Grip-lit? Psychological thrillers were around long before Gone Girl

(This article originally appeared in The Guardian).

Is the popularity of dark crime fiction written by women really the sign of a game-changing new genre? Only if you have forgotten PD James, Ruth Rendell, Daphne du Maurier …

“So what do you think of this new phenomenon of psychological thrillers by women?” the interviewer asked me. “You know … Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train. The sudden popularity of this sort of book is a real game-changer for the literary world, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Well, I’m not sure, actually,” I said. “I think there have always been psychological thrillers – certainly for as long as I’ve been around.”

The Bookseller magazine remembers otherwise. In a puzzling article in its most recent issue, it refers to “grip-lit” (AKA the gripping psychological thriller) in a way that suggests it is a trend belonging to last year and, if we’re lucky, this year too – unless the people rise as one and declare their preference for “boreytoolong-lit”, which seems unlikely.

Leaving aside the question of whether it makes sense to define a book’s genre by the effect it has on the reader – and surely not all readers – I considered my own history as a reader of the genre that I call, and probably will always call, psychological suspense. I first encountered it in the form of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (published in 1938). Another fine example of the genre is Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly by John Franklin Bardin (1948). More recently, there was See Jane Run by Joy Fielding (1991) and The Memory Game by Nicci French (1997). I mentioned their names to my interviewer as hesitantly I could, feeling mean for spoiling his theory. I mentioned lots of other titles, ones that weren’t famous enough for anyone to have heard of apart from real devotees of a genre that has existed since days of yore: Hidden by Katy Gardner (2006), The Spider’s House by Sarah Diamond (2004), Summertime by Liz Rigbey (2003) – three brilliant books that all fans of twisty-lit should seek out and read.

Having warmed up by this point, I performed the double-baroness manoeuvre, citing PD James (Innocent Blood, 1980) and Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Dark-Adapted Eye, 1986) in quick succession, before ending my answer with a fleeting mention of Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, a flawless psychological thriller if ever there was one, published in 1967.

“Oh. Right.” The journalist sounded disappointed. I heard some rustling of notebook pages at the other end of the line (at least that’s what I assumed it was. I suppose he might have been flicking through some scalp-lit – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian – or Herman Melville’s skive-lit classic Bartleby the Scrivener.)

“Well, perhaps the new aspect, then, is that it’s women who are writing these books and having so much success?” he said doubtfully. Silently, I banged my head against the wall. “Well, no, it’s also men doing it,” I said. “SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, SK Tremayne’s The Ice Twins, Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing … And before those, Jesse Kellerman’s The Executor … And, as I just said, women successfully wrote psychological thrillers before too. It’s not just since Gone Girl.”

“But … so maybe the really new thing is that this new crop of books have female protagonists who aren’t entirely sympathetic – who are maybe a bit flawed?” he tried again.“Nope,” I said. “That dates back a while too. Nothing new about that.”

“Unreliable narrators?” he asked hopefully. “Nope,” I said. “But … maybe you think women are better at writing psychological thrillers than men? Or do they like reading crime more than men do?” “No, and no,” I said. “Look, let me break down for you the situation as I see it: women and men both write good thrillers. Also, and at the same time, women and men both write bad thrillers. The protagonists in these good and bad thrillers are sometimes women and sometimes men. Sometimes men write female characters, and sometimes women write male characters … and … that’s it.”

“Will you please for the love of God say something about women and newness and crime fiction?” begged the journalist. (He did not, in fact, say this, but it is what I heard.) “No,” I said. “Would you like me to suggest some other literary types you can ring who will say the things I’m annoying you by not saying?” “That would be great!” he said.

By the end of the call, we were friends. Afterwards, being a woman and a pretty bloody innovative one at that, I went out to do this absolutely new and totally radical form of exercise I invented in 2015 called “walking the dog”: it’s where a human and a dog get to take some exercise (here comes the really good bit) together! Data shows that it might remain a popular activity in 2016 too, and that, like grip-lit, it might even be here to stay.