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Two summer suspense novels delight in overturning the 'woman-in-trouble' plot

Penguin Random House

To kick off this summer reading season, I'm recommending two suspense novels that gleefully overturn the age-old "woman-in-trouble" plot.

Megan Abbott is a superstar of the suspense genre who's generated a host of bestsellers like The Turnout and Dare Me, which was made into a series for Netflix. But what Abbott's fans may not know is that she holds a doctoral degree in literature and wrote a dissertation on the figure of the macho "tough-guy" in the mysteries of writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Chester Himes. In other words, Abbott is one smart dame when it comes to sussing out the sexism inherent in those mysteries that so many of us love.

Her latest novel is called Beware the Woman and it's inspired, not so much by hardboiled mysteries, but by another hallowed suspense genre: the Gothic, which almost always features a woman running in terror through the halls of a maze-like mansion. As this novel's title suggests, maybe it's the men here who should start running.

At the outset of Beware the Woman, our narrator, a 30-something pregnant woman named Jacy, is driving with her new husband, Jed, deep into the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They're going to visit Jed's widowed father, a retired physician named Doctor Ash, whom Jacy has only met once, fleetingly. In fact, Jacy married Jed only a few months after they first met, but she's so in love she feels she's known him forever.

"Honey, ... we all marry strangers," Jacy's mom wearily told her on the day of the wedding. In this case, mother really does know best.

The family "cottage," as Jed had called it, turns out to be much grander, "[l]ike a hunting lodge in an old movie." And, inside, in addition to Doctor Ash, the lodge is occupied by a caretaker, the chilly Mrs. Brandt who, halfway into the novel tersely mutters to Jacy, "Maybe you should go home." Too late. By then Jacy is having problems with her pregnancy and the bedrest Doctor Ash and his physician friend have prescribed is beginning to feel like house arrest.

If you detected strains of Daphne du Maurier's Gothic masterpiece, Rebecca, in that plot summary, you'd be half right: Beware the Woman is Rebecca wedded to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Along with the feverish psychological twists and turns that Abbott's novels are celebrated for, Beware the Woman explores the timely topic of women's autonomy over their own bodies, especially during pregnancy.

Katie Williams also riffs on some hallowed traditions in her ingenious debut suspense novel called, My Murder. I'm thinking here of noir films like Sunset Boulevard and D.O.A., whose voiceovers are narrated by dead men talking. In the very first sentence of Williams' novel, a young wife and mother named Lou tells us: "I was supposed to be getting dressed for the party, the first since my murder." (1)

It's hard to move on from that arresting first sentence, but eventually we readers learn that Lou — along with some other women identified as victims of the same serial killer — have been brought back to life by a government-funded "replication commission" (17) that grew them from the cells of their murdered originals.

Williams is adept at swirling sci-fi and domestic suspense plotlines into this unpredictable tale. For instance, one night Lou's husband, Silas, arrives home to tell her one of his work mates has alerted him to a new virtual reality game:

"It's a game of you, " [Silas] said woodenly . . . .

"Of your murder, Lou." He put his hands to his face. "I'm so sorry. Someone made a game out of your murder." (109)  

Indeed, the game allows players to step into the role of Lou — or any one of the other murdered women — and navigate the landscape of city streets and parks where their bodies were found while trying to evade the serial killer. The point of the game, Lou quickly understands, is to instill fear in women, a fear she has to combat when she begins investigating inconsistencies in her own murder case.

Instilling fear in women is also the consequence, intended or not, of so much violent content in popular culture — including suspense fiction. Both Abbott and Williams push back against the misogyny of the genre and do some cloning and regenerating of their own in these two eerie and inventive suspense novels.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.