Here's a trend in new books: Publishers commonly promote them by comparing them to other books — and when the books are crime fiction or thrillers, and written by women, they get compared to the same books again and again and again. Those books would be Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. So let's explore why those two are so influential.
Crime novelist Megan Abbott and Sarah Weinman of the newsletter Publisher's Lunch stopped by to discuss the phenomenon with NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the word girl in their title," says Abbott. "It's not necessarily an issue with the content of the book itself, but there's this sort of shorthand that if it has 'girl' in the title, then I know what to expect."
That calculus seems to be at work with a book that arrived recently at NPR's offices: Girl in the Dark, by Marion Pauw, described by its publisher as "in the vein of blockbuster thrillers such as The Girl on the Train and The Good Girl," by Mary Kubica.
"I think there's really something at the root of the popularity of Flynn's and Hawkins' books that is far more important than branding or marketing," Abbott says, "and I think it's the universal themes that you see in these books that speak to female readers."
On what they read growing up
Abbott: I grew up reading crime fiction mysteries, true crime — a lot of true crime — and it is traditionally a male dominated field from the outside, but from the inside what we know, those of us who read it, is that women buy the most crime fiction, they are by far the biggest readers of true crime, and there's a voracious appetite among women for these stories, and I know I feel it — since I was quite small I wanted to go to those dark places.
Weinman: I was a voracious true crime reader, I followed trials, I read the newspapers. And I also wanted to circle back a bit because you opened the segment with Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw, which I have happened to have read, and it's a really excellent novel. Marion Pauw is from the Netherlands, and that book, which was published there several years ago as Daglicht, was a huge best-seller and in a way calling it Girl in the Dark doesn't tell you what it's all about because it's partly about wrongful conviction, it's partly about juggling motherhood. So in a way, the girl insignia is trying to tie it into this larger marketing purpose, but sometimes it can be a disservice. Perhaps it's a notion that suspense by women is part of a broader field and of course it's been happening for decades ... this is not a new phenomenon.
Abbott: I think Gone Girl and Girl on the Train are great because they're not that similar books at all, but they're both dealing with the sort of perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling apart, of ambivalence with motherhood, the complexities of relationships among women — all this stuff that in some ways isn't taken very seriously by the culture at large, is considered — and I'm quoting here — "women's magazine fodder," but it's actually very real to readers.
Weinman: Just to chime in as well, both of those books, what they have in common, what I think a lot of these other books that have climbed upon the "girl train" so to speak is ... people are gravitating toward these unreliable narrators. I know that when I read Gone Girl it was 2012, we were only a few years removed from the economic crash of 2008, a lot of people felt their lives were completely upended, they didn't know who to trust, and so a book like Gone Girl, which gets at the heart of a marriage that seems to be stable but is anything but, I really think that did speak to people.
On whether they still love the kind of crime writing they grew up with
Abbott: Yes, I mean, I certainly have a more gimlet eye about the world of publishing ... but the books themselves — it feels like a really exciting moment in the genre just to be able to have these heroines who might be considered too unlikable, just to have them embraced just feels kind of thrilling.
We asked Abbott and Weinman to recommend some good thrillers by women — either out now or coming soon — and here are their picks: