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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Who Reads What: Thrillers, Mysteries, and Gender Lines

by Linda Rodriguez

Thrillers and mysteries have long been seen as split along gender lines, and for the first seventy years or so of the twentieth century, they actually were.  But things have been changing.

Thrillers were originally written by, for, and about men. The earliest thriller, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers published in 1903, had not a single female character initially until his publisher forced Childers to add one to the book. Until Ken Follett’s best-selling thriller, The Eye of the Needle, with its female protagonist in 1978, women were only occasional minor characters within thrillers, and the primary readers of thrillers were men. The thriller arose and became popular in the same time period as the western and the hard-boiled detective novel (which grafted the danger and violence of the thriller onto the mystery). All were parts of a male-oriented fiction with the shared elements of idealized male protagonists braving physical danger and escalating threat that built to cathartic endings of explosive violence.

Mysteries, on the other hand, have always had female readers and writers from Louisa May Alcott in the 1860s and her British counterparts, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, to Anna Katharine Green in 1878 with the first American best seller of any kind and on into the Golden Age with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mignon G. Eberhart, Helen McCloy, Margaret Millar, and many others down to the present moment.

Ken Follett suggests that the thriller (and the men’s fiction in which it played a major role) arose at the beginning of the twentieth century because the nature of war had changed. War was no longer the province of a professional military class. With conscription, the violence and danger of war threatened all men and boys.

I think he’s right and would add that it’s no coincidence that women began to make headway into the thriller field as major characters, readers, and eventually writers during the time immediately following the Vietnam War. Of course, this was also the heyday of Second Wave feminism, which probably played a part in the shift. It was only when the threat of conscription lessened that female major characters and female writers were allowed into the thriller field. This time period also coincided with dwindling numbers of male readers of novels of any kind. So it probably had a practical side, as well.

Thus, there seems a gender break from the very beginning of these two related genres with the hard thriller physically male-oriented and danger- and violence-filled and the pure, Golden Age mystery intellectually gender-neutral and character- and puzzle-inclined. Fairly quickly, though, subgenres developed that crossed these genre lines and mixed elements of each. The hard-boiled (and later, noir) subgenre combined the detection of the mystery with the danger and violence of the thriller. The psychological suspense subgenre combined the threat of danger and violence of the thriller with the character elements of the mystery. This continued throughout the last century until, by the early twenty-first century, the range of mysteries and thrillers forms a spectrum that runs from pure violent thriller to cozy puzzle mystery with all kinds of mixed-genre stops along the way.

Where the original thrillers were male-only in major characters, readers, and writers, that fact has changed now with women as lead characters, readers, and writers on a much more equal basis. The violence at this extreme of the spectrum, however, has continued to ratchet up higher and higher. At the other end of the spectrum lies the pure cozy, a subgenre of the traditional mystery genre, with mostly female lead characters, readers, and writers and no real danger or violence (beyond the fairly bloodless murders that form the puzzles). Women are the majority of readers throughout the spectrum between these two extremes, and women write roughly half the books in the entire combined mystery/thriller genre.

A popular subgenre of the thriller is the serial-killer book. These may involve strong mystery elements in which the protagonist must figure out who the serial killer is so he or she can catch the murderer and stop the killing, or they may involve straight thriller elements in which the killer’s identity is known and he must be stopped from murdering the particular woman who is either the protagonist or the love interest of the protagonist.

I’ve used the specific terms “him” for the serial killer and “woman” for the potential victim because in these books almost inevitably the serial killer will be a man and the victims overwhelmingly women (as in real life). These books often offer some of the most intense and sickening violence, committed by the psychopathic serial killers and sociopathic recreational killers (or “rakes,” as the FBI calls them). The torture and mutilation of women presented in many of these books often troubles feminists, understandably, some of whom even go so far as to call the most extreme “torture porn.” Yet most of these authors have researched the documented history of serial killings, and it would be extremely difficult to outdo on the page what actual serial killers have done in real life. Also, let us remember that now many of these serial-killer thrillers are written by women.

The actual gender split in the mystery-thriller field has faded, but perceptions seem stuck in the old days when thrillers were exclusively a male province. The fact that women buy and read the majority of books of all kinds plays a huge part in this. I think it’s also led to the proliferation of blended-genre books today. For example, urban fantasy, which is a melding of the hard-boiled mystery with magic, supernatural creatures, and other fantasy elements, draws the vast majority of its readers from the female reading population. I think we’re going to see more and more blended-genre books being published.

Is the cozy serial-killer thriller just around the corner? Or is that a step too far? I can’t wait to see, can you?


E. B. Davis said...

One of my peeves in the paranormal mystery subgenre is that, as you've stated, they lean toward urban fantasy, more hardcore crime featuring vampires and shapeshifters, involving violence. I love fantasy mystery, but I like mine on the lighter side. The EJ Cooperman, Deb Macomber, and Magnon Ballard style of cozy fanatsy. Each of these author's works feature ghosts and angels. I differentiate these works by naming them "supernatural" rather than paranormal, although I don't think if the industry does, lumping it all together as paranormal.

One of my manuscripts includes angels and demons (for balance) and even though it isn't quite as fluffy as the authors' works I've named, to me it qualifies as supernatural but not quite a cozy. Some of my beta readers objected because the manuscript didn't qualify as any specific genre or subgenre. But I get sick of reading the same elements in every book. It is time for some fresh "out of the box" mysteries unconfined by conventions.

As for the cozy serial killer series, as long as the focus is on the investigation and not on the grizzly details, I can envision such a book. Sort of a Jessica Fletcher nails the Boston Strangler. Thanks for the history lesson, Linda.

Jim Jackson said...

I’ve tried a little gender-bending myself. My protagonist, Seamus McCree, is a basically nice guy (divorced, but with a great son, Paddy, and an interesting mother) who abhors guns. His female sidekicks have had those chops when it comes to weapons and martial arts.

It’s not an overpopulated niche, and that may be because people don't actually prefer to read about nice guys who solve mysteries with brains not brawn. But heck, everyone can’t be a trailblazer.

~ Jim

George Koelsch said...

I have heard a shift has occurred in the SF arena as well, more so in the fantasy area, that women read more than men. While I do not dispute there are more female readers than before, there is another factor that people do not recognize. Many if not most of the editors, at least in SF (because I know this one), are women. They state that men are not reading so they buy things that only women read. The net effect is that men will read less of what is available since it is not targeted for them, hence it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Warren Bull said...

Another category is cozy noir, which sounds like an oxymoron. Reading tastes vary a great deal. Personally, I do not enjoy graphic depictions of violence.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I originally wrote a cozy with a serial killer, but realized that too many agents and small publishers wouldn't touch it. So I made him a stalker and a one-time murderer in a traditional mystery. Marketing and finding an empty niche do matter.

Gloria Alden said...

My series are cozies dealing with social issues, like environmentalism, racism, gay bashing, drug abuse, etc. and alcoholism in my latest still waiting on a cover before I publish it.
In some ways they may be a little edgier than some cozies, but probably not a whole lot.
Actually, except for the small town aspect, I think my books are more in the traditional line
than the pure cozy.

Although I like reading suspense novels, I'm not into the serial killer type books or horror books, and it's not because I live alone with a dog too friendly to protect me, either. As
for paranormal books, ghosts are okay, but not vampires or zombies.

Shari Randall said...

Linda, this is fascinating! And I am looking forward to seeing that serial killer cozy some day (I picture kitties with gore tipped knitting needles on the cover.)
One disturbing issue you touch on is this idea of genre and gender, and reading being seen as something that only women do. How did that happen? My own idea is the hyper marketing of virtually everything. Kids are shunted into pink or blue so early, and many boys do think of reading as a "girl" activity. Boys seem to get their story fixes through video games. Not healthy, and now we're seeing boys' educational attainment dropping. There are many good writers doing good work for children, but marketing will always try to reach their perceived audience for a book, and to do that they determine an audience for a book.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, we all chafe at the restraints of genre categories at times. I'm waiting for publishers to realize that the mingling of genres is part of the appeal of YA which has been so hot lately with readers of all ages. But publishing is usually slow on the uptake. Your critiquers who question your genre are right, in that it probably will make your book a much harder sale to an agent or an editor today. though it would fit right in if it were a YA novel where they're gender-bending constantly.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Jim, I suspect your response and George's are related. through the years, in the U.S. at least, we've had a strong push in our popular media to denigrate the nice, smart, educated guy as a weakling and sissy and offer up the physical, often violent and cruel, tough guy with "street smarts" rather than any education for admiration.

George, the switch-over in readership took place before women became prominent in publishing, so I don't think your theory holds water. I think the change in readership stats has a lot more to do with the push in popular media to portray males as admirable heroes who always resort immediately to physical violence rather than reason and to denigrate the reading, educated man, as I mentioned above. I this stereotype of masculinity that gets shoved in everyone's faces so much now leaves many boys and men unwilling to read.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Warren, yes. I don't mind graphic violence that plays a necessary role in the book, but I must confess that some serial-killer thrillers where we're supposed to watch the killer rape, torture, and dismember in great detail totally turn me off. It feels voyeuristic.

Margaret, I think you did the smart thing there. Genres matter more to agents and publishers than to readers, I think, but you have to get past the agents and publishers first.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, I suspect that your books actually fall more in the traditional mystery field and less in the cozy, which is a subset of that. The cozy usually steers clear of edgier subject matter.

Shari, I think you're absolutely right. The denigration of the male who reads and is educated has been going on in this country for a long time, beginning with Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow and James Fenimore Cooper's books, but it's been exacerbated since the post-World War II period. I'd love to find a way to turn it around.

Kara Cerise said...

Fascinating, Linda. Eye of the Needle is one of my favorite thrillers and I had no idea it was the first with a female main character.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Kara, yes, it was a ground-breaker.

KM Rockwood said...

I find it frustrating that we try to shoehorn books into categories so completely. It is beneficial when a reader wants only a specific type of book (and can usually identify it just by looking at the cover) but I think most readers are open to new and different experiences, often books which defy neat categorizing.

And I think the prejudices still exist among readers concerning the author's gender. I know men who won't read books by women. As recently as the Harry Potter phenomena, J.K. Rowling was advised to hide the fact that she was a female author for fear that boys would not read her books.

Linda Rodriguez said...

K.M., Wendy Wasserstein said it best, I think. When she was a graduate student in the Yale drama program and first wrote and produced The Heidi Chronicles, a male grad student dismissed it with a superior air, saying, "I just can't identify with a woman character." Wasserstein stared him down and said, "Well, I've been identifying with male characters all my life, so I know it can be done. Try harder."