This is a guest post by Rachel Smalter Hall. Rachel grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in a family of seven that donned bathrobes and towels for their yearly theatrical Christmas Pageant. Since then she’s lived in Minnesota, Vermont, Rome, and now Lawrence, Kansas, where she writes web content at a nearby library and wrangles a beer-drinking co-ed book club. After the first beer she’s usually ready to spill her guts about third-wave feminism, dirty old men, and the semiotic domain of rapper shout-outs and disses. Follow her on Twitter @bananasuit.
I often tell other bookish types that I’m a recovering English major. I’ve read all the nerdy books, guys. All of them. A few years ago I started rehabbing on Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games. Tina Fey’s Bossypants was a revelation. But if there was one genre I thought I’d never crack, it was the thriller.
I flirted with the idea of thrillers for ages. My New Year’s resolution one year was to read more “pulp,” and I fantasized about lounging on a beach with margaritas and vintagey B novels à la Harold Robbins but with heists and murders. I tried and hated Dennis Lehane even though I swear I really wanted it to work out between us. Then I cheated and read some Cormac McCarthy. Uh, thriller? Who was I kidding! Back to square one.
Enter Out by Natsuo Kirino, my initiation to the badass female revenge thriller. Out is about four women who work the graveyard shift at a Japanese bento factory and get pulled into a dark and twisty pact when one of them goes home and chops off her husband’s head. Out is the book that finally showed me I don’t like goody two-shoes detectives or tough-talking mob bosses. What I crave in a thriller is a slighted girl on the wrong side of the law who grabs her own justice by the balls. Here are some of my favs:
If you’re the sort of person who thinks a fictional scene of a woman roaming the parks of Tokyo depositing pieces of her dismembered husband into trash cans could be hilarious, then Out is the book for you! If you’re not, I promise I’m still a really nice person who would never dismember anybody.
While Out is a murder mystery, it’s also this crazy treatise on enslaved middle-class housewives in Japan — wronged murderesses who’ve snapped under the pressure of working factory jobs by night and taking care of their thankless families by day. Better yet, there are four zany female friends! Sex and the City, now with more murderesses. I love Out because it’s more than just a really brilliant book about gender and class warfare. It’s also a kickass thriller that beautifully builds to a completely satisfying climax with lots of perfect twists along the way.
Michel Faber, you had me at “Scottish alien cannibal women.” Part morality tale, part horror story, and part dystopian sci-fi, Under the Skin is a lightning-paced read with a serious backbone, featuring an embattled, tough-as-nails heroine. Isserly is a sexy alien who’s been sent to Scotland to entrap humans, but she comes with a mysterious past. Throughout the book we catch glimpses of her backstory as some kind of indentured servant on a distant planet, a chip she carries on her shoulder to the novel’s punishing end.
Although I don’t often read horror or sci-fi, I loved Under the Skin. It’s a genre-bending tale in the vein of some of the best science fiction classics out there: 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451; the genre is such a great vehicle for exploring those big juicy human questions. Better yet, Under the Skin taps into pop-culture’s beloved hitchhiking motif. And the audio version is worth it for the Scottish accents alone.
Do we really need to reprise Gone Girl? Yes, we do, because this list would be incomplete without a holla to my girl Amy. The thing I love about this thriller that pits husband against wife is the ambiguity, the glorious ambiguity of it all. Amy is one of my favorite lady villainesses, the one I hate to love and love to hate. I’ll resist the urge to spoil it for the two of you who haven’t read it yet. But I will say that Gillian Flynn perfectly captures the case for thrillers in this quote from leading man Nick: “She’d made a grim figure on the Fiji beach during our two-week honeymoon, battling her way through a million mystical pages of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, casting pissy glances at me as I devoured thriller after thriller.” I love you, Murakami, but pass me the Flynn, please.
For those of you who crave a side of literary cred with your badass female revenge thrillers, I recommend Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Both have incredible literary chops and brutally brave young ladies. One features arsenic and the other features dismembered hands, but I’m not telling which is which.
Do you enjoy badass leading ladies on the wrong side of the law? Which ones are missing from this lineup? Let me know. But please don’t say “Medea” because that’s so totally not the point.