A San Francisco native who now lives in Brooklyn, Louisa Luna is the author of four novels. The most recent, Two Girls Down (Doubleday), was released to rave reviews in January of this year. In this post the author discusses a type of heroine we commonly see in current crime fiction—a type of figure that it seems to me we find in her first story for EQMM, which appears in our July/August issue (on sale now).—Janet Hutchings
My mother-in-law, who reads far more thrillers than I, frequently tells me that she can’t stand a flawed female lead. “I hate it when they can’t get their shit together,” she says. And I always say something like, “But that’s what makes them real!” The last one we spoke about was The Girl on The Train, which drove her right up the wall. “Ugh, she was such a mess,” she said, referring to Rachel. Indeed she was, but, I argued, a mess in whose reflection a reader could see herself. A bad-decision-making, hard-drinking, drunk-dialing mess who triumphs in the end and solves the mystery. “I guess,” my mother-in law conceded, remaining unmoved.
Granted, she and I ultimately read for different reasons: she (as she freely admits), to be entertained, and I, to feel stuff. But there is a level on which I agree with her: Need the women of my favorite thrillers and suspense novels be so damaged, have had such terrible childhoods and lug around one or more weighty secrets? Was there an unacknowledged checklist for authors when creating their women detectives? As the author of a thriller with an imperfect but Wüsthof-sharp female PI, I decided to take a look at two of my favorites and see if I could find a through-line.
Flea Marley appears alongside Jack Caffery in five books of Mo Hayder’s series. The first time we meet her, in Ritual, she’s under water. Now I don’t have an MFA or anything but that sounds like a metaphor to me. As it turns out, she is a Sergeant for Bristol’s Underwater Search Unit, and in those opening pages she finds a severed hand which revs the engine of Hayder’s main plot. She also begins speaking to her dead mother, cries, and then stops “until the tears had gone somewhere safe, and she knew she wouldn’t . . . make a fool of herself when she surfaced.” Hayder, pro that she is, hooks us with her b-plot, Flea’s story, in a one-two punch, fourth page.
Flea’s background slowly emerges. We learn she comes from a family of divers, that her parents drowned not long before in a diving accident in which her brother was the sole survivor and then a little later, she confesses to purposely grinding her feet in broken glass to get out of joining the dive because she was afraid to do it. After her parents don’t make it back, their bodies never recovered, Flea, needless to say, feels just a smidge guilty.
Regret and guilt taint every cut of her life going forward, manifesting most notably in her ongoing flirtation with death. As she admits to Caffery, “The only way you could make amends would be to die yourself—to die more horribly and in more pain and fear . . . you would die their death a million times over rather than feel one more second of that guilt.” So there it is, the full bulk of what Flea feels every day. And on top of it she worries compulsively about her fragile troubled brother, and later she also dabbles in ibogaine, a potent, naturally occurring psychedelic drug so she can communicate with the ghosts of her parents. You know, regular girl stuff.
But she is a knock-out at work. She’s so good, in fact, that even in the midst of all her personal shit, she can’t turn her brain off from analyzing the case, even when she’s not supposed to. Her job is just to dig out the body parts, even though she claims “one thing she never did was think about the cases. No curiosity, no theorizing. It was a rule she had,” she swiftly breaks her own rule and provides clues which lead her and Caffery to solve the crime.
As she and Caffery close in on their man, it is precisely Flea’s guilt which propels her forward. Faced with the option of following Caffery into an ominous corridor carved into the walls of an apartment building or waiting for back-up, Flea remembers her brother and parents and knows what she has to do: “. . . she pictured Bushman’s Hole, remembered letting Thom go down. She thought about the dark water . . . and a sensation like air rushed through her, like something rising up from inside her and cracking. She . . . caught up with Caffery in the corridor.” The sensation, that thing that is cracking, is the physical manifestation of her regret. She won’t let herself be in the position to regret acting this time.
Tana French’s books are mosaics of fantastic characters and Russian-nesting-doll plots. The most recent, The Trespasser, is no exception and the protagonist is a piece of work, a female detective carrying multiple chips on her shoulder, Antoinette Conway. The trespasser of the title is ostensibly the murderer of the young single woman in the case Antoinette is investigating, but it’s also her, herself, the sole woman in the Murder Squad, and a woman of color to boot. Antoinette first faces hazing from her male colleagues which quickly leads to consistent harassment, sustaining lesson after lesson that her kind isn’t welcome. But Antoinette toughs it out and learns to survive: “If I learned one thing in school it’s this: you never let them get you on the bottom of the pile. If you do, you might never get up again.”
As we read, we learn that Antoinette’s father abandoned her and her mother when Antoinette was a child, though at this point, Antoinette doesn’t seem to give too much of a shit about it. The event appears to have been smelted into the armor she wears on a daily basis, as her anger simmers just beneath the surface at all times, for example when she considers sticking it to the brass: “For a second I can feel it right through my body: the weight of the room lifting off me, the rush of strength hitting every cell like oxygen: Let’s see you try and push me around now motherfuckers.”
As she attempts to solve her case, she clashes with her partner, Steve, a genuinely nice guy and one of the only people she trusts. He lays out how her take-no-prisoners attitude could backfire: “You’re so set on going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to.” Perhaps, as Steve suggests, being a super-ballbuster isn’t the most productive way to do police work, or operate in the world. Such an M.O. might lend itself to self-sabotage.
Warning: Spoilers follow, but you should probably just keep reading.
Antoinette finally meets her father after she discovers him spying on her (another trespasser!), and he offers to tell her everything she wants to know – about him, why he left, her history. She considers it but then thinks again: “If I let him give me the answers, he’ll own me. Everything in my life, past and future, will be his: what he decides to make it into.” She decides it’s ultimately better not to know anything about that side of her. She gives into her anger and kicks him out, refusing to let him define her.
And it’s the same thing that leads her to find and accuse the murderer, a senior detective in her squad. She catches a glimpse of her life at work easing up if she plays ball: “If I keep my mouth shut, then they’ve put their hands on me and knotted me into someone else, living a whole different life . . . [they] will be running me and my every day after all . . . I owe this case.”
She owes the case and she owns the case, her contrariness, her stubbornness, her bottomless anger driving her to fight. She’s just as angry at the conclusion as she was at the beginning, but now it has a purpose, it is the means by which she will uncover the truth.
Both Flea and Antoinette keep their baggage; they use it a bit differently, but it drives both of them in their work.
We would perhaps not want our female detectives to be so damaged. We would perhaps want them to be, or at least appear, stronger. Especially at this moment when men just seem to be taking their penises out all over the place, we like to fantasize about how our difficult women would handle such a situation (preferably with tasers or say, a bench vise). But it’s these same wounds which make them strong, and I don’t mean in a “Whatever doesn’t kill you” way; I mean that the damage itself is the strength. The brains and the pain, the hysteria and the hunches, the instinct and the rage—both things together, neither one causal, both side by side, resulting in stories and characters that simultaneously entertain a couple of broads like my mother-in-law and I, and make us feel stuff, too.