Crime fiction has no shortage of misogynistic stereotypes, from idealized victims to nastier tropes of vindictive harpies and one-dimensional femmes fatales. These thrillers refuse to deify or demonize the women at their hearts, diving instead into the darkness that only complexity affords.
The Lost Girls
Marti Reese has all but given up on finding out what really happened to her older sister, Maggie. When Marti was only 8 years old, she watched Maggie get into a car, never to be seen again. Every time a new clue sparks hope that Maggie will finally be found, it always ends in disappointment. Twenty years later, Marti’s obsession with finding the truth has ruined her marriage, fractured her relationship with her parents and driven her to drugs and alcohol.
Author Jessica Chiarella expertly balances Marti’s emotional turmoil and sense of loss with the dark mystery at the heart of The Lost Girls. Chiarella plants readers firmly in Marti’s mind by limiting them to her first-person narration. You can’t help but feel Marti’s anguish, as well as admire her tenacity to uncover the truth despite knowing what she may find.
After Marti shares her sister’s story on her true crime podcast, a listener, Ava Vreeland, approaches her about the death of Sarah Ketchum, whose case has remarkable similarities to Maggie’s. Marti’s need for closure once again overrides logic, and she finds herself using Sarah’s story on her podcast and renewing her quest for answers.
Marti and Ava are both deeply scarred individuals still longing for some sense of satisfaction after the police have given up, settling on any number of cliched theories to explain away Maggie’s disappearance and Sarah’s death. But rather than making readers simply feel sorry for them and the girls they seek justice for, Chiarella celebrates Marti and Ava’s strength and resolve, even as law enforcement and the women’s loved ones try to dissuade them from following the clues. The result is a richly textured missing persons story that drip-drops clues with each new interview of long forgotten witnesses.
Spoiled by success, novelist Gerry Andersen is nevertheless having a rough go of it when we meet him in Laura Lippman’s twisty Dream Girl. A publishing deadline is looming closer, he’s recently lost his mother to Alzheimer’s disease, and he’s been confined to his bed for weeks after a horrific fall in his luxury Baltimore apartment. But worst of all, he is being tormented by phone calls from a woman named Aubrey, who claims he has wronged her in some way. Aubrey is also the name of the central, completely fictitious character of Gerry’s bestselling novel, Dream Girl. When Gerry wakes one night to find a woman slain on his bedroom floor, his paranoia takes on a new level of urgency.
A former reporter and the author of more than 20 novels Lippman thrilled readers last summer with her bestseller Lady in the Lake. With Dream Girl, she strikes a similarly creepy vibe to Stephen King’s Misery, in which a fiction writer is tormented by an adoring fan, but upends it by making Gerry the bad guy. Lippman’s sharp prose builds icy suspense by showing the myriad women who have come in and out of Gerry’s life over the years, any of whom may be out for revenge. Aubrey effectively becomes an amalgam of them all, revealing how Gerry’s misogynistic behavior is inexcusable and toxic, even if he refuses to see it that way. (Lippman fans will be happy to see her popular private eye, Tess Monaghan, make a brief but important appearance.)
★ The Final Girl Support Group
Grady Hendrix, author of 2020’s darkly comedic The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, delights traditional horror fans again with an edgy, campy follow-up, The Final Girl Support Group.
The six women in Lynnette Tarkington’s therapy group are fiercely independent and strong-willed but also tragically haunted by their past experiences. All of them survived random mass killings that later became the bases for Hollywood slasher franchises that were popular among moviegoers in the 1980s and ’90s. In the book’s alternate version of history, these women not only inspired the classic era of slasher horror but also profited from it by selling or outright owning the rights to their stories.
But then “America’s first final girl” and keystone support group member Adrienne Butler is killed in a massacre of camp counselors at Camp Red Lake. Hendrix puts Lynette and her fellow survivors through all the typical horror tropes as they are forced to once again face a mysterious killer.
This fast-paced novel has plenty of gory thrills, but Hendrix never loses sight of the emotional fallout experienced by the women at its core, each of whom has an idiosyncratic response to the horror she endured. Lynette, for instance, is paranoid to the point of checking sightlines and exits everywhere she goes and building a state-of-the-art panic room. When she does venture into the outside world, she’s armed to the teeth with a variety of weapons, just in case.
While this story’s appeal should be obvious to fans of movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween, Hendrix gives the slasher genre an added level of depth and sophistication as he explores residual trauma as well as the consequences and complications of commodifying that trauma. The Final Girl Support Group is a quirky but refreshingly thoughtful homage to slasher films and the stalwart women who outfoxed their diabolical stalkers.