Lady Killers

Long a genre dominated by men, thrillers are increasingly being written by – and about – women. Novelist Linda Davies reports on four such page-turners.

Many people become squeamish when women conjure evil, as if it might rub off on them. Yet more and more, women are writing thrillers that feature female protagonists: characters who inhabit worlds darkened by serial murder, sadomasochism, and child killing. These writers seek not just to convey violence, but to understand it, to enter the psyche of evil.

I remember my surprise at a review of my first book, Nest of Vipers, that described my heroine as a monster and likened the novel to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in its amorality. My heroine was driven by vengeful passion to take up where the judicial system failed, stepping out of the bedroom, the boardroom even, and onto the bloody streets. Would this have been more palatable in a male character, created by a male writer? An underlying morality justifies her actions, but her lack of conventionality, her readiness to use violence, makes her uncomfortable to some.

Women writing suspense novels is nothing new, of course – think P.D. James and Patricia Highsmith, to name just two – but many recent thrillers seem to speak more directly to a female readership. Women tend to empathise more easily with the evolving protagonists created by female authors, while men raised on more macho thrillers may find these characters strange and unsettling. Herewith, a look at four engaging new books: a sequel to one of last year‘s finest debuts and three works from first time novelists.

Carol O’Connell‘s The Man Who Cast Two Shadows, the follow up to her novel Mallory’s Oracle, once again features the formidable NYPD detective Kathy Mallory. In this beautifully written book, shot through with pain and longing, Mallory investigates the murder of a young woman in Central Park – chillingly the woman is a ringer for Mallory herself – and winds up uncovering police corruption. Mallory is a seductive character who can out-men the men, while still retaining an air of vulnerability. She is both mysterious and as real as a fist in the face, and O’Connell’s insights into her complex personality make this a book to savour.

Central to Laura Reese‘s Topping from Below is M., a sickly mesmerizing antihero who draws a woman into a sadomasochistic relationship. The woman, Franny, dies, bound and mutilated; yet no one is charged with the crime. Franny’s sister, Nora, resolves to prove M.’s guilt, and finds herself following in her sister’s footsteps along a path of sexual discovery. A sense of the characters’ decay lingers in the plot, which is sparked by a dangerous current of eroticism.

Sarah Lovett‘s compelling Dangerous Attachments reveals a world of predators and charred flesh, of ravaged minds and those who try to understand them. The main character, Sylvia Strange, is a strong, at times brittle, psychologist who works with inmates in New Mexico prisons. Among the numerous characters is a slick politician and his son, Lucas, who is in prison for murder and fears that his father is trying to have him killed. Lucas, who is reviewed by Strange, becomes so obsessed with her that he begins to stalk her, psychologically as well as physically. Though the terror comes from perhaps too many angles, Dangerous Attachments has a febrile, edgy quality, evoking at times an elemental fear.

In Liz Rigby’s richly evocative Total Eclipse, an astronomer falls in love with, and tries to defend, a beautiful widow who has been charged with a double murder. The novel, which features some memorable courtroom scenes, deals with themes of perception and distortion; it strongly suggests that in order to see clearly, women – and men – need to adapt, even change, their perspectives. And the conclusion is spectacular.

Rigby’s novel – like each of these books – contains plenty of action, but equally important is the hidden violence in the brain, the traumas that make these characters dangerous, unpredictable, vulnerable. These authors’ fresh approaches heighten the suspense and draw you in as you identify and empathise with the characters. Women move easily in the world of feelings, and they are turning it to their advantage in fiction.

Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar, July 1995

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