Before I dive in, I’d like to note that publishing as a whole is not great when it comes to gender equality and inclusivity—especially the mystery/thriller genres—so I do apologize to non-binary people because there is going to be a lot of gender binary talk.
Bridget Lawless has created the Staunch Book Prize to honor and award thriller novels that don’t contain violence towards women. Specifically, “[t]he prize is for a thriller in which no woman gets beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” If you’re a reader of the genre you may have just wondered if that type of book even exists, which is precisely why Lawless has created the award. As for focusing only on thrillers—as opposed to the entire mystery genre—”they’re a huge and important genre in their own right—and they’re frequently also source material for film and television.”
The thing is, I know there is a ton of violence towards women in thrillers because I read a lot of it, and have my whole life, but I can’t specifically give you a percentage. It’s like the surge in novels with “Girl” in the title; I knew it was happening because my brain started pointing it out to me, but I couldn’t actually tell you out of all the books published in X-year the exact amount that had “girl” in the title—but Emily St. John Mandel did crunch some data. So I decided to take a little dive into 2017 thrillers to come up with some numbers.
I first started with this New York Times Fiction Bestsellers of 2017 List: the combined print and ebook fiction that topped the list every week. There were 53 fiction books on the list. I reduced the list down to thrillers only (using Goodreads to keep only books with “Thriller” marked in the top 4 genre) and ended up with 25 books. Because 3 of those 25 were repeats I ended up with 22 books. I then checked the summary of those 22 books to see how many* listed violence towards women/girls in the summary. (If you’re saying, “hold up, tons of books have violence not listed in the summary,” I’ll get to that at the end.) Out of the 22 books, 13 listed in their summary violence towards women. Fifty-nine percent of the thrillers that topped the weekly NYT bestseller fiction list had violence towards women in the summary of the book.
Being that I was already counting, and that was a very small sample, I turned next towards randomly picking 20 thrillers from 2017 (no repeats from above list) that either had heavy marketing and/or were very popular, like Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire and Final Girls by Riley Sager. Out of the 20 novels, 11 had violence against women/girls in the summary. Fifty-five percent. (Rebecca sadly rightly assumed on Book Riot’s The Podcast that top 20 thrillers of last year would have over 50% violence against women.)
Remembering that Rioter Deepali Agarwal had taken a deep dive into Goodreads Top 100 Mystery & Thrillers list, I decided to take a dip myself. Using the same constraints as before, I counted out the novels that were thrillers: 53. How many of those 53 thrillers had violence towards women in the summary? 27. That leaves us with 51%.
Since writing the Unusual Suspects mystery newsletter, I mostly only read mystery/thriller, so I know that tons of novels that don’t mention violence towards women in the summary do contain it in the novel. With that in mind I decided to take all the novels I’ve read so far in 2018, expand from thrillers to also include mysteries, and compare how many list violence in the summary to how many contain it in the novel. Out of the 33 books I’ve read so far this year, 21 were mystery/thrillers. Out of those 21 only 5 books listed violence towards women in the summary. Now strap in folks, because since I just read those 21 I know that 17 out of them actually have violence towards women in the novel. That’s a huge difference. Not only is 17 out of 21 mystery/thriller containing violence towards women a lot (81%), that only 5 of those books even acknowledged it makes you wonder how many of the books counted above that didn’t note violence towards women in the summary do actually contain it in the novel.
So 3 out of 4 samples showed that violence towards women in thrillers were more than 51% of the time in the summary, and a sample of my reading so far this year showed that there’s a very good chance novels have violence towards women even when not stated in the summary.
I personally have no doubt that there is an overabundance of violence specifically towards women in thrillers (and the mystery genre) and see this award, during the #metoo movement, as a push towards much needed and overdue discussions.
*A few notes on my method: A few summaries had vague “serial killer hunting victims” type descriptions which since usually that meant violence towards women I read a review to in fact determine that it was violence towards women. / 1 of the books counted in my personal reading STATS is anthropomorphic characters.