Shady Women Doing Shady Things

gray house with fireplace surrounded by grass under white and gray cloudy sky
Photo by Sebastian Soerensen on Pexels.com

Following the popularity of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a new genre has emerged which I like to think of as Shady Women Doing Shady Things. It seems that every time I head to a bookstore (increasingly rarely as there are so few left) or wander through my local big box store’s book aisle there’s a new book being blurbed as the latest Gone Girl.

What are some of the traits needed to label something as the newest Gone Girl?

  • How fast can you turn the pages? Hopefully fairly quickly because I would argue that’s the primary factor needed to GoneGirl-ify something. The story needs to barrel onward and keep the reader interested, preferably to the point that you don’t want to put down the book.
  • As per many mysteries/thrillers, readers crave sinister characters (ideally both men and women but just one or the other will suffice).
  • Many thrillers of this genre use the tired stereotype of the “desperate single woman” (sigh . . . and deep breath everyone). Here’s where things can start to feel a little bit . . . icky. Why does the single woman have to be on the receiving end of violence so often? What does it say about readers that we often enjoy these kinds of stories, collectively buying millions of copies and happily watching movie and TV adaptations galore? Why is the single woman in these stories so often consumed (to the point of obsession) with finding a partner? Or fixated on a past partner? Don’t despair just yet, though, because he stronger writers in the Shady Women genre use these pitfalls to potentially subvert them in new (and hopefully surprising) ways.
  • Perhaps most disturbingly, the Shady Women genre requires a woman placed in close proximity to peril (often with the killer/sinister character). On the one hand, I completely understand this trait. Part of crime fiction generally is experiencing danger vicariously through the fictional world. On the other hand, taken too far this interest in seeing women endangered can become . . . yucky, for lack of a better word. For me, the distinction lies in the skill of the writer and the tone he or she takes in depicting any crimes or encounters with sinister characters (much like the handling of the desperate single woman trope). There’s a difference between wallowing in the mental or physical torture of a female character with no greater purpose and depicting violence without losing its brutality or the consequences it brings to the victim and perpetrator.
  • The most successful examples of this genre add in at least one unreliable narrator to keep the reader questioning whether what she’s reading is accurate or not. The unreliability can come from memory loss, blackouts due to drinking, etc. (see The Girl on the Train), or just plain withholding information from the reader. Unlike Golden Age detective fiction which typically lays out all the information for the reader and allows you to follow the deductions of a Poirot, for example, the Shady Women genre typically makes it much harder to fully solve the mystery ahead of the book itself, enhancing the need to keep flipping those pages and, if done well, making the narrative resolution that much more satisfying when finally revealed.
  • Finally, chilling set pieces are a vital ingredient to create the eerie atmosphere of this genre. One of the things I most enjoyed when I read Gone Girl was the various locations where Flynn staged the action. Most frightening to me was an abandoned mall where people were running a black market. (Having read two of Ruth Ware’s novels, I can tell you that she excels at this as well. Her bachelorette party thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood features a glass house set in the middle of a forest where the occupants are on display to any and all passersby. Her most recent release, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, features a British estate that fans of Golden Age detective fiction will practically weep over.)

I love nothing more than a good mystery/thriller so I checked out two recent releases to see where the Shady Women genre currently stands.

Not That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser

Set in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Strawser’s novel is a fairly close relative of the Gone Girl tradition. Much like Gone Girl, Strawser initially uses gender stereotypes, in this case particularly  those surrounding mothers, to help color readers’ perceptions of her characters. The morning after a group of women socialize around a backyard fire pit, one of them goes missing along with her two children. While Gillian Flynn seems interested in the individual psychological pathologies of her characters, Strawser uses the mystery of the disappearance to explore domestic abuse, how it might appear to someone outside the abusive relationship, and the ethical responsibilities of someone who suspects domestic abuse. Strawser also plays with the trope of the desperate single woman (also used by Ware for In a Dark, Dark Wood). In the hands of a less thoughtful, less skilled writer, using these stereotypes could be insulting to readers. Luckily, Strawser’s characters are imbued with specificity and motivated by their emotions in a way that feels purposeful for the character and not a mechanized plot device. Initially, I felt Strawser’s characterization of the “desperate single woman” was superficial but it improved throughout the novel’s second half. Strawser’s writing style is rarely lyrical and does not strive towards much more than conveying the ideas and dialogue necessary to the story. However, in a thriller such as Not That I Could Tell her approach gets the job done and maintains the reader’s focus on the novel’s central disappearance. Although I was not particularly surprised by the resolution to the central mystery, I enjoyed the red herrings along the way and was genuinely alarmed by the confrontation with the novel’s baddie.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware’s latest novel combines certain elements of the Gone Girl-style thriller with the characterization and logical puzzle of an Agatha Christie mystery, bridging multiple traditions. Harriet Westaway, an orphaned fortune teller working on the Brighton pier, receives a letter informing her that her grandmother Westaway has died, leaving her a bequest, and inviting her to Trepassen, her grandmother’s estate in Cornwall. Confident that her real grandmother died long ago, Hal initially dismisses this letter until a series of increasingly dangerous threats from a loan shark convince her to try and collect the fraudulent inheritance. I enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway so much that I immediately requested Ruth Ware’s other novels from the library. The last 200 pages or so were riveting to the point that I read them on the treadmill (or death machine as I fondly think of it). I truly could not put the book down until I had learned the mystery’s resolution. Unlike the unreliable narrators of so much of the Shady Women genre, here Ware plays fair with the reader by giving them all the pieces of the puzzle that the protagonist has at any given moment (and they actually do all fit together in the end). However, Ware also uses past diary entries interspersed with in the present-day action to give the flavor of the unreliable narration so common in Shady Women thrillers. Despite the seemingly cozy setting of a large estate in Cornwall, Trepassen is more dilapidated than charming and a Mrs. Danvers-esque character helps manifest the unsettling atmosphere Ware amplifies throughout the novel’s second half. Ware is a mystery writer to watch for the future as she uses the best of the Golden Age tradition mixed with contemporary trends that make her work exciting but also a (scary) pleasure to read!

Wait for a rainy day or, better yet, a dark and stormy night and then crack the spine on these thrillers.

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