Women in thriller novels have come a long way

Val Collins

Let’s take a peek back in history to find out how the portrayal of women in thriller novels has improved since the mid-nineteenth century.

by Val Collins

When I was a teenager, I went through a tortured romantic phase. In almost every book I read, the women led miserable and generally impoverished lives until the hero came to the rescue. One day, I was in my grandmother’s house and she gave me some books she found in the back of a cupboard. One was Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit. It was the first thriller I’d ever read, and it introduced me to an entirely new type of heroine. Ann Beddingfield is young, orphaned, and penniless, but she’s not about to let that stop her. Determined to find adventure, she spends every penny she owns on a cruise to South Africa, where she finds all the excitement she can handle, unmasks the leader of a major criminal gang, and falls in love. Admittedly, the story is completely unrealistic, but so are the James Bond and Jason Bourne stories. What mattered to me at age fourteen was that I had finally found a female heroine I admired and one who lived a life I would have adored.

I wonder if women of other generations found female thriller characters equally inspiring. The Man in the Brown Suit was first published in 1924, but female thriller characters appeared centuries earlier. In 1864, almost fifty-five years before the first woman police officer walked the streets of London or any English or American woman was allowed to vote, readers were introduced to two female detectives: Mrs. G and Mrs. Paschal. Although readers were told little about Mrs. Paschal and almost nothing about Mrs. G, the extraordinary thing about these characters is that they were paid, professional police detectives at a time when women were still the legal property of their husbands. It would be another six years before women were even allowed to inherit property or have any legal right to their own earnings.

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Of course, the authors of these stories were men of their time, and the early female detectives had very different lives from their male colleagues. Their value to the police force lay in the ease with which they could enter a suspect’s home in the guise of maid, dressmaker, or nursemaid. They could then gain the confidence of the servants, who could generally be relied on to know everything that was going on in the house. Women in the 1860s had little freedom, so the earlier female detectives were generally widows with no family to answer to.

As the real world changed, so did the world of thrillers. By the 1890s, younger, single female detectives appeared. They were generally plain, as was the norm for intelligent, fictional female characters of that era. One such character was Loveday Brooke, who appeared around 1894. We are told her features are “non descript.” Loveday worked for a private detective agency, and was described by her boss as intelligent with great common sense and “the faculty—so rare among women—of carrying out orders to the very letter.” Later detectives were allowed to be both young and pretty, but these women were generally expected to solve their cases, marry, and retire to a life of domestic bliss. It may all seem hopelessly old-fashioned now, but when these stories were written, few women could have hoped to achieve the independence and freedom these characters enjoyed.

I am particularly drawn to psychological thrillers that show what ordinary women are capable of, and whose only weapons are their intelligence, courage, and determination to survive.

As women gained more freedom, female thriller characters changed also. The majority of thriller writers are now female and thriller heroines are shown as strong, independent, and courageous. This often contrasts sharply with the way women are perceived in the real world. The MeToo movement demonstrated how far we have yet to come, and one wonders when the media will finally see women as fully developed individuals. I am reminded of the young Irish opera singer Tara Erraught. Everybody agreed she sang beautifully, but the media focused on her appearance. She was described as “a bundle of puppy fat,” “unsightly and unappealing,” and “dumpy.” Unlike Pavarotti, Tara was no heavier than most opera singers, yet nobody ever suggested that Pavarotti’s amazing voice was in any way diminished by his appearance. More recently, the New York Times–bestselling author Sally Hepworth commented on media coverage she received where several newspapers described her as “mother of three,” ignoring her success as an author. She wondered what the reaction would be to a headline that read, “Father of 7 Buys Twitter.”

The thriller world isn’t perfect. The “femme fatale” stage of the 1930s and 1940s was a low point, but in many cases it is far more progressive than the real world. I am particularly drawn to psychological thrillers that show what ordinary women are capable of. Books such as The Guilty Couple by CL Taylor, where Olivia finds herself imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, or Ruby (The Housemaid by Sarah A. Denzil) and Jess (The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley), both of whom might be safer in prison than the dreadful places they are forced to live. The women of psychological thrillers (and I count among these my own heroine, Aoife Walsh) rarely have any resources. They don’t have an entire police department to support them. Neither do they have guns or special training. Their only weapons are their intelligence, courage, and determination to survive. Psychological thrillers rarely focus on the exceptional. Our characters face exceptional circumstances, but they use abilities we all possess to win through and they are recognized as strong, capable, courageous, and independent people. Once again, the thriller world is ahead of reality. Who was it that said life imitates art?

Val Collins is the author of the award-winning psychological thriller Girl Targeted and the international bestsellers Only Lies Remain, The Silent Speak, and Where Loyalties Lie. All four books feature heroine Aoife Walsh and are standalone thrillers that can be read in any order.

A native of Ireland, Val began reading at the age of three and still devours books at the rate of one per week. Her favorite authors range from Philippa Gregory and Sophie Kinsella to Lee Child and Linwood Barclay.

Join Val online at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All of Val’s social media handles are @valcollinsbooks.

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