Women read crime novels twice as much as men — but are we really hardwired to love thrillers? Rowena Walsh examines the genre we can’t get enough of.
They set our pulses racing, get our adrenaline flowing and allow us to play detective. No matter how heinous a crime has been committed, justice is served. It’s hardly surprising that the lure of the thriller has been irresistible. We love them on the big screen, the small screen and, most especially, on our bookshelves.
The phenomenal success of Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins and their subsequent movie adaptations has enticed millions of us to this genre.
As we enter the busiest time of the year for holidays, it seems that most female readers will be packing a thriller in their suitcase, one probably penned by a woman. A recent UK study found that more than twice as many women read crime novels, compared with men, while Maria Dickenson, MD of Dubray Books, says the crime genre was worth €9 million in the Irish market in 2017. “Already it’s up 11pc year to date this year, and is outperforming the rest of the trade,” she says. She believes that domestic noir – a genre in which female writers excel – really appeals to women. Books set in the domestic realm such as ‘Gone Girl’, ‘The Girl on the Train’ or AJ Finn’s best-selling ‘The Woman in the Window’ have relationships at their heart, and while there is always a big crime at the centre of them, it’s this emotional content that is striking a chord with female readers.
Irish author Karen Perry, whose critically acclaimed fifth novel ‘Your Closest Friend’ has just been published, says that this trend has made thrillers less about heroism and taken them into a more psychological space. “This area of the genre has refocussed on people’s ‘normal’ lives in the home and the workspace as an arena for risk and danger, and I think women are excited by that,” she says. “They’re interested in exploring how ‘ordinary’ people respond to extraordinary circumstances. “Women are also interested in the female character as a protagonist, an agent of change within the story, rather than just as the beautiful corpse whose death is being investigated.” Male authors tend to have a lone wolf at the heart of their books, usually one named Jack, who happens to have a shadowy backstory and has fortuitously arrived in a small town just as a crime has been committed. Female authors, in contrast, usually offer a more complicated set-up – a woman who exists within a web of connections – and that is appealing to their readers.
These are empowering reads for women, says Dubray’s Maria Dickenson, who points out that while there can be a lot of violence against women in thrillers, if the crime is solved by a strong female protagnast, that works as a counterbalance. Karen Perry believes that “women are drawn to thrillers because essentially a thriller is a puzzle, a messy knot of hidden clues and deceits that needs to be unpicked to get to the truth, and I think that women inherently like making sense of puzzles, they like solving problems.” We revel in details, says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley. She says that women are more interested in minutiae, while men are focussed on broad strokes. So a woman will go ‘aha, I knew he didn’t close the window’. The stakes are usually very high in a thriller so that immediately draws the reader into the story.
“The reason I read – in its simplest form – is to find out what happens next,” says author Melissa Albert, whose debut Young Adult novel ‘The Hazel Wood’ has been described as mixture of horror and fairy tale. “I love beautiful writing, but what I really love is the thrill of the story and with a thriller, it’s like – everything else aside - you have to find out what happens next.” It’s this addictive, page-turning quality that make thrillers so enticing. Who hasn’t stayed up late too engrossed in a story, dying to find out the next twist and guessing where the author will take us next?
The thriller isn’t just alluring to adults, young readers are devouring them too. Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel “All These Beautiful Strangers” has been published in this country as Young Adult fiction but is directed at an adult audience in the US. She feels that the lure of thrillers for younger readers is similar to what attracts adults – the page-turner quality, the suspense, the high stakes.
Younger and older readers want to find out what’s going to happen before the character does. As a thriller reader, you’re very connected to what’s going on and invested in what’s going to happen, and there’s a slow doling out of information that creates the suspense, says Elizabeth, whose novel has been optioned by producer Bruna Papandrea. Bruna’s literary-to-film projects include the incredibly successful ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Big Little Lies’.
Tensions run high in thrillers and perhaps women are so attracted to them because they allow us to have a ‘safe’ adrenaline high. Stella O’Malley agrees, but is quick to point out that the violence has become a much more sellable story in the last 30 years. “Violence has become more normalised. Freak incidents, before the ‘90s wouldn’t have penetrated our minds so much, and therefore what we’re reading is reflective of what we’re viewing in society,” she says. “But, globally, violent crime is statistically down, we’re less likely to die today of a violent crime than ever before in history.” She says that our human instinct wants to make sense of tragedies, such as the recent Greek wildfires, and that’s what’s drawing us to read thrillers. “Because we believe they’re likely to happen, we want to read about it to figure out how we’d escape from it.
“Another aspect is that we all have a shadow side, and it lets our shadow, darker side free,” she says. “In a way, thrillers give freedom to explore the darker side of humanity, which is the darker side of ourselves.” Melissa Albert, whose day job is that of editor of the teen blog for the US book retailer Barnes & Noble, says that as a reader and a writer, she wants to live in a very calm manner so that she can cut loose in her writing and really explore the dark and the strange in what she writes and reads. “I would say that’s most people would like to have their id expressed vicariously so that it doesn’t destroy their actual personality.” By exploring the darker side, we might come to understand it better, says Karen Perry, whose books are being adapted for both TV and cinema. “There’s a long history of human beings using stories to better understand and explain the world around them.” From a young age, girls are taught to be aware of their surroundings. We learn about the potential dangers that lurk in the dark corners of our world, so the setting within a thriller can be a safe place to explore our anxieties and fears.
Melissa has had arguments with male friends about why she mightn’t feel comfortable calling out a man’s bad behaviour, but “when you read a thriller, a woman can actually say the things she wants to fling in someone else’s face”.
Although statistics show that the rates of violent crime are dropping globally, we are living through uncertain times, and Maria Dickenson says that crime tends have its heyday during times of political turbulence, citing the popularity of Dorothy L Sayers’ novels in the years leading to the Second World War.
While terrible things might happen in a thriller, at the end, the bad guy or girl is caught, the questions are answered and order is restored. It’s cathartic for the reader. We don’t really get that in the real world, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the escapism offered by thrillers is irresistible to readers – male and female.
Karen Perry: Whenever I read a thriller, I am always trying to guess the outcome or the twist as I read. Erin Kelly’s ‘He Said/She Said’ completely blindsided me in that regard. With a tense, complex, gripping plot that is full of misdirection and intrigue, it kept me guessing right until the end.
Melissa Albert: ‘Allegedly’ by Tiffany D Jackson is utterly pitch dark. It’s like a vortex, you get sucked in. People use it as a euphuism, but I genuinely missed my train stop while engrossed in it. You leave it feeling as if there’s a stain on your skin.
Elizabeth Klehfoth: I love ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ by Jessica Knoll — it’s got a dark complicated heroine who you can still root for even though she’s got some hard edges and she doesn’t come across as immediately likeable.
Maria Dickenson: There’s such a chilling image from the start of Tana French’s novel ‘In The Woods’ of a little boy finding a shoe filled with blood. I heard about it and just had to read it.