Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels
They don’t seem to believe in heroes as much as their male counterparts, which in some ways makes their storytelling a better fit for the times.
Once upon a time, in the smoky, violent neverland of crime fiction, there were seductive creatures we called femmes fatales, hard women who lured sad men to their doom. Now there are girls. It started, of course, with Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 suburban thriller, Gone Girl, told a cruel tale of marriage and murder and sold a zillion copies. The most striking thing about Flynn’s cool, clever mystery is the childishness of its main characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, the sheer pettiness of the deadly games they play with each other. And the prize for winning is something like a gold star from the teacher: Gone Girl takes place in a world in which grown-up girls—and boys—will kill for no better reason than self-validation. This is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized. On the streets his people walked, motives were more basic—money, sex—and means were more direct. “When in doubt,” he once told his genre brethren, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” When today’s crime writers are in doubt, they have a woman come through the door with a passive-aggressive zinger on her lips.
For those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from time to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit, this is actually a welcome development, because the men with guns don’t do their job nearly as well as they used to. They’re old, they’re getting tired of walking through those doors, and the heroes they used to threaten—lone-wolf private eyes like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—have practically disappeared from the genre. Like the cowboy, the private eye once embodied male fantasies of rugged individualism. As individualism itself became a less sustainable concept, the popular imagination began to relocate its mythic figures to places farther and farther away from the real-world settings of the old West and the modern city (to, say, the Marvel universe).
I miss those tough guys, with their cigarettes and their hats, but I’ve learned to do without them. I’ve read crime fiction all my life, and like most mystery lovers, I don’t really have a type. As a young reader, I favored Sherlock Holmes stories and intricate puzzles of the Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr sort, then moved on to the grittier, bloodier private-eye stuff of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler and Ross Macdonald. In my baffled adulthood, I have found myself drawn, more and more, to the kind of dark, fatalistic psychological thriller that noir writers such as Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and especially Patricia Highsmith brought into the world in the 1940s and ’50s—tales of people in impossible situations making catastrophically poor choices.
I do still go back every now and then to the eccentric sleuths inspecting corpses in locked rooms, or to the hard-boiled dicks walking down their mean streets, but only as an exercise in nostalgia. These days, just about all the exciting work in the murder-for-entertainment business descends not from Arthur Conan Doyle or Hammett but from Highsmith, who has had many more daughters than sons. A number of years ago—well before Gone Girl—I realized that most of the new crime fiction I was enjoying had been written by women. The guys had been all but run off the field by a bunch of very crafty girls, coming at them from everywhere: America (Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, Laura Lippman), England (Alex Marwood, Paula Hawkins, Sophie Hannah), Scotland (Val McDermid, Denise Mina), Ireland (Tana French), Norway (Karin Fossum), Japan (Natsuo Kirino).
That’s not to say the guys are gone, or even going away anytime soon. Elmore Leonard has now left the building, but the lowlifes and criminal idiots who peopled his stories haven’t altogether vanished; George Pelecanos keeps an eye on them for us. And the aging police detectives of Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, and Michael Connelly are still, at their stately pace, finding ways to make their grim investigations pretty interesting. It’s a struggle, though. Male crime writers seem never to have fully recovered from the loss of the private eye as a viable protagonist, and men, for whatever reason (sports?), appear to need a hero of some kind to organize their stories around. Cops and lawyers and the odd freelance avenger (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher) are about all that’s left.
The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), 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. Murder is de rigueur in the genre, so people die at the hands of others—lovers, neighbors, obsessive strangers—but the body counts tend to be on the low side. “I write about murder,” Tana French once said, “because it’s one of the great mysteries of the human heart: How can one human being deliberately take another one’s life away?” Sometimes, in the work of French and others, the lethal blow comes so quietly that it seems almost inadvertent, a thing that in the course of daily life just happens. Death, in these women’s books, is often chillingly casual, and unnervingly intimate. As a character in Alex Marwood’s brilliant new novel, The Darkest Secret, muses: “They’re not always creeping around with knives in dark alleyways. Most of them kill you from the inside out.”
The awareness of that inside-out sort of violence sets the women writers apart, these days, from even the best of the men. Women’s murder tales have always been at least a little more psychologically acute than the guys’. Even in the so-called golden age of detective stories, the 1920s and ’30s, when the emphasis was on elaborate puzzles, the motivations of the culprits in Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were usually more plausible—and nastier—than they were in Carr or Rex Stout or Ellery Queen (a low bar, but still). Later, while male pulp writers were playing with guns and fighting off those wily femmes fatales, women like Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar were burrowing into the enigmas of identity and the killing stresses of everyday life.
For beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence, see the Library of America’s two-volume Women Crime Writers (2015), which collects eight terrific thrillers from the ’40s and ’50s, including the novels that inspired the classic film noirs Laura, The Reckless Moment, and In a Lonely Place. Women have been writing books like those ever since, but until Gone Girl, publishers tended to look askance at stand-alone crime novels and instead encourage their writers to develop series characters, which could be marketed more easily. So the next wave of women—those who began to write between the mid-’60s and the early ’90s—turned out stories about private eyes (Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone) and medical examiners (Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta) and humane police inspectors (Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford). For a while, putting a feminist spin on the old, fading male-empowerment fantasies seemed reason enough for them to write crime stories.
Some of those novelists did solid work in the traditional forms, and many still do. Karin Slaughter, for example, specializes in muscular, action-packed police procedurals; Alafair Burke does expertly plotted legal mysteries; Val McDermid has invented more than her rightful share of homicidal sociopaths for her psychologist-cop team, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, to run to ground. Donna Leon and Karin Fossum have made significant contributions to the humane-inspector bloodline, and Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman have managed to create plausible contemporary private eyes.
But they chafe at the limitations; all of those writers have produced books outside their main series. For half a century, the prolific Rendell (who died last year) took frequent breaks from her melancholy, low-key Wexford mysteries to write seriously twisted one-off psychological thrillers, in which the profoundly disturbed and the blithely clueless cross paths fatefully: ignorant armies clashing by night, with no victors. The outcomes are comically, almost surreally, awful. In her most powerful works—A Judgment in Stone (1977), say, or The Bridesmaid (1989)—fate is inexorable, an onrushing train with no one at the controls. There’s nothing for a reader to do but settle in for the ride and watch the darkness speeding past the windows.
In the Gone Girl era, that sort of novel is having its moment. Traditional mysteries are still with us, but tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers are what readers seem to want now, and dozens of women are ready, willing, and able to oblige. Last year, the publishing industry found, in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, its long-sought “next Gone Girl,” which is to say another blockbuster bourgeois nightmare about terrible relationships, told in the voices of more than one profoundly unreliable narrator. 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 …
Compared with their male counterparts, today’s female crime writers seem more familiar with (or less wary of) the primordial ooze of ego and id that is social media, the swampy no-man’s-land where millions of self-created personal brands battle for supremacy. It’s dangerous territory, as the journalist Nancy Jo Sales shows in a harrowing new book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Sales speaks with dozens of teenage girls—who are, she asserts, “in fact the number one users of social media”—about the peculiar mores of their online world. These kids are stressed, looking down at their phones as they navigate from locker to classroom to mall to home, leaning into a blizzard of words and images as they try to fight their way to something like adulthood.
The words are frequently unkind, the images can be downright rude, and not everything, by a long stretch, is true: It’s a fun-house universe, a hall of mirrors like the one where bullets fly in the climax of Orson Welles’s great noir The Lady From Shanghai. Women writers seem to know this place even if they didn’t grow up in it. (An awful lot of them—Abbott, Flynn, Hannah, Burke, Slaughter, French, Hawkins, Sara Gran, Attica Locke—are in their 40s, and many of the rest are at least a little older than that.) Jessica Knoll, who’s in her early 30s, is the only one almost young enough to have actually lived there, and what the narrator of her remarkable debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive (2015), says of her teenage self is this: “We were all young and cruel.”
For the older writers, it’s a matter of memory, of recognizing in the unlit alleyways of social media the labyrinthine geography of their own not-yet-forgotten adolescent psyches. The teenage mind is a strange and lonely place, and these women know a crime scene when they see one. In Megan Abbott’s superb new book, You Will Know Me, a young woman in her 20s reflects aloud: “The girl you were at fifteen, sixteen. Angry and nasty. Hungry for love … You’re always that girl. She never goes away. She’s inside you all the time. That girl is forever.” A male detective in French’s The Secret Place (2014), after spending a few hours questioning the 16-year-old boarders at a school outside Dublin about a murder, blurts out, “If I’ve learned one thing today, it’s that teenage girls make Moriarty look like a babe in the woods.” (For mystery-story innocents, and non-initiates in the cult of Cumberbatch: That’s Professor Moriarty, the evil genius who is the arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes.) The exasperated cop later admits that he can’t quite get a handle on how these girls think. “She was written in a code I couldn’t begin to read,” he says to himself about one of them. “They all were.” But in her amazing, sorrowful book, French manages to crack the code because she was a girl once herself, and like the school’s headmistress, she remembers the key: “Girls like to reveal their secrets, and they like to be secretive.” Men who don’t read these books are missing some crucial information.
The eponymous secret place of French’s novel is a bulletin board that’s an explicit substitute for social media for the students of St. Kilda’s. The boarders are not allowed unsupervised access to the Internet, because, the headmistress believes, “young girls slip between worlds very easily.” She fears they could “lose their grasp on reality.” So the girls, anonymously and nonvirtually, do more or less what they’d do on Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat. They post photos and clippings and drawings, small confessions and small aggressions, all these traces of their secret selves—jumbled, overlapping, out there for everyone to see. This physical site is of course no more fundamentally “real” than the social media it’s meant to replace, but its finiteness makes it appear more graspable. That’s an illusion: The girls are in an in-between world anyway, because that’s where teenagers live. And in The Secret Place, as in real life, that state can be perilous.
People revealing their secrets and being secretive (often simultaneously) is a fair working definition of social-media culture, and of the post–Gone Girl crime novel, too. In book after book, characters share, compulsively but selectively, until revelation and artful concealment become nearly indistinguishable. Unreliable narrators—Gillian Flynn’s, and Paula Hawkins’s in The Girl on the Train, and Sophie Hannah’s in her recent Woman With a Secret (2015), and many others—induce a sort of vertigo in readers’ minds, an effect good crime writers strive for.
In the golden age, they’d achieve it by furnishing their cozy murder scenes with too many suspects and too many physical clues—the bickering relatives, the shady servants, the cigar ashes, the restaurant matchbooks, the stopped clocks. Now the effect is managed with language alone. In the dizzying verbal performances of the new-style thrillers, every sentence can be a clue or a red herring. (It may be worth noting that Agatha Christie, who knew how to multiply potential killers and suggestive objects, also created one of the most fiendish unreliable narrators in English-language fiction; to name the book would be a spoiler, I’m afraid.) To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, who was a lifelong mystery fan, this new wave of women writers do the police—and the murderers and the victims and the innocent bystanders—in different voices. The line between high modernism and 21st-century entertainment is getting blurry.
Crime fiction isn’t the worst way of dealing with the too-much-information, too-many-voices overload of the present day. At least it holds out the possibility of a solution, of something approximating truth; that’s written into the form’s tacit agreement with its audience. In general, readers of mysteries and thrillers have an impressive tolerance for complication. We enjoy the feeling of being overwhelmed by masses of contradictory-seeming data, because the promised resolution, the daylight when the fog lifts, is so pleasurable. It’s like the moment of sweet clarity a poet experiences when he or she sees at last the right, the inevitable, word—the one that makes sense of everything. No wonder Eliot and W. H. Auden loved detective stories.
At our bewildering moment in history, the Internet-generated fog is thick, practically impenetrable: a pea-souper (as the Brits say) whose main component is talk, too much of it viscous with ulterior motive. Every voice in the new crime novels by women raises suspicions instantly. We can never be sure what any speaker’s agenda is. What’s not being said, and why? The verbal gamesmanship can be enjoyable, particularly when practiced by a wit like Sophie Hannah, who specializes in the apologias of middle-class women with incurable cases of the existential jitters.
Her chief narrator in Woman With a Secret (published in the U.K. as The Telling Error) is Nicki Clements, an apparently ordinary suburban wife and mother, who is one of the funniest pathological liars in recent fiction. Although she seems to be reasonably happy, she lives a clandestine life online (“email@example.com”), which, to her alarm, begins to bleed into her everyday life. There’s a grisly murder and a series of mysterious posts on a hookup site called Intimate Links. Naughty Nicki is clearly involved, somehow; the precise nature of her connection takes a while to emerge, though, because in her panicky monologues she doles out actual truth as grudgingly as a Watergate conspirator. She takes that approach (the modified limited hangout, Nixon’s men called it) in all her interactions, online and off; this naturally has the effect of making just about everybody—family, police, readers—wonder whether she is, or is not, a crook.
Hannah (who’s also a poet) obviously has a taste for the language of evasion and deceit. She loves liars, especially ones who, like Nicki, aren’t terribly good at lying. Watching them thrash about in the tangled webs they’ve woven seems excellent sport to her. In a way, Woman With a Secret is the portrait of someone stuck in a sort of permanent adolescence, lying for the pointless thrill of it, for the drama it brings into her insufficiently awesome life. Mostly it’s about the writer’s delight in linguistic flimflam.
On the whole, though, today’s crime-writing dames deploy the deceptions and evasions of their shifty monologuists less gleefully, and more purposefully. The dubiousness of their narrators’ reliability is for mystification alone—which is a perfectly sound justification in, you know, a mystery. The only problem is that this technique is already, a mere four years after Gone Girl, beginning to harden into a convention. The time is coming, and it might not be far off, when dodgy first-person accounts of dire events won’t trick anyone but the most gullible readers. The audience for crime stories has been conditioned to anticipate startling, unguessable reversals—what an iBooks promotion that recently popped up in my inbox called “gotcha! plot twists.” If the verbal pyrotechnics that these women writers have been so effectively using get predictable, if their narrators become reliably unreliable, the power to mystify dissipates like the smoke from a fired gun.
Fortunately, the best of the women now writing in the genre have more on their minds than bamboozling credulous readers. Thanks perhaps to the current cultural emphasis on youth—on girls in particular—many of these writers have turned their attention to the mysteries of growing up. Frequently their books are as much about old crimes, imperfectly understood, that date from childhood or adolescence as they are about new ones. In Laura Lippman’s non-series novels, like What the Dead Know (2007) and the new Wilde Lake, she likes to shuttle between the present and the past; mysteries are solved, elegantly, but the dominant mood is elegiac.
Brenna Spector, the private-eye heroine of Alison Gaylin’s And She Was (2012), Into the Dark (2013), and Stay With Me (2014), has a rare condition called hyperthymesia, which renders her, like Borges’s Ireneo Funes, incapable of forgetting anything she’s seen, read, heard, smelled, or touched since the disappearance of her older sister, when Brenna was 11. Brenna is a living metaphor for the persistence of memory. Random recollections flicker through her brain as she tries to find missing persons in the present and track her vanished sister down the dark passages of time.
Burnt-out Cassandra Neary, the “last punk standing” who narrates Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss (2007), Available Dark (2012), and this year’s Hard Light, is a variation on that theme. As a photographer, she, too, is a sort of metaphor for the recovery of memories. Her way of apprehending the world is to fix images and look at them as closely as she can, to find what she didn’t see clearly enough while it was happening. She needs that kind of aide-mémoire, because both her present-day experiences and her natural memories tend to be blurred by drink and/or drugs. Despite her various impairments, Cass is perhaps the only entirely reliable narrator in women’s crime fiction today. Like the camera, she doesn’t lie (not to the reader, anyway). She is also, in her rootless middle age, a cautionary tale about the folly of hanging on to youth too long: She’s still on the run, a girl gone for good.
All of these women seem to know that feeling. In so many of the crime stories they’ve been writing, the sense of loss is overpowering. People die or go missing, of course, because that’s the genre, but it’s more than that. The crimes in novels like French’s The Secret Place and Abbott’s You Will Know Me and Marwood’s The Darkest Secret come to represent some larger absence, a hole in the coherence of the world. In Sunset City, a striking first novel by Melissa Ginsburg (another poet), the murder of a high-school friend sends the young heroine into a self-destructive spin. In emotional free fall, she says to herself, “There were no boundaries anywhere”—which could be the motto of all the lost girls in today’s crime fiction.
The title of Gaylin’s latest book, a mournful Hollywood mystery, is What Remains of Me. Its main character, who was convicted of murder at 17 and spent the next 25 years in prison, knows that not enough does. Devon, the teenage gymnast whose prowess is the focus of an entire suburban community in You Will Know Me, is herself a vacancy; there’s a murder in the novel, but she’s the real mystery. The sisters in The Darkest Secret, one a teenager and the other in her aimless 20s, suspect throughout that there are important things they’re not being told, and they’re right: They’re drowning in other people’s lies.
These are terribly sad books, about the confusions of youth and the nagging emptiness beyond, and what enables these novelists to address these subjects excitingly is the crime genre itself—a form that can turn inchoate disaffections into bodies, into dire acts to be investigated. For these writers, it’s as if girlhood were a cold case, tantalizingly unsolved.
Although the Chandler-style femme fatale appears to have been laid to rest, maybe she’s just been internalized by a generation of crime writers who use their wiles for the different(ish) purpose of literary seduction. Genre aficionados—inquisitive women and melancholy guys like me—fall for it every time. Of course, there’s another agenda, and it is (final twist) surprisingly like Chandler’s, at least as Auden defined it in his provocative late-1940s essay “The Guilty Vicarage”:
I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.
In the books I’ve been reading, the Great Wrong Place is sometimes suburbia, sometimes social media, sometimes high school, sometimes the marriage bed—everywhere something feels missing in contemporary life. The best of these novels are pure noir, velvety and pitiless. Writers like French and Abbott seem to have looked at the history of crime fiction the way Gloria Grahame looked at Humphrey Bogart in the 1950 film of In a Lonely Place: attracted but wary. They see the darkness in there, and in themselves. They’ve come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it. They know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.
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