If you were worried that popular fiction for women has too often been about finding Mr. Right, well, that time is past. It’s now just as often about finding Mr. Prosecutable DNA Sample. But what looks like a change in genre and readership betrays a deeper, older current. For women, psychological thrillers and true crime have long been here. Maybe it’s time to look at how we’ve arrived at a place where we can talk openly about our interest in stories where we are so often the victim.
Readers look to novels for many things but finding those resolutions that elude us in real life is an important one. Sometimes we go to thrillers for protection, to read stories about being a victim as a way to reverse that, in our minds even if we can’t in reality. What we call thrillers for women in 2020 have their roots in female focused dramas of the 1930s, like the play and film Gas Light—which gave us the term—and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. These were stories about women who had to figure out the truth of their situations, often completely alone, to save their sanity. As critic Kat Ellinger points out, these stories in turn were inspired by Gothic literature of the 19th century, the first genre with mostly female readers and authors, which featured heroines who aren’t believed, and who are tormented by norms, the system of marriage, and their very homes. (In a somewhat accidental tribute, those elements crept into the background of my novel Little Threats: as girls my protagonists act out scenes from Jane Eyre; and the setting over the decades is a family house that the characters are psychologically oppressed by—in this case a McMansion.)
In those classic stories the women had to rely on intuition and whispers, while in the new millennium the tech giants have given us free investigatory and surveillance tools that The Second Mrs. de Winter could only dream of. I still remember the generational unease I felt when a younger friend told me how proud she was that she no longer kept Google alerts for an ex-boyfriend. I don’t need to point out that tech has kept the most effective of those tools for themselves, though it is interesting that Amazon and Apple chose feminine names, like Alexa and Siri, for their home-embedded detectives. It’s also no wonder that by 2012’s Gone Girl, the Gothic heroine was upgraded to having Terminator-like focus and skills. By presenting a paranoid male fantasy as fact—“Can you believe my jealous wife is framing me for her murder?”—Gillian Flynn brilliantly devised a female revenge narrative that turned the gaslighting of the Scott Petersons of the world around, and cranked it into a flamethrower.
Link to the rest at CrimeReads
PG notes Dame Agatha published her first Poirot mystery 100 years ago and her first Marple mystery 90 years ago.
However, a bit of research discloses:
The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester was published in 1864 and its serial adventures feature Mrs Gladden, an undercover police agent – women were not formally recruited to London’s Metropolitan Police until 1923 – who employs subterfuge and logical deduction. Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward followed a few months later and features the even racier Mrs Paschal, who smokes, carries a revolver and discards her crinoline to go down a sewer, but also shows the sort of clinical reasoning that Sherlock Holmes would display decades later. Mr Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick appeared in 1888 and can claim to be the first British novel featuring a female detective rather than a collection of serial adventures.