A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a book that drove me nuts: Little Lamb of Heaven. Since then, I went to ALA Midwinter, deliberately avoided picking up the new Lydia Millet book, and proceeded to accept a few new thrillers which were thrust upon me. I just finished listening to one of these, The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. If you like thrillers, you might be interested in this one. Written from two perspectives, this book follows a broken, jilted woman, and a young woman who is engaged to marry her perfect fiance. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing is as the reader assumes.
For me, this book just confirms my sense that maybe I shouldn’t read any more thrillers. While it was much more engaging and fast-paced than Lydia Millet’s book, and it was a good one to listen to in the car, not all the plot twists surprised me. It also had so many twists that I eventually expected them. As with Little Lamb of Heaven, The Wife Between Us is “domestic suspense,” which seems to be code for abusive husband. Sorry, maybe that was a spoiler? Part of me is starting to think if you read thrillers often you should probably be expecting that. I can’t go into detail about the issues I had with this book without spoiling it, and since it was a decent book, I won’t do that. But I will talk about the issues of violence against female characters in thrillers and the way female thriller writers today are depicted.
Violence and Women in Thrillers
Happily, I am not alone in my distaste for this tendency in thrillers to feature violence toward women. The Staunch Book Prize was launched this year to award books “in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered” (para. 1). The website’s “About” page states:
We launched the Staunch Book Prize because we felt that there’s just such an overload of violence towards women in fiction. When women in the real world are fighting sexual abuse and violence, or being murdered because they’re women, the casual and endless depiction of women as victims sits uneasily alongside their fight. (para. 2)
I’ve mentioned this award to a few people in conversation, and every one of them said something like, “There won’t be any thrillers to award by the time they’ve eliminated all the ones with violence toward women.” An entire genre exists in Western culture in which violence toward women is not only common, but expected. Doesn’t that say something twisted about our society?
In 2016 Emily St. John Mandel wrote an article about the preponderance of books with the word “girl” in the title. Aside from the sheer volume of them, Mandel’s most surprising finding was in relation to the fate of the main character of these books.
When Mandel looked at the author’s gender in relation to these stories, she found that men were much more likely to give the title’s “girl” a violent end. Mandel wrote that she wasn’t able to find a reason for this. Is the “girl” issue a problem with publishers, authors, or societal expectations? So far, I’ve discussed Mandel’s article in terms of violence toward women in these books, but a much larger issue might be the use of the term “girl” for primarily full-grown women. Women have been relabeled as girls, and perhaps as a consequence they become the victims of their own books.
Even women as crime writers get the short end of the stick sometimes. In a dismissive article written for The Atlantic, Terrence Rafferty wrote about the trend Gone Girl created, and how modern female writers are changing readers’ expectations for mysteries. He wrote:
Unlike Highsmith and Rendell, who preferred to ply their sinister craft in a dry, deadpan third person, writers of the current school tend to favor a volatile mixture of higher-pitched first-person tones: hectoring, accusatory, self-justifying, a little desperate. Reading these tricky 21st-century thrillers can be like scrolling through an especially heated comments thread on a Web site, or wandering unawares into a Twitter feud. Down these mean tweets a woman must go … (para. 11)
All right, Terrence. Somehow he comes to the conclusion, despite such statements, that women are writing the best crime fiction right now. When our expectations for mysteries and thrillers are so low, or when we disparage the efforts of women writers in the genre, we lose sight of the most important aspect of fiction. Fiction at its best can shine a light on our expectations as a society, and offer new perspectives. Particularly now, while we are more aware of gender issues, I would like to see more thrillers with strong women characters, who don’t have to be broken before society will listen to them.
Mandel, E. S. J. (2016, October 27). The gone girl with the dragon tattoo on the train. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-gone-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-on-the-train/
Rafferty, T. (2016, July/August). Women are writing the best crime novels. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/women-are-writing-the-best-crime-novels/485576/
Staunch Book Prize. (2018). About. Retrieved from http://staunchbookprize.com/about-2/