These Novels Prove That Women Make Fascinating Fictional Killers, Too
Women's rage is in the spotlight in three of 2018's most thrilling novels: Megan Abbott's Give Me Your Hand, Oyinkan Braithwaite's My Sister, the Serial Killer, and Adrienne Celt's Invitation to a Bonfire.
Most women I know spend their days in a roiling sea of anger and sadness, constantly agitated by a news cycle in which misogyny is on near-constant display. So, back in June, when the Cut’s Rebecca Traister announced it was the summer of female rage, let’s just say I felt it in my bones.
In this climate, it’s also tempting to take our personal rage and project it onto the stories we read and the TV shows we watch. Channeling our anger through women characters who are allowed to act badly — because they’re villains, or because they don’t care about the consequences — gives us a cathartic release often unavailable in real life. Not only do men in power disdain women’s anger, but that kind of rage is viewed as a personality defect: something to squelch, lest we make other people uncomfortable or be branded as “difficult.” And because we don’t have a culture that allows for — or takes seriously — healthy expressions of rage and anger, sometimes the only release for women is living vicariously through fictional characters who follow their rage to its deepest and darkest places.
These books draw complex portraits of narrators who have difficulty accessing their own anger or admitting to their own abuses of power.
It’s hard to ignore that recent entries into prestige TV largely focus on women’s rage-by-proxy. HBO’s Sharp Objects follows a wan, damaged Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) as she pursues a serial killer targeting teen girls. She spends the show gunning her shitty car along the dirt roads of her hometown until she ultimately has to confront the patterns of abuse and violence in her own family. In Killing Eve, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) sports a majestic mane of softly waving hair and an overlarge anorak, while tracking an assassin across Europe. Eve is alternately repulsed by and attracted to the brutal killer who has outsmarted MI5 largely by being female and, therefore, invisible. But while it’s clear that both Camille and Eve are haunted by the transgressive violence of the killers they pursue, viewers are only given small glimpses into their interior lives that contextualize the darkness of their obsessions. Trauma and a ticking clock prevent these characters from digging deeper into their respective motivations, or from questioning what makes the violence they’re investigating feel so personal.
Three of this year’s best literary thrillers also tackle complicated women narrators and the murderesses who consume their thoughts. These books offer a necessary corrective to portrayals of women killers as hysterical or cold-blooded, and they draw complex portraits of narrators who have difficulty accessing their own anger or admitting to their own abuses of power.
Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand is deliberately structured to challenge the cultural ties between women and hysteria. The novel takes place in a laboratory trying to unlock the causes of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) — painful PMS that causes women to act out in violent bursts. While the men in the lab make snide asides about “Hatchet PMS” and “Medusa Menses,” two female friends and academic rivals must confront how violence destroyed their friendship. In Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut, My Sister, the Serial Killer, a dutiful sister must cover up her sibling’s penchant for murdering boyfriends — even as she worries that her sister’s next target is the handsome doctor she desires for herself. Meanwhile, Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire is a slower burn, in part because the narrator, Zoya, is an orphan, isolated and unloved in a new country. It’s her attempts to develop intimacy, first with the girls at her school and then with an enigmatic married couple, that invite violence to creep closer. Each of these narrators is deeply invested in keeping the reader from learning the truth about their motivations, or admitting to the deep wells of anger that could make them seem less trustworthy.
In a dark and twisted way, the uptick of complicated female killers written by women feels comforting, especially right now. Portrayals of angry women so often feel one-dimensional — and it’s easier for audiences to judge them for being cold, callous, or straight-up angry bitches. Because misogyny also colors our associations between women and violence, characters who exert control over their lives in this way still feel doubly transgressive — even six years after Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel, Gone Girl. When women write women who kill, however, their characters contain more realistic shades of emotion: righteous fury, staggering ambition, entitlement, and clear-eyed, vicious pragmatism — even if, like Flynn’s Amy Dunne, they struggle with sociopathy.
Unlike most thrillers written for television, these novels also afford us the luxury of interiority. They are deep psychological portrayals of narrators who don’t understand their own rage, or who actively work to conceal it. As each narrator obsesses over the violent woman in her life, it’s clear that the murderer serves as a proxy for helping the narrator understand her own anger or testing the limits of her own civility. And that’s what makes them so interesting to follow.
Megan Abbott has made a career of writing thrillers that focus on the relationships women have with each other, and their ability to commit violence. In an interview with New York magazine, Abbott mentions that she pitched the TV rights to her sixth novel, 2012’s Dare Me, about power and obsession in a close-knit cheerleading squad, as “Friday Night Lights for girls, but it’s darker because girls are darker.” This darkness can shock her readers, who occasionally push back against the most transgressive women in her novels. “We’re all really like that, on a continuum,” Abbott recently told the New York Times. “I’m always surprised at the negative response to the women in my books who are openly ambitious or experience aggression.”
In addition to scheming cheerleaders, she’s written about a best friend’s mysterious disappearance in 2011’s The End of Everything, teenage girls who experience a Salem-like outbreak of seizures in 2014’s The Fever, and a talented gymnast with a dark secret in 2016’s You Will Know Me. In Give Me Your Hand, her ninth and most recent novel, Abbott takes something universal — like the secret-sharing girls use to bond — and gives it a knife-twist: What do you do when your best friend reveals she killed someone? This is what Kit must contend with when her high school BFF Diane admits that she poisoned her father. We don’t have direct access to Diane’s thoughts though, and, in her retelling of the crime, she seems surprised that she was angry enough to kill her father, despite feeling neglected and abandoned. “Haven’t you ever done something in the blink of an eye and then realized it was wrong?” she asks Kit. “And you can’t believe it later. You can’t believe you were that person.” Even though Diane expresses remorse over her father’s death, she worries that she might not have the same moral makeup as others around her. Kit is burdened with Diane’s secret into adulthood. The truth makes leverage within their relationship even more complicated, destroying a friendship already fraught with competition.
Later, when both women end up in the lab of Dr. Severin, Diane and Kit vie for an available slot to work with their hero — and the power dynamic of their teen years becomes mirrored and distorted, now with entire careers at stake. Like a femme fatale in a noir, Diane stalks into the Severin Lab as “a tubercular beauty” with “sunken glamor,” her “[c]heekbones and jaw both knife sharp.” She is utterly transformed from her “virgin princess” high school persona into a formidable sexual and intellectual adversary. This might explain why, when Kit recounts her past as Diane's friend and academic competitor in high school, she reveals an undercurrent of sexual tension that bleeds into the pressure cooker of the present. It’s reminiscent of the eroticism in Killing Eve and even Sharp Objects, when all that obsessive attention turns — if only for a moment — curious and desirous. “She’d shared something with me, something as intimate as if she’d let me between those long, locked legs of hers, and now I was pulling away,” Kit recalls as she replays the emotional aftermath of learning Diane’s secret. But whatever heat fizzles in and out of focus between these two is undercut by Diane’s icy exterior.
By showing how deeply both women sublimate their rage and attraction, as well as how their anger is masked by sadness, guilt, and uncertainty, Abbott flips the script on women's anger and violence. Though Diane’s ability to kill is ultimately a form of control and self-protection, it feels disconnected from anger. Because Diane holds others at a distance, the emotional life she allows them to glimpse feels closer to depression or sadness. Even as a teen, she mourns her inability to be or feel “normal,” an observation that pushes her to become a researcher. It’s hard to say whether Diane’s tragic choices at the end of the novel are because she wanted to protect Kit, or because she wanted so desperately to see herself in her friend — and couldn’t.
Kit’s anger, on the other hand, is channeled into frustration about class difference. In Kit’s mind, everything comes easy to Diane, but she must struggle to earn her place because she started from behind. Even though Kit remains horrified by Diane’s behavior, time and again she recognizes that she shares many of Diane’s feelings, like anger, frustration, and ambition. “Sometimes it feels like Diane is a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood,” Kit admits early in the novel.
Yet it turns out, as a narrator, Kit is actively working to prevent the reader from learning the truth about how far she’s willing to go to secure her future. By mining Kit’s ambivalence toward professional ambition and secret-keeping, Abbot’s novel is a powerful testament to how thin the boundaries between victim and aggressor, bystander and accomplice, can feel, especially when it comes to the stories we tell about ourselves.
While secret-keeping is at the heart of Kit and Diane’s relationship, the narrator of My Sister, the Serial Killer suffers from knowing everything about her sister’s disastrous choices, and finds herself caught between protectiveness and guilt. “Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him,” begins Oyinkan Braithwaite’s firecracker debut novel. “I had hoped I would never hear those words again.” Braithwaite uses the dynamic between Korede and Ayoola to explore the sometimes painful bonds between older and younger sisters, and to examine how feelings of familial obligation can be twisted and manipulated on the one hand, or lead to lingering feelings of anger and resentment on the other.
Like Diane, Ayoola is an object of sexual attraction to every man she encounters. Unlike Abbott’s ice queen, however, Ayoola has “the body of a music video vixen, a scarlet woman, a succubus,” and she enjoys using this power to attract her victims — and keep Korede under her thumb. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the novel investigates how gendered stereotypes create familial expectations around domestic responsibilities and emotional labor. Ayoola, with her beautiful face and her beguiling curves, is destined to make a powerful love match, an outcome her entire family works to support. As the less conventionally attractive, more pragmatic sister, Korede is overlooked and underappreciated. She works as a nurse in a local hospital. She cooks efo and bakes cakes. She constantly folds laundry (especially when she’s angry). And she disappears Ayoola’s dead boyfriends without batting an eye.
Braithwaite has a lot of fun playing with these surface-level characteristics, masterfully directing the reader's assumptions about both Korede and Ayoola to mask their individual propensity for anger. “Ayoola is inconsiderate and selfish and reckless, but her welfare is and always has been my responsibility,” Korede thinks at one point while preventing herself from tanking Ayoola’s latest relationship — even though it could save the young man’s life. Instead of confronting her sister about her psychopathic behavior, Korede holds on to a deep well of resentment and rage that only bubbles up in periodic confessions to a comatose patient.
Braithwaite builds tension and explores how competitive sisters can be with one another, jockeying for parental affection and keeping score in their own relationship. But, as the story progresses, each sister has difficulty maintaining her appointed role. Korede’s bid to control and protect her “hapless” younger sister becomes more desperate, and Ayoola’s ability to manipulate Korede — and the other people around her — becomes more sinister and pointed.
At the heart of the novel is a deeper mystery: Why does Ayoola murder her boyfriends? And what obligation keeps Korede tied to her sister after Ayoola commits a string of horrific murders? Unlike Abbott’s novel, however, we never learn the true motivation behind Ayoola’s desire to kill men. She initially professes a fear of domestic and sexual violence, but this could easily be a performance designed to manipulate Korede into helping her. It’s a tricky narrative move to digest in the #MeToo moment, when open hostility toward women who have suffered sexual assault is all too often used as a way to destroy their credibility and prevent justice.
While covering up Ayoola's murders, Korede is also forced to confront her family's legacy of violence — including how her own decisions contributed to that pattern. “Is it in the blood?” Korede wonders, thinking about how her father and Ayoola share a tendency for violence and cruelty. “But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.” While Korede seems, on the surface, like a selfless older sister determined to keep her younger sister from harm, she also processes an enormous amount of guilt and anger about enabling her sister’s behavior, a tendency Ayoola ultimately uses to her own advantage.
While Ayoola gets away with murder — literally — Korede suffers the consequences of expressing anger and independence, the two traits that push her further from her familial role as a dutiful older daughter. By using the dark bond between sisters to frame her thriller, Braithwaite illustrates the cyclical nature of abuse in families, and how easily the burden of family obligation is pushed to its breaking point when women try — and fail — to perform the domestic roles designated to them.
Zoya, the heroine of Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire, doesn’t have a sister or even a best friend to obsess over — but there is a woman who haunts her past: “Little Vera, with her tall shoes, her black hair, her long and perfect nose.” As an upper-class Russian woman, Vera represents the world Zoya never had access to, and that her family’s politics force her to question. Orphaned during the Russian Revolution, Zoya is thrown out of one class war and into another, emigrating to an all-girls school in Maple Hill, New Jersey. There, she is teased for her accent and her class status, “[a] little exotic, a little pathetic.” Celt carefully positions Zoya as a quiet, lonely underdog who must make her own way in America — the kind of young woman who could easily be swept up by forces bigger than herself, and who doesn’t have the temperament to be angry about the poverty and isolation that make her vulnerable to abuse.
And she does suffer — first, at the hands of the girls at the Donne School, and then, in the crosshairs of a deadly game for control played by a magnetic married couple. When Lev Orlov, a famous Russian novelist, takes a position at the Donne School, he and Zoya begin an affair and, ultimately, plot to murder Lev’s wife, Vera — the same enigmatic woman from Zoya’s schoolgirl days in Moscow. Told in a series of confessional diary entries, newspaper clippings, and letters, Invitation to a Bonfire uses Zoya’s first-person account to cast doubt on both Vera and Lev, who comes across as paranoid and childish in his manipulations. “Lev still spoke of his passion for his wife, her spectacular galactic beauty,” Zoya recalls. “[Before] him, I’d had nothing, and if I lost him, things would go back to the way they’d been.” But these heartbreaking first-person confessions are also how Celt thwarts the reader’s expectations about Zoya’s ability to wield anger and deception. As in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace or Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Celt creates a sympathetic protagonist caught up in circumstances beyond her control, rather than a cold-blooded villain who contributes to her own ruin.
The novel’s structure affects how we think of Vera, too. We only get glimpses of Vera as she is filtered through other characters, many of them male. She’s “[s]harp as a tack” and “[c]old as a Frigidaire,” according to one, and a “magnetic” beauty who aims her husband “like a gun,” according to another. And, although Vera makes much of Lev’s work possible, Lev himself portrays her as controlling, even sinister — someone to escape, or to be gotten rid of. “He was a writer. He could come up with the right set of circumstances to forestall any serious suspicion,” reports Zoya. “A woman pushed over the edge, maybe to a sanatorium, maybe something more, when she found out her control was less than total.” (Celt’s real-life models for Lev and Vera are the novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Véra, who was well-known for typing and editing the famous author’s pages, driving his car, and, on occasion, teaching his classes.)
So many competing constructions of Vera emerge that they leave little room for the woman herself, making it easier for Zoya to think of her as a manipulative aggressor, rather than a victim of her husband’s thoughtless cruelty. Lev’s version of Vera leaves Zoya unprepared for what she does find: a woman determined to thwart her husband’s murder plot, and who can use weapons of politeness and domestic ritual — a cup of tea and a slice of pastila — to disarm her enemies and channel her rage.
Zoya becomes enthralled by the woman she is supposed to kill, who, it turns out, has murderous plans of her own. She’s thrown into helping Vera outwit a deranged and cruel artist in order to secure their mutual survival — but her horror at being manipulated by her lover and his wife festers under the surface of the narrative. As a young orphan, she’s a disposable tool to them both. In Zoya’s final bid for freedom from Lev and Vera, Celt upends stereotypes about innocence and guile, deception and honesty. She underscores how easily class and gender can be used to grind someone down — and the enormous grit and adaptability it takes to survive a world that doesn’t want to keep you. Most of all, Invitation to a Bonfire demonstrates how casually women are pitted against one another by the stories of men — and the lengths they are willing to go to to protect themselves from harm without destroying their own ambitions in the process.
By introducing elements of unreliable narration, these novels help us understand the psychological impact of anger on women who want to be believed, but who know that displaying darker emotions comes with severe consequences. After all, admitting to how angry she is might bring each narrator too close to the truth about her own darkness, or cause the reader to dismiss her actions.
Conveniently, obsessing about another woman who is visibly angry or dangerous allows the narrator to protect her own self-image, avoid culpability, and retain the reader’s trust. In their own way, each of these narrators is also invested in protecting or benefiting from the rage of another woman. But in the end, each of these novels offers a dark prognosis about rage-by-proxy: When a woman sublimates her anger, or projects it onto another woman, it finds ways to bubble up in spite of her best efforts.
When women write women who kill, especially when they’re as talented as Abbott and Braithwaite and Celt, we don’t get inert female figures but living, breathing, complicated ones. Part of acknowledging our own humanity is to confront the dark spots that exist in all of us: anger, violence, obsession, complicity — all the bad feelings women are supposed to squelch down, or not admit to having at all. The stakes are perhaps even higher for female characters compelled to protect the women they care about — stakes just about any woman might understand or even forgive. In the real world, anger more often pushes us to different ends. As Traister suggests, anger can be clarifying and motivating. It can be a political tool for change. It reminds you that you’re alive, and that your humanity is worth fighting for. ●
Kristen Evans is a freelance critic and culture writer with work in Brooklyn Magazine, Catapult, the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Literary Hub, Nylon, and elsewhere. She tweets too much as @paperalphabet.