“And this is a story about what women can do to each other—why women are cruel to each other, why women don’t reach down and help each other.” In conversation for Vanity Fair, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn talk about female rage, #MeToo, and Sharp Objects, the HBO series based on Flynn’s novel. Pair with: Millions staffers Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki talk about Flynn and her novels.
Four episodes into HBO’s crime show True Detective, I thought to myself, This is so good, it’s almost like a book. For this viewer at least, True Detective achieved a rare balance. Standard procedurals like Law & Order are reliably engaging because we know the mystery will be solved and wrapped up (more or less) nice and neat by the end of the hour. But stuffing plot twists, red herrings, and personal strife into an hour-long format can be hasty if not, at times, absurdly implausible. On the other hand, endless dramas with mysteries at their core run the risk of failing to resolve the puzzle long past the point where viewers still care enough to tune in each week.
But True Detective contained the psychological depth of a drama with the reliability of a procedural — in short, all the satisfaction of a great mystery novel. Let’s hope that the eight episode mystery format returns for at least another season.
One particular wish (buoyed by rumors) for a second season is that HBO will cast female detectives next time around. Amid the outpouring of love for the show, more than a few viewers diagnosed True Detective with having something of a “woman problem.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for example, wrote that she was worn out from True Detective’s “macho nonsense,” what with its lack of complex female characters and tired trope of male detectives “avenging women and children, and bro-bonding.” In short, True Detective offers the same old “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses,” and that’s boring.
These conventions are as tough to shake in the crime novel as they are on television. If you love a good mystery book, there is little getting around the fact that most of the victims are women. A little girl goes missing, is a classic opening. Or, The body of a woman is found. A whole sub-genre, the “Special Victims Unit” of these books if you will, involves violent sexual crimes against women. If women must always be the victims, why not have them be the saviors, too?
As someone who inhales crime novels in bulk, I was getting a little tired of the male detective-female victim set-up myself. Recently, the owner of the wondrous Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca (a shop so charming I’d like to move into it), remarked to me off-handedly that I had a “type” when it came to mysteries — I went for the female detectives. (I use the term “detective” here loosely to describe the crime-solver, whatever their job or lack thereof.)
I never intended to discriminate against the men! But there was some truth to his observation. It wasn’t a matter of principle, it was about the books. Female “detectives” were bringing new twists to the classic tropes. Some of the best mysteries I was reading had women cracking the cases.
So whether or not True Detective returns for another season and solves its woman problems, here is a short list of crime novels (many of them the start of series) where there’s a woman in charge. You might discover, like me, that you’re an accidental fan of the female detective. And if you have any other recommendations, please share — with True Detective over, it’s an especially bad time to run out of crime novels.
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Garnethill begins when Maureen O’Donnell wakes up with a terrible hangover to find the dead body of her lover, a psychiatrist at the outpatient clinic she attends, tied up dead in her living room. There are clues in the room that point to Maureen’s own trauma as an incest survivor — secret pieces of her personal history that almost no one knows about. Looking to clear her name, Maureen and her close friend Leslie, a domestic violence shelter employee, begin uncovering a horror story of abuse at the local psychiatric hospital.
Maureen and Leslie are as hard-living and jaded a duo as True Detective’s Cohle and Hart. They have seen terrible things. The novel, the first in a series, takes place in economically-ruined Scotland, and the descriptions of booze are almost loving. (Glenfidditch, ice, and lime cordial. Peach schnapps and fizzy lemonade from a two-liter. A whiskey miniature with a cold can of Kerslin.) This is a sex crime book, but one where the avenger is a victim herself, and no Stieg Larsson-esque male heroes show up to do any last minute protecting. In Garnethill, those tasked with protecting the vulnerable are often the most dangerous, and it’s usually up to the vulnerable to protect themselves.
It might sound like there is nothing more empowering than a victim of sexual abuse taking on crime flanked by her motorcycle-riding, domestic-violence fighting friend. But fair warning: Garnethill is dark and angering, for the ways in which Maureen and Leslie touch on reality. Maureen constantly reminds that crimes don’t end for the victims just because the perpetrator has been stopped. Tough girl Leslie reminds of how much ingenuity it takes for women who protect other women to counter the physical threat that men pose. Together, though, Maureen and Leslie achieve that magic of any great crime-fighting partnership. Each is strong and weak in her own way, and just when you think one leans more on the other, everything changes.
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
The Crossing Places, first in a series featuring archaeology academic Ruth Galloway, begins when the local chief detective approaches Galloway about bones found in a bleak area near Norfolk, a sacred ground in the Iron Age. The chief detective believes these might be the bones of a young girl who disappeared ten years before, and whose abductor continues to send him letters riddled with obscure archaeological and literary references.
Crime brings several men into the life of Ruth Galloway, who is nearing 40, single, overweight, and living a solitary with her two cats. Ruth is relatively content about this arrangement; it’s the men about her who don’t quite know what to do with her. Watching men react to Ruth is frustrating but also great fun. Some patronize her, others desexualize her. Some assume she needs protecting, others forget her in their haste to protect more delicate-looking females. They are all rather inept. Forget solving the crime, Ruth has her hands full dealing with the men bumbling about her. But despite its grim crimes and grim setting, The Crossing Places is on the lighter side and Ruth is infinitely relatable.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
In Sharp Objects, hard-drinking, damaged, and recently institutionalized reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown after eight years to report on the disappearance of two girls. Gillian Flynn’s most famous character is Gone Girl’s cool girl/psychopath Amy, and in Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, the women are likewise the show-stoppers. Camille’s hyper-perfect mother, with her crew of bored and medicated ladies who lunch, and her beautiful, Mean Girl half-sister, flanked by popular groupies, run the town. Staying in the secretive and somewhat surreal mansion with these two alpha-females and her own resurfacing past, Camille is very, very vulnerable. She’s trapped in a world of women that she doesn’t understand and that grows increasingly sinister. Girl world is a scary place to be.
Sharp Objects provides a counter-narrative to True Detective — the women in the novel are powerful, well-connected, and menacing. Not to say that Sharp Objects sends up female stereotypes or empowers women. More than once I’ve wondered: does Gillian Flynn even like women? In a Millions conversation on Flynn, Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter note that Flynn “repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.” Nonetheless, Sharp Objects inhabits the world of women as fully as True Detective inhabits the world of men. As a female reader, there was something familiar about the grotesques in the world of women that made reading about them that much more eerie than the usual male suspects.
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
The Various Haunts of Men, the first in a series by Susan Hill, is billed as a “Detective Simon Serrailler” mystery. But DCI Serrailler is barely a presence for much of this first book. Instead we follow Freya Graffham, a newly arrived detective in Lafferton, England who has just left London and a marriage that failed for relatively banal reasons. Hill’s book begins when a female jogger goes missing without a trace, and in pursuing the case, Freya is caught up in the world of alternative medicines, miracles, and snake-oil salesmen.
What hooks Freya onto the case is discovering that the missing woman has a bold case of unrequited love. This sticks with her. She relates to what unrequited love feels like, and that makes the lost jogger hard to dismiss as just another missing person. This sort of touch is exactly why female detectives can be such a refreshing change — Freya is drawn into action based on a very simple shot of empathy for the victim, unlike the macho men of True Detective, who are rather heavy-handedly motivated because they see red at the very thought of a woman hurt.
On the other hand, one of the pleasures of hard-boiled mystery novels is the vicarious thrill of reading about detectives behaving badly, from scotch for breakfast to questionable liaisons with murder suspects. If that’s the sort of fun you’re looking for, you won’t find it in The Various Haunts of Men. Detective Freya’s main hobby is singing in the church choir.
The Likeness by Tana French
The first time we meet Cassie Maddox is in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods, where she is homicide co-cop to detective Rob Ryan. In The Likeness (not a sequel), a murdered woman is found who looks exactly like Cassie, and Cassie’s old boss convinces her to go undercover in the woman’s place to tempt the killer into coming out into the open. Operating undercover, this time Cassie is all alone.
Being alone is precarious. Cassie’s ties to the police force, including her boyfriend and her boss, give her a lifeline to reality but don’t prevent her from being seduced by the life of the murdered woman and her isolated, close-knit group of friends. This clique, comprised of former loners, seems to be bound together not because any one is in love with another so much as each are in love with the group as a whole. The lack of conventional one-on-one relationships makes their bond look magical, almost divine. While some loner detectives like True Detective’s Cohle look in sometimes enviously, even longingly, on happy scenes of marriage and children, Cassie, firmly in a relationship, falls for the unromantic connection that holds these people together. She longs to be part of it.
The Likeness is sprawling and rich. Tana French’s novels look forward as they look backward, and are filled with nostalgia for the heady, heightened reality that comes with working a big case. Should True Detective take hints from The Likeness or any other of French’s novels, that would be a thrill for mystery fanatics in and of itself.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl may have been the breakout hit of the summer, but those intrigued enough by Flynn’s twisty thriller to read her other work will find that as good as Gone Girl is, her two earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are even better. Flynn, who wrote about TV and movies for Entertainment Weekly before her fiction career took off, writes character-based literary novels disguised as page-turning action thrillers. The solutions to the mystery at the end of her books, though usually surprising, are nowhere as interesting as the human dilemmas of her central characters.
Flynn is especially good at creating damaged, dangerous women whose deeply imagined inner lives break your heart even as the characters create havoc in the lives of the people around them. For me, the best of Flynn’s books is her first, Sharp Objects, about a newspaper reporter recently released from a brief stay in a psych ward who is sent to cover a series of child-killings in her hometown. The crime plot clicks expertly along, but the true mystery is the book’s narrator, Camille Preaker, whose self-hatred is literally written on her body, the words — NASTY on her kneecap, WHORE on her ankle — carved into her skin with a razor blade. I wondered, idly, who could have committed the murders Camille is sent to report upon, but what kept me turning the pages was the thornier question of how this smart, fragile woman could find the toughness to keep herself from making the final cut.
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I can’t remember a better year of reading. I particularly enjoyed books where women or girls were allowed to be dark and dangerous and fucked up and “unlikable.” Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, and Megan Abbott’s exceptional Dare Me, in particular, rose to that occasion and then some. What Dare Me does with describing the body and its limits? Unforgettable. One of my favorite books of the year, though, was a novel with a really elegant structure — Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I didn’t realize how intelligent and complex this novel was until I finished, took some time and found myself reading the book again and again to make proper sense of it all. With each reading, there was more to appreciate. Beautiful Ruins is the story of a young man and hotel proprietor from a forgotten Italian beach town who falls in love with an actress, who loves a man she can’t have, and how they lose each other and find each other again across 50 years and two continents. It’s about a craven Hollywood producer and his development assistant and the decisions they make and the lines they’re willing to cross. It’s about a screenwriter who wants his big break and what he’s willing to do to get it. The narrative transitions seamlessly from being richly imbued with a sense of time and place on the Italian coast during the early 1960s to exposing the cynical, overly ambitious Hollywood we’ve come to know and love and hate. More than anything, Beautiful Ruins is about how love can endure and how maybe, just maybe, we should believe in love’s endurance despite all the reasons we have to doubt such a thing exists.
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Staff writers Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki often read (and enjoy) the same books, and like almost everyone else in the world, they found Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to be a fun, engrossing, and thought-provoking novel, worthy of the attention it’s getting. They decided to read Flynn’s two previous novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, and discuss all three books via email. Below is their conversation about the author and her books. Subjects include: murder, milk, Pinterest boards, and camp (the aesthetic, not sleep-away).
Janet Potter: Something that strikes me in these books — particularly Dark Places and Gone Girl — is how singling out and digging into a person’s life, whether or not they are guilty of murder, tends to raise suspicions about that person. A theme running through Gone Girl is that everyone is keeping secrets, but are they harmless secrets, dangerous secrets, or the secret — the secret that you’re the culprit? Everyone that’s investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception.
It started to make me wonder. If tomorrow somebody came to look through my apartment, what kind of things would snag as strange? Why do I have three heavy-duty padlocks sitting on my bookshelf, a set of keys to an apartment I moved out of seven months ago, and four different types of milk in the fridge? Each of these things has a rational, if unusual, explanation, but I haven’t left those explanations on post-it notes in case I disappear.
Do you think this is just a feature of Flynn’s books, or do you think it’s an accurate depiction of how many secrets we’re all keeping at any given time?
Ms. Flynn is masterful at writing plots — her books move at a delicious pace. For me, one essential element to any strong plot is the repeated but changing resonance of things like setting, possession, character choice, and so on. What seems like a harmless action at one point in the novel is rendered differently later on in the book. Her books continually zing! because something is seen anew, or a character understands an event in a different light. I think that’s what Flynn is doing with these secrets that her characters harbor: they have an emotional reason for being in the book, but they also scratch a plot itch.
It’s interesting that Flynn’s novels make you paranoid about how, say, a homicide detective or the media might view your life, should there be some crime committed that you’re connected to. When I was reading her books, I kept worrying about the men I know — mainly my husband — for Flynn’s books seem mostly interested in the way the world perceives men’s appetite for violence. Perhaps you’re right, and that “everyone that’s investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception,” but the people who are investigated in her novels are always male. Which leaves you and me off the hook! Let’s go murder some people!
Flynn’s work is most engaging to me for what it says about gender: what men are accused of, what cruelties women are capable of, and so on. I’m interested in the conversations her novels have about female sexuality, and the roles women play and play-at, for others.
JP: In the past few weeks I’ve needed specific types of milk for specific recipes — paneer (whole), fried chicken (buttermilk), creme fraiche (cream), and basic coffee-drinking (skim). I’m glad you think that even my dairy melangerie wouldn’t mark me as a person of interest, because I’m of the gentler sex.
It’s true, as you say, that the suspicion of murder usually falls on the closest healthy male, but the women in Flynn’s books certainly don’t come across well either. There is a scene in each of the three books in which the main female character is forced to spend time with a group of women. The horror! The gaggles of ladies are all about wine, casseroles, pointed comments, and over-sharing. Of course, an aspect of these Missouri-based scenes is that the lead females are from somewhere else, like New York or Chicago, and are hanging out with women they find less sophisticated than themselves. But still, Flynn repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.
Do you think Gillian Flynn would want to hang out with us? Or would we just get wined up and insult her Pinterest boards? I’m not saying that she writes flat female characters. She also writes incredibly wise, no-nonsense women (the detective in Gone Girl, the mother and aunt in Dark Places). And her lead women — Camille, Libby, and Amy — are damaged, complicated, and resilient in turns.
In Gone Girl, Amy spends a long time describing herself as a “cool girl” — the perfect girlfriend, not whiny, dependent, jealous, or easily offended, beautiful without seeming to primp. A cool girl seems to be invulnerably confident. What Flynn seems to dislike so much about groups of women is that when they get together they tend to fetishize their own vulnerability.
The vulnerability of women has many forms in her work. Some women hide it, some preen it, some hide behind it as a guise for their cruelty, some reject it, and some use its appearance as a weapon. Weaponized vulnerability! I think this comes back to your point, that so much of what defines Flynn’s women is how they react to the fact of being a woman. And that they should watch out for killers.
EL: That you drink coffee with skim milk. Ugh! That’s enough to book you!
Amy’s passage about being a cool girl felt like a diatribe versus a brag. That is, she recognizes that the cool girl thing is a role, a construct. She can play that role with elan, she can play it so well that it lets her manipulate others. But implicit in that passage, if I remember correctly, is this sense that playing that role is also oppressive. She is empowered and suffocated by the game simultaneously. And that totally rang true to me as a woman.
What I love most about Gone Girl was the way Flynn made me think about how character and identity are constructed. She made me like and then dislike a character, dislike and then like another one, and then dislike the whole lot of them, the idea of identity dissolving and reappearing at every moment. Who are these people? Who am I? It’s a gloriously postmodern conception of identity, I think — nothing is inalienable, we are all constructs, and so on. That Flynn gave that to me in a disgustingly readable novel is just icing on the cake, er, buttermilk in the chicken.
I’m also interested in the evolution of tone in her novels. Sharp Objects seems the most raw and intimate to me, while simultaneously using some truly Gothic touches that are also absurd they’re so theatrical. That Gothic stuff — the dead sister, say, or the living sister, dressed up as a doll and playing with a doll house that’s an exact replica of the house she lives in — moves to something else in Dark Places, with the Kill Club, and the crazy wackness that is Deondra (Holy shit! The part where her pit bulls poop inside and she doesn’t clean it up?!), and then onto something else in Gone Girl, which has a kind of War of the Roses, campy vibe to it by the end. It’s comic, but that doesn’t seem like the right word.
Can we also talk about class in her novels?
JP: This slippery idea of identity that you brought up was what impressed me the most about Flynn as a writer. In reading Gone Girl I felt like I knew Nick and Amy, in the sense that they were recognizable, real, fully-formed characters, and yet I didn’t know them at all, in the sense that they were their own constructs, adept at deceiving me as well as each other. I don’t know how she did that, but the skill with which she did gives the book that chilling, disorienting feeling you mentioned. Any time I thought I had learned something true about one of them, I would later learn that I had been fooled. Flynn’s books are so — here it comes! — creepy because they make you distrust your everyday life. We’re all just lying machines.
I had to think about your question on tone. It’s something I usually take in subconsciously until somebody points it out. There are two faces to her writing — the realism of her settings and characters, and what you call the Gothic touches, but I call the wackos. The evolution that I see is these two elements moving towards each other. That is, in Sharp Objects I felt we were in a normal small town but there were WACKOS EVERYWHERE!, but by Gone Girl the wackos were hiding in plain sight. It became harder with each successive book to say, “I don’t know any people like that,” because the point was that you wouldn’t know if you did.
I noticed the class issue even less. Tell me what you think.
EL: I’m beginning to think that tone is the last frontier in fiction. Sure, we still see experimentation with language and the cross-pollination of genres and the like, but lately the narrative art that I’m both invested in and puzzled by plays with tone: this sense that I can’t quite pin it down — is it meant to be funny, or somber? Is it meant to be irreverent or transcendent? Am I supposed to weep or curse? Probably all of the above — and yet, the work still feels driven, intentional. I feel this playfulness with tone when I watch Louis C.K.’s eponymous show on FX, and I feel it with Flynn’s novels, too: it’s a refusal to be categorized emotionally, and it’s product of a nuanced point of view. With Flynn’s work, I feel like she’s playing with this idea that murder is sensationalized and gossiped about and profited from. It’s also awful and terrorizing, and that will never ever change no matter how many episodes of Cold Case or Law & Order that you watch in a day. She acknowledges both of these elements in her books.
There’s a great review of Gone Girl in Full-Stop by Catie Disabato, which talks about how Flynn’s book is really two books in one, and I totally agree. Disabato points out that all of the reviews discuss the first half, which is the mystery. None of the reviews mention the second half — which isn’t a mystery at all — because they don’t want give anything away. I wonder if Flynn’s next book will even have a mystery in it, period. People would call it “a departure” but I think her novels are working in this direction, away from a straight-up whodunit crime book. Each novel is less straightforward structurally and tonally than the next.
And, lastly, there’s a ton of stuff about class in her novels. In Sharp Objects, the narrator’s family is the richest in town, which gives them power and enables certain crimes to happen. In Dark Places, the narrator’s family is the poorest in town, and her brother is lured by the wealth (not to mention the hot pussy) of the richest girl in town; also, what the narrator does in the present action of the story is initially motivated by a need for money — she has to pay the rent, so she must face her past whether she wants to or not. In Gone Girl, much of their Missouri town has been devastated by the recent recession; I will never forget that chilling scene in the abandoned mall, taken over by squatters, junkies, and those simply forgotten by the rest of the country. One of the reasons the whole country bands together in support of Amy, I think, is because she is “wholesome” and “middle-class” — the kind of girl everyone supposedly loves/is supposed to love. Had she been poor (and/or not white), the machine would not have consumed her story as it did. Overall, Flynn seems interested in the ways that poverty and wealth can alter (i.e., wreck) the human psyche.
I hope there’s a grad student out there writing a PhD dissertation called Rich Girl, Poor Girl: Gillian Flynn and The Economics of Murder. Or something.