The rise of unlikable women in psychological thrillers

The rise of unlikable women in psychological thrillers

The rise of unlikable women in psychological thrillers
August 01
17:06 2017

When Marvel’s Jessica Jones aired on Netflix in late 2015, the show was praised by critics and fans alike. It was a new kind of superhero entertainment, inspired by noir with a female protagonist who wasn’t cast for her sexual appeal.

One could even call Krysten Ritter’s character unlikeable, as she makes bad decisions, drinks too much and doesn’t set out to be a kind-hearted hero.

In her new book, Bonfire, Ritter’s main character – a lawyer intent on uncovering the secrets of a small town plastics company – fits the same mold. The book comes out in November, and will join a long line of psychological thrillers women and men alike are rushing out to buy since Gone Girl gripped everyone.

While the saturation of female writers in this genre is not new, it feels like it is. Since Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, publishing houses have revived in the rise of the “domestic noir.”

According to novelist Julia Crouch, this term describes a book that takes place mostly in the home, “concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.” Authors like Sophie Hannah and Paula Hawkins have gained fame in the genre, and the publishing trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

Domestic noir and female-driven psychological thrillers can be traced back to authors like Daphne du Maurier, of Rebecca fame, Patricia Highsmith, and PD James. Women have always been creating high-stakes crime novels with unlikable characters, and in our current wave of feminism they’re getting a new appreciation. Though many argue characters like Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne is far from feminist, it’s difficult to make black and white statements like this.

When I think of female superheroes, Wonder Woman is the first to come to mind, followed by General Leia Organa or even Nancy Drew. These characters, while complex and of obvious importance, are all incredibly likeable. They almost always do the right thing, and they’re easy to root for. Many women have seen themselves represented through these characters, but our current era of psychological thrillers is giving recognition to a different kind of woman. This woman holds all her power in her flaws and in the ways she defies what a stereotypically “good woman” should be. Though murderous Amy Dunne should not speak for her gender, she certainly earns a place in the strong female characters canon especially after her “cool girl” rant.

Sales of books like The Girl on the Train show how people identify with this sort of darkness. The Atlantic argues women are writing the best crime novels right now specifically because these authors don’t believe in heroes. They craft an “inside-out sort of violence” that focuses on emotions and makes motives unclear. Characters will kill for “no better reason than self-validation,” whereas in the old days of pulp noir à la Raymond Chandler, motives were much clearer.

Abby Williams, the protagonist in Krysten Ritter’s thriller, is ruled by her emotions. She blacks out multiple times throughout the novel, and her story is laced with cynicism and regret. She’s obsessed with a teenage girl from her past who led her town through a sort of Salem Witch Trial–another era in history where seemingly psychotic women held all the power.

Ritter is a talented writer. The book takes less than a day to finish, which may be why publications like The Guardian have nicknamed psychological thrillers “grip-lit” for the way they grip readers. Perhaps people are transfixed because we see ourselves in these women, in the tiny ways they cling for power and rebel against their situation. Though no one would really call them a hero, that’s fine. They don’t want to be.

Featured illustration by Samuel Wiggins

About Author

Amanda Dycus

Amanda Dycus

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2 Comments

  1. Red
    Red September 19, 10:43

    It is really ironic that such a genre has become so exciting when there have been as you said books even TV shows featuring the same thing. I have been writing a story and l have tried to get agents interested, but they rejected it. It is on domestic abuse, violence, now referred to as noir. I have been writing it since 2009. I hope now that agents and publishing seem to love such stories maybe mine will get a chance, thanks to persons like you.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Red
    Red September 19, 10:52

    I sent a previous post under nickname Red. I have had test readers who feel they can put themselves into the story. The story takes place in Manhattan. Lily Rose Midland meets the man she feels is her soulmate but finds he is more of a candidate for a straight jacket. Thanks to her friend Marilyn Snow and Mason McDaniel she is able to break free, but she will go through pain that will test her mind especially when she works with the mind. There are moments of anger, fear, sadness, and humour that take Lily Rose on her ” Journey to Peace” which is the name of the story.

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