There’s no shortage of female characters in modern crime fiction, and lately, authors are finding inspiration not just in the women themselves, but in their relationships with one another.
“I love writing about smart, ambitious young women whose lives, on the whole, don’t revolve around a romantic partner,” says Andrea Bartz, whose next suspense thriller, We Were Never Here (Ballantine, July), centers on two best friends, one of whom may be a murderer. “On a societal level, we tend to elevate romantic relationships and trivialize female friendships. So the relative shortage of thrillers about female friendships, as well as a knee-jerk tendency to deem single female protagonists immature or annoying or unlikable or even unlovable, points to our discomfort with women who aren’t following traditional social scripts.”
Seema Mahanian, editor at Grand Central, welcomes the increasingly complex depictions of women in thrillers. In the April release We Are Watching Eliza Bright, A.E. Osworth’s “provocative debut,” per PW, the titular video game developer is dismissed after reporting workplace harassment and doxxed online; a group called the Sixsterhood rises to protect her. “The psychological thriller space has, for a long time, been very white, hetero, and male driven, so it’s a relief to see more authentic representations of women in this genre,” Mahanian says. “Readers have been eager to see female protagonists in suspenseful narratives be portrayed as complicated, to have ‘likability’ not be a factor, and have the kind of nuanced relationships that reflect real-life relationships.”
Bartz and Mahanian are among the authors and editors PW spoke with whose forthcoming books find drama in tangled female friendships and the intricate bonds between sisters.
The current prevalence of remote offices notwithstanding, professional relationships often lead to personal friendships, and several new thrillers focus on the workplace. In Imposter Syndrome (Custom House, June), Kathy Wang, who before she was an author worked at Intel and Seagate, uses her personal knowledge of Silicon Valley to tell the story of Julia Lerner, COO of a major tech corporation, and Alice Lu, a Chinese American woman who works in IT. “Even though they’re at the same company, Julia is almost a mythical figure to Alice,” Wang says. “She’s this famous white woman who’s paid millions and is on the cover of magazines.” When Alice begins to suspect that Julia is sharing intelligence with a foreign country, the revelation calls into question both their loyalties.
There’s a power dynamic at play here, but also a cultural dynamic, Wang explains. “Alice is Asian American; culturally, she’s expected to be more meek and quiet. She inhabits that low level ‘tech nerd’ role with ease, but if she tries to stray too much out of this casting, she meets with both external and her own internal resistance.”
The complicated intersection of race and gender also drives Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut, The Other Black Girl (Atria, June). Nella, an editorial assistant, is the only Black employee at Wagner Books, a New York publishing house, until another young Black woman is hired. “When Hazel arrives, Nella thinks she’ll have an easier time,” Harris says. “She believes she has someone she can be real with.” But as Hazel quickly becomes a rising star at the company, Nella, relegated to grunt work, receives threatening notes demanding she “Leave Wagner. Now.” Eventually, Hazel’s intentions are revealed.
“Even though many Black women are inclined to feel a kinship with one another, we don’t all subscribe to the same values,” Harris says. “That tension fascinates me, because it’s a tension you might not necessarily expect, and one that isn’t really talked about in the mainstream.”
Harris has a publishing background, and, PW’s starred review said, the book’s “biggest strength lies in its penetrating critique of gatekeeping in the publishing industry and the deleterious effects it can have on Black editors.” As the author explains, “I was the only Black woman in editorial at the publishing house I worked for and, for a while, the only one on my entire floor. The stakes felt higher for me, and I wanted to convey that through Nella.”
Alma Katsu, too, draws on her workplace experience in Red Widow (Putnam, Mar.), her first spy thriller after several supernatural-tinged historicals. “Katsu, a former intelligence analyst, captures the thorny but oddly intimate alliance between two CIA officers who share an adversarial relationship with their employer,” PW’s review said.
The author says her frustration with spy fiction prompted her to write Red Widow, whose two central characters are women. “The bestsellers are either male-oriented thrillers or, if you’re looking for a female lead, historicals,” she notes. “There should be room for a different kind of spy novel, one that allows female characters to be seen as strong professionals, and to allow them to react in stories in a way that’s not exactly like their male counterparts.”
Workplace bonds may form when people have little more than proximity in common. The same holds true outside the office, and in several forthcoming books, the woman next door turns out to be a new best friend, or rival, or mortal enemy—sometimes all at once.
In The Hunting Wives by May Cobb, a May release from Berkley, Sophie moves to a small town in Texas with her husband and son and gets drawn into a hard-partying, adulterous social circle. This being a “nail-biting thriller” (per PW’s starred review), it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up dead.
“These women don’t play nice in their friendships or their lives,” says Danielle Perez, executive editor at Berkley. “They’re complex women, and friendship is a kind of sport to them. They’re ‘mean girls’ in their 30s.”
The oft-discussed and highly contentious likability factor is irrelevant, Perez says. “Female characters should be allowed to be as three-dimensional, complicated, and difficult as male characters have always been allowed to be in this genre.”
Carol Goodman, author of numerous gothic-tinged thrillers, brings together a pair of women with complicated pasts in The Stranger Behind You (Morrow, July). Journalist Joan Lurie is physically attacked after writing an article exposing a powerful businessman as a sexual predator. She decamps to a high-security Manhattan building for safety, where she meets 96-year-old Lillian, who moved there in the 1940s, when the building was a Magdalen Laundry and Refuge for Fallen Women. As the two get to know each other, Joan begins to draw connections between Lillian’s experience with violence and her own.
“I’m constantly fascinated by the relationships between women—between mothers and daughters, friends, rivals, and frenemies,” Goodman says. “I’m interested in the ways we understand ourselves through the stories of other women.”
In Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night (Del Rey, Aug.), a noir set in Mexico in the 1970s, Maite becomes obsessed with what might have happened to her beautiful, glamorous neighbor, Leonara, an art student who disappeared. Though the two don’t share much of a connection at the beginning of the novel, Maite forges a one-sided bond with her neighbor, who dominates her thoughts through her absence.
“Maite takes Leonara’s disappearance as a chance to get involved in an adventure,” Moreno-Garcia explains, rather than feeling any real concern for her well-being. “To her, it’s like her life might be turning into a comic book, and that’s exciting.”
A forced connection has more sinister consequences in Mary Dixie Carter’s debut novel, The Photographer, out from Minotaur at the end of May. Delta Dawn makes her living taking pictures at children’s parties hosted by Manhattan gentry. When she meets the Straub family, the photographer decides she belongs in the picture—permanently—and gradually ingratiates herself to the mother.
“This book is about distinctly female experiences, and that’s what makes it so relatable,” says Catherine Richards, executive editor at Minotaur. “The best psychological fiction treads along the line of truth, but then pushes characters’ behaviors across boundaries when you’re least expecting it—it’s the unpredictability of Delta that’s so fascinating and so terrifying at the same time.”
Like The Photographer, Shanora Williams’s The Perfect Ruin (Dafina, Aug.) depicts a woman who insinuates herself into the life of another, more powerful, woman. Ivy Hill has never fully recovered from a childhood tragedy. She learns that Lola Maxwell, a billionaire CEO known for her generous charity, was responsible for her misfortune, and sets out to destroy her.
“Women are held to really high standards in society and that can be overwhelming, whatever the role may be—mother, daughter, sister, wife, coworker, friend,” Williams says. “Sadly, the people who are usually holding women up to such high standards are other women.”
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Relationships grow even more thorny when the women involved are true intimates. In Nice Girls (Morrow, Sept.), Catherine Dang’s debut, the disappearance of Olivia, a beautiful and beloved social media star, commands widespread attention. Mary, who was Olivia’s best friend growing up, knows the truth behind the Instagram-perfect persona and how terrible Olivia could be.
“Women have always been pitted against each other over our looks, our careers, our families, our lives,” Dang says. “Social media is just another battleground for it, with metrics. Suddenly you have these numbers that can quantify, even rank, how well you’re competing with other people. It’s not healthy; it only stirs this sense of resentment, jealousy, and FOMO in our relationships.”
Elaine Murphy makes her suspense debut with Look What You Made Me Do, a July release from Grand Central, in which two sisters collaborate rather than compete: one is a serial killer and the other is her accomplice. “It’s not a whodunit—we all know that Becca committed the murders, and if you ask, she’ll even tell you why,” says Alex Logan, executive editor at Grand Central. “So it’s the relationship between the two sisters that’s the real mystery.”
For Murphy, as with the authors of other books discussed in this piece, writing believable, female-driven crime fiction begins with recognizable personalities. “Starting with complex female characters makes digging into female relationships more fascinating,” she says. “Seeing myself and my friends, my coworkers, and all the women I’ve known represented as actual multidimensional people is engaging and inspiring.”
Swapna Krishna writes about technology and pop culture. She is the co-editor of the inclusive King Arthur anthology Sword Stone Table (Viking, July).
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