April 2011

Pretty Tough

Originally victims and femme fatales, the female leads in today’s mystery fiction are now as damaged and complex as their male counterparts by MEGAN ABBOTT

“I was never a good little girl,” the narrator of Gillian Flynn’s crime novel Dark Places tells us. “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ...Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.”

The survivor of her family’s massacre at age 7, she is now 32, desperate for cash and angry at the world. And she is our heroine, the amateur detective who will solve the mystery at the heart of the book.

Traditional mysteries, as well as forensic and legal thrillers, are sometimes seen as the straight man to the edgier cousin that is darker crime fiction. Yet the former seem more comfortable presenting female characters—Kinsey Millhone, Clarice Starling, Kay Scarpetta—that move beyond the classic types: spunky Gal Friday, neglected wife, taloned temptress.

Grittier crime fiction, with its marbled tradition of lone male protagonists, sexual anxiety and a black-and-white worldview, has always lagged behind, as if unable to reckon with a female protagonist who is as heroic—and as damaged—as the hard-boiled detective, the wizened cop, the contract killer with a heart of gold. But the landscape may be changing.

Consider women in the pitch-black, tremendously popular mysteries by Tana French and other writers abroad, such as Sophie Hannah in England, Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina in Scotland and Natsuo Kirino in Japan. Consider, even, the ravaged heroine of Black Swan’s gothic noir. These tales present women as feral outliers, tortured cops, friendless teenagers, conflicted mothers, black-mailing factory workers—twisting under their skin, doing bad things and, often, saving everybody. In other words, the dark heroine is having her moment.

As novelist Gillian Flynn says, “As a child of the ’80s, I grew up watching way too many women-in-jeopardy stories. But the ending was always incredibly tidy: The woman overcomes, escapes, maybe gets married...and there’s a sunset and unicorns. But I remember even as a kid thinking: Really—that’s it? Because darkness doesn’t just go away.”

As with all “zeitgeist” claims, we can quickly find evidence of a more incremental history on both page and screen. Prime Suspect leaps to mind, but the fact that it’s getting the Hollywood treatment almost 20 years after its British telly debut, seems significant. And perhaps for the first time, we have a crime heroine of iconic status. When we see a dashing man in a tuxedo, gun in hand, we think Bond. When we see a trench-coated loner on the mean streets, we think Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade. Now, when we see a punky, tattooed gamine, face glowing from her computer screen, we think, or even sigh, Lisbeth.

Investigative genius and no-holds-barred vengeance seeker, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s tortured Lisbeth Salander seems to provide a most conspicuous example. But is she the woman we’ve been waiting for or just another comic-book fantasy? In many ways, sleek and laconic Lisbeth feels closer in spirit to La Femme Nikita or a more literary variation on the action heroines Angelina Jolie plays.

“I am that rare person who just can’t get on the Dragon Tattoo love train,” admits bestselling crime novelist and current Los Angeles Times Book Award nominee Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan mystery series. “She is a man’s idea of an interesting woman. And a slightly weird man at that.”

“The whole relationship between the female protagonist and the mystery is transforming,” French says. “We’re seeing more of the female who’s not just the investigator of a mystery...but the heart of it, the thing that’s at stake.”

The fact that Lisbeth is a victim of multiple sexual assaults is presented as a driver of her rage, but it also has the sneaking effect of “softening” her. It is hard to imagine one of Clint Eastwood’s or Charles Bronson’s heroes being driven by their own victimhood—typically, it’s their wives or daughters who were raped. And then there is Lisbeth’s gamine quality. Although 24, with an accomplished job, Lisbeth is the titular girl rather than the woman (although Men Who Hate Women was Stieg Larsson’s original Swedish title).

Still, it’s hard not to be excited by the icon status accorded a damaged and complex female protagonist who moves the action rather than merely inspires or abets it—no sidekicks, no solitary investigators. Bestselling novelist Tana French (also a 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Award nominee), who burst onto the scene in 2007 with a breakout first novel, In the Woods, refers to this woman as the “immersed” heroine.

“The whole relationship between the female protagonist and the mystery is transforming,” she says. “We’re seeing more of the female who’s not just the investigator of a mystery, in the way of classic detectives like Miss Marple or even Kay Scarpetta, but the heart of it, the thing that’s at stake.”

The tradition of a protagonist becoming “infected” by the crime—the detective who identifies too closely with the killer, the cop who crosses the line—is a long one. This dynamic, however, seems different. Rather than being contaminated by the ragged suspects, criminals and witnesses they come across, these women frequently identify closely with them. The mystery doesn’t draw them in so much as emerge from within them. We see this in Flynn’s Dark Places.

When the narrator locates the woman whose false accusation sparked her family’s murder, instead of taking revenge, she drinks with her, listens to her boozy confessions, makes her a sandwich, even lets her crash on her couch (though she doesn’t forgive). “Many writers now are taking the cliché—that women are naturally, organically empathetic—and giving it a nice twist,” says Flynn. “The women in these books identify with outsiders, misfits, criminals not because of their gender but because they are outsiders, misfits, criminals.”

And that highlights another striking difference between the new dark heroines and their more traditional male counterparts. These women may be outsiders, but they are rarely alone. “If you look at the recent crop of breakout writers,” Lippman notes, “they write strong female characters, but they also have very strong male characters.” These stories are not limited to a lone hero—a figure that dominated crime fiction for decades—but a man and woman working in concert. Likewise, the investigative and erotic energy crackling between Lisbeth and Mikael, after all, give Dragon Tattoo its greatest charge.

Ultimately, Lisbeth may just be the brightest—and best marketed—star in an increasingly dark sky. Her popularity shows a yearning for heroes with histories and motives as tangled as the criminals they confront. “We’re seeing a surge of work in which all the characters matter—their interactions are what makes things sizzle and pop,” says Lippman, whose standalone novels are rich landscapes of men and women confronting often unspeakable crimes.

One senses something deeply old-fashioned about the center of this and about the shared DNA of all these fictions. We want to have someone to connect with, we want a point of entry—a man we know, a woman who feels true to us. And then we want to be able to talk about them. (Isn’t that what draws us to bestsellers—just to be part of the conversation?)

We may then see Dragon as the perfect admixture of damaged characters, a heroine with a unique physical glamour and labyrinthine plots. After all, as much as we bemoan the diminishing American attention span, many of the most popular tales approach Dickensian length or complexity (Larsson, French) and at a pace that unfolds rather than drag races.

They require patience, concentration. They drop us into worlds, and we must find our way, aided by guides as ambiguous, inconsistent and bruised as they are. The situations in which they find themselves—while dark, unwholesome—are ones we may know. A missing loved one, a child’s lie, the way one’s world can change with the drunken twist of a steering wheel. We know this.

In the end, these damaged and powerful—though never omnipotent—women may say less about gender and more about our cultural yearning, that insurgent desire among us to connect, even with dark matters, even (or perhaps especially) if it means going to dark places. Places, it turns out, are ones we know, live in.

MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar Award–winning author of four crime novels. Her latest, The End of Everything, comes out in July.