Why Men Pretend to Be Women to Sell Thrillers

Over the last decade, female writers have come to dominate crime fiction, a genre traditionally associated with men. But their appeal goes beyond the byline.

Rafael Marchante / Reuters

Almost 10 years ago, Martyn Waites, a British crime writer, was having coffee with his editor. Waites, who was at something of a loose end project-wise, was looking for new ideas. His editor, though, was looking for a woman. Or, more specifically, a high-concept female thriller writer who could be the U.K.’s Karin Slaughter or Tess Gerritsen.

“I said I could do it,” Waites recalls. His editor was skeptical. But then Waites outlined an idea for a book based on a news story he’d once read, about a serial killer targeting pregnant women and cutting out their fetuses. The concept, he admits somewhat bashfully, was a gruesome one.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” was his editor’s response.

That idea became The Surrogate, a crime thriller published in 2009, and Waites simultaneously became Tania Carver, his female alter ego. Before he started writing, he embarked on a period of research, reading novels by popular female crime writers, and made “copious notes” about their various heroes and villains. Waites was an actor before he was a writer, and “Martyn” and “Tania” soon became different personas in his head, almost like characters. He’d sit down to write as Tania and then realize the concept was much better suited to Martyn. Martyn books, he explains, “were more complex, more metaphorical. The kind of things I like in writing.” Tania books were simpler: mainstream commercial thrillers aimed at a female audience. And they rapidly became more successful than any of Waites’s previous books had been.

The case of a male author using a female pseudonym to write fiction was relatively unheard of when Tania Carver emerged, but the explosion of female-oriented crime fiction in the last five years has led to an increasing number of male authors adopting gender-neutral names to publish their work. Last month, The Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman considered the phenomenon, interviewing a number of writers who fessed up to being men: Riley Sager (Todd Ritter), A.J. Finn (Daniel Mallory), S.J. Watson (Steve Watson), J.P. Delaney (Tony Strong), S.K. Tremayne (Sean Thomas). The trend is ironic, Gamerman pointed out, because the history of fiction is littered with women writers adopting male or gender-neutral pseudonyms to get their work published, from the Brontë sisters to J.K. Rowling.

This shift in fortunes can be attributed to a handful of factors. While exact numbers are hard to source, women readers have come to dominate fiction, where they’re widely touted as representing as much as 80 percent of the market. And while crime fiction and psychological thrillers are often associated with male readers, women read most of those, too—between 60 and 80 percent. Dr. Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, a lecturer in publishing and book culture at University College London, told me that women also prefer to read books by women, citing a Goodreads survey that found 80 percent of a new female author’s readership is likely to be female.

The last few years, in other words, have seen a significant reorientation of the crime-fiction landscape, to the point where male writers might consider themselves at a disadvantage. The news that some are choosing to disguise their gender was met with triumph by some commentators, who interpreted it as proof that the literary tables had turned. It prompted eyerolling by others, who noted the irony of men trying to enter a genre of stories about “dead or missing women” that women authors and readers had only recently reclaimed as their own.

But the success of writers like Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins and Karin Slaughter isn’t just due to the fact that they’re women. Rather, it’s that the books they write often interpret the world through an unmistakably female lens. Waites quotes an adage that the difference between crime writers is that a male writer will note what a crime looks like, whereas a female writer will explore what it feels like. Finding success in contemporary crime fiction, then, isn’t just about adopting a gender-neutral name. It’s about writers comprehending why women are so compelled by stories about brutal, graphic violence in the first place.

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One of the earliest examples of a crime story was told by a woman, Scheherazade, who staves off her execution in The Arabian Nights with “The Three Apples.” In the tale, a fisherman finds a locked box that contains the dismembered body of a young woman, and a vizier is tasked with finding the murderer. The roots of the first female detective novels, the scholar Adrienne E. Gavin has written, are in Gothic novels like Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 work The Mysteries of Udolpho, where women are “victims of crime and held captive, but also escape through proto-detective methods to triumph in the end.”

The most influential female crime writers, though, emerged in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and ’30s, when Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and others perfected the art of the whodunnit. Their heroes were frequently male, like the detectives Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion, and Lord Peter Wimsey, and when novels were centered around female protagonists those women tended to be atypical investigators. The rise of hardboiled detective fiction by authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Gavin argues, made the female sleuth “a less threatening figure: elderly, amateur, and detective by accident rather than design.”

But women readers were no less intrigued. In Christie’s work in particular they found an attention to detail and a deft understanding of the nuances of society in early 20th-century England, in addition to meticulous plotting. (Christie reportedly considered publishing her first novel under a male pseudonym, but couldn’t decide between Martin West or Mostyn Grey and so elected to use her own name instead.) Then, in the 1940s and ’50s, as male crime writers created prototypically masculine characters in the wake of two world wars, women writers like Dorothy B. Hughes and Vera Caspary wrote fiction more rooted in psychological suspense, with more complex female characters.

Sarah Weinman, the editor of the anthology Women Crime Writers, says one factor that defines these books is “a tremendous lack of sentimentality.” At that time, she explains, “the men writing were the romantics. The women just told it like it was. They saw it, they relayed it, and they didn’t sugarcoat it.” That pragmatism can be felt today in some of the most successful works of crime fiction. Writing in The Atlantic last year about women crime novelists, Terrence Rafferty noted that this new breed of writers “don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence.”

But contemporary female crime writers—particularly Karin Slaughter, best-known for her Will Trent series—don’t necessarily stint on the physical violence either. And paradoxically, that may be another thing that makes them so compelling. Women readers, Weinman notes, have always been drawn to darker stories. “There’s a running trope,” she says, “that the gorier the serial-killer narrative, the more likely that little old ladies are reading it.” One of the biggest surprises for Waites when he adopted the persona of Tania Carver was learning how much women readers enjoyed, even craved, brutality in stories. At one event, a woman asked him if his books were particularly violent, adding, before he could respond, “Because I’ll read them if they are.” Slaughter, who’s sold more than 35 million copies of her crime novels, is so regularly asked why her books include such graphic depictions of violence that there’s a section about it on her website.

More recently, women writers have been exploring abusive acts within a more intimate environment—the home. In the last five years, the stratospheric success of books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (reportedly the 25th bestselling book in history) and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train has sparked a new subset of crime fiction that the author Julia Crouch has named “domestic noir.” Books in this genre, Dr. Ramdarshan Bold says, “tend to focus on the female experience, in domestic settings.” They feature female protagonists, and often explore—in addition to criminality—the nuances of relationships and marriage, areas that Bold says have been “largely missing from popular crime novels in the past.”

The notable success of such books in the market has inspired a fleet of imitators, and has led some to question the propriety of men attempting to break into the genre under the guise of gender-neutral pseudonyms. “They’re not lying, exactly,” Jezebel’s Kelly Faircloth wrote. “It’s just that if you’re idly browsing in Barnes and Noble, looking for a Gone Girl-style read, you won’t encounter any immediate tells. One of the authors featured has gone so far as to try on a bra so he didn’t make any obvious mistakes that might throw female readers out of the story. Wonder if he also gets the infuriating emails or the creepy DMs or the generally patronizing bullshit?”

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The practice of using pseudonyms in popular fiction is a common one. Authors, Weinman explains, will often change their pen name if works published under their previous name haven’t sold particularly well. She points to Todd Ritter, who published an antebellum mystery under the name Alan Finn before rebooting once again as the ambiguously gendered Riley Sager. “My name had become somewhat of a liability,” Ritter explained in a blog post introducing Finn. “And, since we were looking for a new publisher, one could argue that editors would be willing to go with someone who had a clean slate, rather than a critically acclaimed author with a spotty sales record.”

Final Girls, Riley Sager’s first novel, is a hit, having been praised by Stephen King as “the first great thriller of 2017,” and touted by Whoopi Goldberg on The View. The book is about the lone survivor of a horrific “movie-scale massacre” who’s attempting to move on from her traumatic past when she discovers more women are being found dead. “We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had,” the protagonist, Quincy, explains. “Pretty girls covered in blood.” The book is self-aware about its use of a horror-movie trope that regularly inflicts violence and torture on women. But Ritter’s adoption of a female persona to publish the book raises complex questions about who should tell stories about brutalized female bodies. Is it somehow less gratuitous when women are writing these novels? Or, given that so many women readers are enjoying them regardless, is it just a harmless ploy to reach a bigger audience?

Queries about what’s appropriate and not have long plagued this corner of the industry. Ten years ago, the book world erupted in a debate over whether women authors were too violent in their treatment of their female victims. When the Scottish author Val McDermid was criticized by the crime writer Ian Rankin for her graphic depictions of violence, McDermid struck back. “There is still a funny notion that women should not write violent fiction, and yet women more often than not are the victims of sexual violence,” she told The Guardian. “So what are we saying—that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it?”

The question of why women enjoy reading about violence inflicted on women is a complex one. Hawkins, in previous interviews, has pointed out that women are simply looking for stories that align with their own experiences of the world. “Men tend to be attacked by strangers, women tend to be attacked by people they know.” Most women, she added, “are made to think about themselves in terms of what they should be doing to prevent violence happening to them.” Part of the explosion of domestic noir and other female-driven books is surely that they interpret violence from a female perspective, giving voice and thoughts to victims who’ve been more typically portrayed in crime fiction as bodies on a cold slab.

But the enjoyment of crime fiction also aligns with a desire to see justice served. Law & Order: SVU, a show that regularly portrays brutal sexual and physical violence against women, is also hugely popular among female viewers. On the one hand, it takes the abuse of women seriously. But on the other, it creates a neat framework where cases are solved and perpetrators are punished. The same applies to to books. Crime fiction, Weinman says, offers order: “Reading about a serial killer who gets caught, or a missing child who’s found, or a woman who’s brutally murdered and the case is solved, there’s an ending, and some catharsis. Narrative provides a trajectory where real life can’t.”

There’s arguably an implicit trust when women read thrillers written by women—a mutual understanding that each is taking the subject personally, and bringing their own experiences to the stories at hand. “Women authors,” Slaughter explains on her site, bring “a different perspective” to stories about abuse and sexual assault. That’s not to say male writers can’t empathize or can’t channel the same kind of emotional intelligence the best female writers bring to crime fiction. Waites says he’s particularly proud of one of his Tania Carver books that deals with the topic of domestic violence. But he also acknowledges that he reads crime fiction by female authors and is aware that many of them write scenes he would feel uncomfortable trying to get away with.

Ultimately, Weinman says, the trend for female-oriented psychological thrillers may have crested, and writers and publishers will soon be jumping on to the next bandwagon. But the long history of crime fiction, and its relatively recent foray onto mainstream readers’ bookshelves, proves that women have always been compelled by stories about murder, which may, however strangely, make them feel safe. At least part of the recent popularity of thrillers by female authors has to do with understanding that writers are bringing their own lived experiences of the world to their work, and those experiences align with their readers’. For male writers, replicating their success is a lot more complicated than simply adopting a pseudonym.