Why Do We Love To Read "Girl" Thrillers So Much? Experts Say It's About More Than Suspense
Are murder mysteries with the word "girl" in the title really as overwhelmingly popular as they seem, or are appearances deceiving? I asked a panel of experts on human behavior and forensics, and reached out to the nation's biggest libraries to find out why "girl" murder mysteries are so popular, and their answers might just surprise you.
Over the last several years, murder mysteries and true-crime stories have made big money for publishers, podcasters, and producers. Since Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl took the world by storm in 2012, it seems that book publishers have been shoehorning the word "Girl" into as many titles as possible, many of which are similarly themed murder mysteries and thrillers. Think about it. There's The Girl on the Train, The Good Girl, All the Missing Girls, Luckiest Girl Alive, Final Girls, The Girl Before, and that's just off the top of my head. Sure, it's become a bit of a punchline, but many readers — myself included — still find themselves drawn to these titles.
Not only that, but male authors have begun using female pseudonyms to publish their thriller novels. Women have spent centuries adopting male pseudonyms to distribute their work, but now, murder-mystery lovers may be surprised to learn that Riley Sager, the author of the new smash-hit Final Girls, is a man, as is The Girl Before author J.P. Delaney.
So color me intrigued. I reached out to behavior specialists and library professionals to find out what's really going on with this trend.
First things first. Did Gone Girl start this trend toward woman-driven mystery fiction, or was something else at work? Elsbeth Purdy, a librarian at the Petworth Neighborhood Library in Washington, D.C., says that the murder-book boom began with "the combination of Gone Girl and the release of The Girl on the Train so closely behind it."
She adds: "When reading reviews of new books to buy for the library system, I would say that at least 10 percent of books are now described as 'the next Gone Girl or Girl on the Train.'"
New York Public Library's Lynn Lobash and Gwen Glazer say there's "no question" that Flynn's breakout novel "was a phenomenon," but they caution against chalking up the success of Gone Girl to category, saying that "the book’s appeal was less about genre and more about the unreliable narrator, and the plot twists, the he-said-she-said structure."
Kim Bravo, the Adult Materials Selector for the Free Library of Philadelphia, agrees that these books spark interest because of their unreliable narrators, but says she's not sure "that there’s necessarily a ‘murder-book boom’ currently happening":
"I think these books have always been popular," she says. "One of my personal favorite authors is Raymond Chandler. His Philip Marlowe was a well-drawn 'unreliable narrator' long before Gillian Flynn’s Nick and Amy or Paula Hawkins’ Rachel Watson. If there has been a recent uptick in the popularity of these books, I think it’s more a reflection of the scary and uncertain times in which we’re living that attract readers to these stories, either as a means of escape or to help them process and cope with what’s going on in the world around them."
Why We Love Serial Killers author and Drew University Professor of Criminology Scott Bonn also cites public uncertainty as part of murder mysteries' draw, saying: "In times of uncertainty, true-crime stories can be useful because they demonstrate that justice can prevail in the world, if only on a small or limited scale."
"I think it’s more a reflection of the scary and uncertain times in which we’re living that attract readers to these stories."
But public uncertainty isn't the only reason why these murder books are popular. Bravo, Lobash, and Glazer agree that murder-mystery fans "are heavy into their chosen genre," whether it's popular in the main or not. The librarians I spoke with cited Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), Ruth Rendell (A Demon in My View), and Ann Rule (The Stranger Beside Me) as evidence of murder-mystery and true-crime books' enduring popularity.
Still, these books have enjoyed particularly widespread popularity at past junctures as now. Chicago Public Library Collection Development Specialist Kelly Griffin points out that true-crime stories and authors saw a spike in the 1980s. "I think that may be tied to some high profile missing children cases," she says, "in addition to other high profile crimes."
Today, mysteries and thrillers enjoy a level of popularity that it's difficult to imagine has ever been seen before. Rosemary Lavery, the Senior Public Relations Associate at the Boston Public Library, tells me that "about 30 percent of [BPL's] circulation from the Adult Fiction Collection comes from Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense novels." She adds: "Mysteries are our most in demand genre. There is a big trend for these novels right now, and lots of demand."
Data from BPL and other libraries supports Lavery's claims, showing that the trend has spread nationwide. Just look at the bonafides for The Girl on the Train:
- In 2015, it was one of the most popular books in Manhattan (No. 1), the Bronx (No. 7), Staten Island (No. 9), and in the NYPL system overall (No. 2).
- In 2016, it was the No. 1 most-popular book in the NYPL system, and ranked No. 2 in Manhattan and No. 4 in the Bronx.
- Between Summer 2016 and Summer 2017, The Girl on the Train was the No. 1 most-popular mystery or thriller novel in the BPL system, with 4,940 checkouts.
- During the first half of 2017, it was the No. 1 most-popular book in the FLP system, with 2,747 checkouts.
- It is currently the eighth-most-popular book in the NYPL system, and the second-most-popular mystery or thriller novel.
More generally, mysteries and thrillers account for 34 percent of the 50 most-popular books at NYPL, and 64 percent of the FLP's Top 50. Women writers account for between 33 and 55 percent of the top mysteries and thrillers at the libraries Bustle polled, with The Widow by Fiona Barton, The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, and Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich standing out as particular favorites among library patrons.
According to Griffin, "psychological suspense being written by and marketed to women is having a huge moment in publishing and readership" today. It's clear that there's something to these woman-centric murder mysteries, but whether it's a new element or something classic remains arguable. After all, women have been writing these books, and centering them around other women, for generations: Agatha Christie had Miss Marple, Patricia Highsmith had Edith Howland, and Patricia Wentworth had Miss Silver.
Still, Berkley Associate Marketing Director Jin Yu tells me that "murder mysteries and thrillers are indeed attracting a larger audience of women, ages 18-34," due to a combination of factors that includes Instagram-worthy book covers, "juicy and enticing titles," and well-assembled plots with perfectly timed twists. Young women aren't the only ones reading this genre — "We still see a huge audience of older women," Yu says — but they make up a vital portion of its readership, thanks to their dedication to sharing their favorite reads with others on social media.
After all, women have been writing these books, and centering them around other women, for generations: Agatha Christie had Miss Marple, Patricia Highsmith had Edith Howland, and Patricia Wentworth had Miss Silver.
Years ago, Salon pronounced the death of "chick lit," the literary genre — yes, literary; suck, it Franzen — that birthed Bridget Jones, Rebecca Bloomwood, and Miranda Priestly. In many ways, murder mysteries have replaced chick lit as the new "it" genre, but in others, they're two sides of the same coin.
For one, "chick lit" was an incredibly problematic, catch-all phrase used to define any popular-fiction novel written by or about women in the late 1990s and 2000s. The term's implications are obvious: Men read "real" literature, and women read "chick lit." Eventually, the label got weighted down with connotations of air-headed fluffiness and tawdry sex — pulp fiction for women, if you will.
Today, "chick lit" has been rebranded as "women's fiction." That label still carries many of those same, negative implications, however, and it still leaves us with that unnecessarily gendered dichotomy that attempts to define the supposedly mutually exclusive territories of what men and women read. (See also: Goldfinching.)
During its heyday in the early 2000s, chick lit had its own murder-mystery subgenre, which sported clever titles, such as Killer Heels, The Chick and the Dead, and Sex, Murder, and a Double Latte. Today, the darker, grittier cousins of those brightly colored tomes have become the mainstream's bread and butter (alongside romance novels), but some folks in the book industry have been a part of both publishing booms.
Back in the '90s, editor Pam Dorman acquired Bridget Jones's Diary for Penguin. Today, she has her own imprint at Penguin Random House, Pamela Dorman Books, where she recently published the bestselling domestic thrillers The Couple Next Door and My Husband's Wife. She says that "a lot of general women's fiction readers [seem to be] gravitating toward domestic suspense" today, and credits Big Little Lies with "bridging the gap" between chick lit and thriller novels.
"There are people coming to these books who might not have called themselves suspense readers," she tells Bustle. "They're coming to these books because of the relationships in them."
The relationship factor stands out in almost every major, woman-centric thriller that has come out in recent years. Gone Girl has Amy and Nick Dunne's poisoned marriage; The Girl on the Train follows one woman caught in the middle of two picture-perfect couples; The Couple Next Door centers on two young parents who return from a neighbor's dinner party to find that their baby has disappeared in the few short hours they've been gone. As Dorman describes them, these stories tap into "the idea that you can never know what goes on inside of somebody else's house or somebody else's marriage."
As Dorman describes them, these stories tap into "the idea that you can never know what goes on inside of somebody else's house or somebody else's marriage."
It seems, then, that "girl" books aren't popular because of a marketing trend, but because they have tapped into something within all of us — a fear that the troubles of the world could be exacerbated by problems within our own homes. It's universal, yet highly personal, and it makes for pretty addictive reading.
Dorman assures me that "the appetite is still there" for these books, so prepare for more "girl" thrillers to come. You'll have to pry these books from my cold, dead fingers.