TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For some people, like our book critic Maureen Corrigan, summer and suspense go together like "Arsenic And Old Lace." Here's her review of two new suspense novels with a twist.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: To kick off this summer reading season, I'm recommending two suspense novels that gleefully overturn the age-old woman in trouble plot. Megan Abbott is a superstar of the suspense genre who's generated a host of bestsellers like "The Turnout" and "Dare Me," which was made into a series for Netflix. But what Abbott's fans may not know is that she holds a PhD in literature and wrote a dissertation on the figure of the macho tough guy in the mysteries of writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Chester Himes. In other words, Abbott is one smart dame when it comes to sussing out the sexism inherent in those mysteries that so many of us love. Her latest novel is called "Beware The Woman," and it's inspired not so much by hardboiled mysteries, but by another hallowed suspense genre, the gothic, which almost always features a woman running in terror through the halls of a maze-like mansion. As this novel's title suggests, maybe it's the men here who should start running.
At the outset of "Beware The Woman," our narrator, a 30-something pregnant woman named Jacy, is driving with her new husband Jed deep into the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They're going to visit Jed's widowed father, a retired physician named Dr. Ash, whom Jacy has only met once fleetingly. In fact, Jacy married Jed only a few months after they first met. But she's so in love, she feels she's known him forever. Honey, we all marry strangers, Jacy's mom wearily told her on the day of the wedding. In this case, Mother really does know best. The family cottage, as Jed had called it, turns out to be much grander, like a hunting lodge in an old movie. And inside, in addition to Dr. Ash, the lodge is occupied by a caretaker, the chilly Mrs. Brandt, who, halfway into the novel, tersely mutters to Jacy, maybe you should go home.
Too late. By then, Jacy is having problems with her pregnancy, and the bed rest Dr. Ash and his physician friend have prescribed is beginning to feel like house arrest. If you detected strains of Daphne du Maurier's Gothic masterpiece "Rebecca" in that plot summary, you'd be half right. "Beware The Woman" is "Rebecca" wedded to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." Along with the feverish psychological twists and turns that Abbott's novels are celebrated for, "Beware The Woman" explores the timely topic of women's autonomy over their own bodies, especially during pregnancy.
Katie Williams also riffs on some hallowed traditions in her ingenious debut suspense novel called "My Murder." I'm thinking here of noir films like "Sunset Boulevard" and "D.O.A.," whose voiceovers are narrated by dead men talking. In the very first sentence of Williams' novel, a young wife and mother named Lou tells us, I was supposed to be getting dressed for the party, the first since my murder.
It's hard to move on from that arresting first sentence, but eventually we readers learn that Lou, along with some other women identified as victims of the same serial killer, have been brought back to life by a government-funded replication commission that grew them from the cells of their murdered originals. Williams is adept at swirling sci-fi and domestic suspense plot lines into this unpredictable tale. For instance, one night, Lou's husband, Silas, arrives home to tell her one of his workmates has alerted him to a new virtual reality game. It's a game of you, Silas said woodenly. Of your murder, Lou. He put his hands to his face. I'm so sorry. Someone made a game out of your murder.
Indeed, the game allows players to step into the role of Lou or any one of the other murdered women and navigate the landscape of city streets and parks where their bodies were found while trying to evade the serial killer. The point of the game, Lou quickly understands, is to instill fear in women, a fear she has to combat when she begins investigating inconsistencies in her own murder case.
Instilling fear in women is also the consequence, intended or not, of so much violent content in popular culture, including suspense fiction. Both Abbott and Williams push back against the misogyny of the genre and do some cloning and regenerating of their own in these two eerie and inventive suspense novels.
MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Beware The Woman" by Megan Abbott and "My Murder" by Katie Williams.
On the next FRESH AIR - gun control activist David Hogg. Hogg became a prominent gun reform activist after surviving the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 of his classmates and injured 17 others. We talk with him about his work, the mental health challenges that come with experiencing gun violence and his efforts to change public perception about guns. I hope you can join us.
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MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Therese Madden. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.
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