STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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, "Gone Girl," by Gillian Flynn, and "The Girl On The Train" by Paula Hawkins. So let's explore why those two are so influential. The crime novelist Megan Abbott posed that question in the Guardian. She joins us along with Sarah Weinman of the newsletter Publishers Lunch. Welcome to you both.
MEGAN ABBOTT: Thanks for having us.
INSKEEP: You know, I should mention that we get lots of books here at MORNING EDITION. And one recently was promoted by this language. This is kind of awesome. In the vein of blockbuster thrillers such as "The Girl On The Train" and "The Good Girl," William Morrow is proud to present, "Girl In The Dark." Now, I'm sure this is a great book. But wow, we're kind of pounding on the same theme here I think.
ABBOTT: Yes, it is. I mean, 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.
ABBOTT: So I think - I think in part, as you say, it is a branding issue. It's not necessarily about the content of the book itself. But there's this sort of, like, shorthand that if it has girl in the title, then I know what to expect. But I think that there's really something at the root of the popularity of both Flynn and Hawkins' book that is far more important than branding or marketing. And I think it's the universal themes that you see in those books that speak to especially female readers.
INSKEEP: Is that what got you writing about this, Megan Abbott?
ABBOTT: It did. You know, I grew up reading crime fiction, mysteries, true crime, a lot of true crime. And, you know, it is traditionally somewhat 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 for these stories. And I know I feel it. You know, since I was quite small I wanted to go to those dark places.
INSKEEP: Sarah Weinman, did you when you were growing up?
SARAH WEINMAN: Oh, I certainly did. I was a voracious true crime reader. I followed trials. I read the newspapers. And I also wanted to circle back a little bit because you did open this segment with "Girl In The Dark" by Marion Pauw, which I have happened to have read. And it's a really excellent novel. In a way, calling it "Girl In The Dark" doesn't really tell you what it's all about because it's partly about wrongful conviction. It's partly about a young lawyer who's juggling motherhood. The girl insignia, sometimes it can be a disservice. And perhaps it's a notion that suspense by women is part of a much broader field. And of course, it's been happening for decades. This is not a new phenomenon.
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, and we're going to talk about that. Thanks for reminding us also, these books are not necessarily bad books. They may be great books. But it's just...
INSKEEP: ...An amusing trend. So when we get behind the superficialities, are there things that you see that different books that are crime fiction by women have in common that you think say something universal?
ABBOTT: I do. And I think "Gone Girl" and " The 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 quote - I'm quoting here, "women's magazine fodder." But it's actually, you know, very real to readers.
WEINMAN: Both of those books, what they have in common and what I think a lot of these other books that have climbed upon the girl train, so to speak.
WEINMAN: Is that...
INSKEEP: I think we've coined a phrase here. This is great.
INSKEEP: Go on.
WEINMAN: ...Apparently so. But to come back to that, people are gravitating towards these unreliable narrators. I know that when I read "Gone Girl," it was 2012. We were only a few years removed from the great 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. And the same thing with "The Girl On The Train," where the main narrator - we can't trust her because she's an alcoholic. She has potentially some mental instability. And the fact that Hawkins could carry that forward with a tremendous sense of pacing I think is why it has reached so many readers. And to the best of my knowledge, it's sold upwards of about 4 million copies in the U.S. alone. I mean, this is a huge phenomenon.
INSKEEP: This is what you mean by unreliable narrator. I guess we should define it. That means the narrator may be lying to you or not know really even know the story very well or not tell it well.
ABBOTT: Right, you know, I think it's considered a gimmick often. And people are very dismissive of it as a literary technique. But I think actually, it's more reflective of how we experience the world. We're all unreliable narrators of our own lives. You know, our memories are self-serving or concerned with protecting ourselves. And I think these novels speak to that more than that kind of trick or a twist.
INSKEEP: Have you both continued loving this kind of fiction in the way that you did when you were younger?
ABBOTT: Yes. I mean, I certainly have a more gimlet eye about the world of publishing - once one's been in it a while. But the books themselves, you know, it feels like a really exciting moment in the genre. Just to be able to have these sort of heroines that might be considered too unlikable, difficult, to just have them embraced. It's sort of like when you like that cool band. And the band goes big, and you can decide whether to think, oh, I don't like that cool band anymore. Or you can decide to think that this is great, that more people are loving my band (laughter).
WEINMAN: So like Megan, I also have something of a gimlet eye. But it's a little bit different because I've spent so much time in the mid-century having just recently come off promotion for a two-volume set of crime novels by women from the '40s and '50s.
INSKEEP: I have been reading some of it, and it's really fascinating. And it invites some of these parallels.
WEINMAN: Absolutely. So looking back at a novel like "Laura" by Vera Caspary that was published more than 70 years ago and to have a woman like Laura Hunt, who is so completely in charge of herself, she's a career woman. She doesn't suffer fools. She...
ABBOTT: She likes men (laughter).
WEINMAN: ...Very much so. But at the same time, that all makes her dangerous. And that's why it's so fascinating, not just in terms of how Vera Caspary structured the story but the things she was trying to say about professional women, about how they're treated by men. These are issues that are still so relevant now and, if anything, seem even more so now.
INSKEEP: OK. So I have one more question here - very important. Should Megan Abbott's next novel include the word girl in the title?
WEINMAN: I don't think it does.
INSKEEP: "You Will Know Me," is the title.
ABBOTT: (Laughter) Yes, that's right.
INSKEEP: Is it too late to change it?
ABBOTT: Well, let's see if I can get my publisher on the phone right now.
ABBOTT: "You Will Know Me, Girl."
INSKEEP: We've done it. We've done it. So we were talking to Megan Abbott and also Sarah Weinman. She is the editor of "Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels Of The 1940S And '50S." Thanks very much to both of you.
ABBOTT: Oh, thank you. This was so much fun.
WEINMAN: Thank you so much, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.