Girls, Girls, Girls!
Ever since neon was invented, those words have flashed over sleazy bars and strip joints. These days, however, they aren’t just a leering come-on; they’re a booming category of suspense fiction. Let’s call it the “Gone-Girl-on-a-Train” school of high-anxiety thriller.
Sure, girls have been present in mysteries ever since that “girl detective” Nancy Drew drove her blue roadster into the genre in 1930. By the time Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was published in English, in 2008, girls had begun elbowing their way en masse into thriller titles. Since the wild success of “Gone Girl ” and “The Girl on the Train,” girls — or women referred to as girls — are popping up everywhere in suspense stories, and there’s no end in sight.
Just this month, we have “The Girl Before” (Ballantine), “Everything You Want Me to Be” (Emily Bestler/Atria) and “Her Every Fear” (Morrow) — novels that spin off the model made so popular by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins: female protagonists whose one defining characteristic is a clinically defined psychological malady.
Whether victims, villains and/or amateur detectives, these “girls” are explicitly identified as suffering from anxiety disorders or displaying OCD behavior; they are struggling with alcoholism or dependent on mood-regulating prescription drugs. Occasionally, a fantasist even slips into a story.
Are millennial jitters responsible for the flourishing “Gone-Girl-on-a-Train” variant of thriller? The infiltration of therapeutic terms into everyday conversation? What about that old reliable culprit, “feminist backlash”?
Whatever the reason, this emphasis on character development through therapeutic labeling has crucial consequences for the thriller narrative. First, the world — always a scary, unstable place in suspense fiction — is made more so with female characters who wrestle with disorders that throw into question the reliability of their storytelling. Second, these girls tend to be more fragile than the preceding generation of “grrls” in suspense fiction who were shaped by the fiercer ethos of third-wave feminism. (Lisbeth Salander roars to mind.)
Today’s girls are neither “tough girls,” like that moto-jacketed Salander; nor femmes fatales, like the vixens who dominated noir fiction and films; nor “good girls” like Nancy and her prim posse, Bess and George. Rather, they are something of a throwback to the trembling unnamed narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” or the high-strung heroine played by Doris Day in “Midnight Lace ,” forever fainting or swallowing martinis in response to threatening phone calls.
Consider Kate Priddy, the girl in “Her Every Fear,” by Peter Swanson. The Londoner suffers from debilitating panic attacks, which she erratically controls with prescription drugs and breathing exercises. When she was a college student, Kate’s former boyfriend stalked and terrorized her, ultimately locking her in a closet before he fatally shot himself on the other side of the door. Fast-forward to the present: Kate’s American cousin, Corbin Dell, is posted to London for work. He arranges to move into Kate’s flat while she impetuously agrees to move into his cavernous apartment in Boston. Just like those Gothic castles of old, Kate’s new digs contain hidden cubbyholes and dark passageways. On the very first morning in the apartment, Kate learns that her next-door neighbor, another young woman, has been murdered. A male resident with a penchant for peeping on his neighbors (a la Rachel Watson in “Girl on a Train”) is a strong suspect, but, despite the narration’s forays into the mind of the killer, most readers won’t anticipate the Hitchcockian twists and turns of this standout (if grisly) suspense tale.
In “Everything You Want Me To Be,” by Mindy Mejia, teenager Hattie Hoffman is our clinically unstable girl. She once had her sights set on Broadway. But Hattie won’t be making her debut anytime soon, given that this novel opens with an eerie tableau of her corpse lying in a dilapidated barn. (That barn leads us to another common characteristic of the “Gone-Girl-on-a-Train” books: These girls are always drawn to inherently creepy structures like claustrophobic closets and basement storage facilities, free-floating stairways and flimsy balconies of the kind that played a key role in last year’s bestseller “The Woman in Cabin 10.”) Mejia takes us back to the time when Hattie began a relationship with Peter, a teacher whose marriage is crumbling. Like Nick and Amy of “Gone Girl,” Peter and his wife, Elsa, begin to falter as a couple when they relocate from city to country. And as in that novel, this eerie thriller tells us, “Midwestern nice” often masks “Midwestern vice.”
In “The Girl Before,” by JP Delaney, the story line hops back and forth between two women at two different times who make the bad decision to lease an “austere” one-bedroom house in London designed by enigmatic “techno minimalist” architect Edward Monkford. Present-day prospective tenant Jane — our mentally unstable “girl” — has suffered a stillbirth and jumps at the chance to live in a spare house without memories. (Female bodies in the “Gone-Girl-on-a-Train” genre make manifest the frightening unpredictability of life. Unplanned pregnancies, miscarriages, stillbirths, infertility and false pregnancies are rife in this genre.) As part of her lease application, Jane must answer a questionnaire that the controlling Monkford has devised. But when she successfully moves into this dazzling “smart house,” where even her heart rate is monitored by sensors, Jane becomes haunted by stories of a former tenant named Emma, who fell to her death from a central free-standing stone stairwell. Already optioned for a film by Ron Howard, “The Girl Before” is deservedly the anointed “top girl” of this season’s suspense novels.
And yet its ending leads us to a final observation about these “Gone-Girl-on-a-Train” stories: Their narrative journeys are almost always more satisfying than their final destinations. Because these novels, even more than most suspense tales, are so plot-driven — distinguished by baroque story lines that intensify the general paranoid atmosphere — their endings tend to collapse in damp exhaustion. The girls have been manipulated — and so have we.
Granted, it’s all retro fun to follow along as these frightened (and sometimes frightening) girls swoon, hyperventilate and/or pathologically lie their way through these adventures, but when an old dame like Jessica Fletcher displays more sang-froid in confronting the psychopaths of Cabot Cove than most of these girls do in routinely opening their refrigerators, perhaps it’s time for less malady and more moxie in female suspense fiction.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program, Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Michael Dirda is on vacation.
By Mindy Mejia
Atria/Emily Bestler. 340 pp. $26
By Peter Swanson
William Morrow. 333 pp. $26.99
By J.P. Delaney
Ballantine. 336 pp. $27