift. Since It’s such a broad genre, and the cast is super wide, I figure that any subject that is worth knowing about, you can probably talk about in the confines of a crime novel."

There are a lot of different forces driving the popularity, and notoriety, of female-centric crime and thrillers, including today's social movements and good-old-fashioned publishing trends. When a book is as successful as Gone Girl, you don't ignore it; you try and replicate it. In attempting to do just that, publishers have helped bring to the surface of public consciousness a wonderful list of women authors and stories about women that go beyond the state of their corpses.

"I do see publishers seeking out more female-centric and female-written stories, but I also see publishers investing even more heavily in those female authors, too," says Endler. "These female-centric suspense novels aren’t just 'fluff' — they’re bestsellers, big books with big potential. And how well-deserved is that shift in focus! We can see this in the increased energy and focus publishers are putting behind longstanding crime writers like Sara Blaedel, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Unger, Laura Lippman — the list goes on — and we can also see it in the energy put behind publishing new female voices in crime fiction."

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The list does, indeed, go on and on, and readers are still hungry for more. Among this spring and summer's most talked about books are female-centric crime and thriller novels, many of which fall into the category of feminist fiction. There's Araminta Hall's Our Kind of Cruelty, which tackles the danger of gaslighting; Aimee Molloy's The Perfect Mother, a suspenseful commentary on the pressures of motherhood; Rosalie Knecht's Who Is Vera Kelly?, a fusion lesbian pulp and spy fiction with an international thriller twist; Jessica Knoll's The Favorite Sister, a story set on a reality show that addresses the dangerous habit of pitting successful women against each other; and Liz Nugent's Lying In Wait, a social issues-driven murder mystery, among dozens of other female-centric stories.

In today's literary landscape, women are starting to see themselves in just about every corner of the fictional world, including the thriller and crime genre. They can find themselves in cozy murder mysteries, chilling domestic noirs, action-packed police procedurals, and every subgenre in between.

"Let’s be clear: there’s still a long way to go, and I hope that young women in future generations will have even more diversity of voices to introduce them to the crime fiction genre than my generation has had," says Endler. "But if the women in crime fiction who I know have anything to say about it, the future of the genre is looking very bright indeed."