In the Scroll, The Face At The Window

How India’s women writers are storming the ‘male’ bastion of action thrillers

Conventional wisdom had it that only men could write adrenaline-pumping books.

What’s it about a James Patterson, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Ashwin Sanghi or Mukul Deva that has intense appeal among readers of crime and thriller fiction? Browsing at bookstores I have often wondered why women writers have failed to make a lasting impact on the genre. Is it that the testosterone-driven guns-guts-and-glory plotlines hold little appeal to women readers and writers?

Well, not really. As a reader – and a woman – I have enjoyed the antics of Perry Mason, Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher. My bookshelves have always boasted a wide variety of authors who specialise in the genre, including the Grande Dame of crime fiction, Agatha Christie. And as a writer, I have always wanted to write heart-pumping, edge of the seat action, and finally got a chance to do it with my romantic-thriller No Safe Zone.

So, much like a Hercule Poirot, I set off to investigate the mystery of why only a handful of women authors – primary among them being Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Sue Grafton – have scaled the heights of popular crime fiction and endured. To my pleasant surprise, the tide seems to be turning.

The spectacular success of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has established that contemporary women writers can plot diabolical twists as effectively as any of their male counterparts. What’s more, as the genre has expanded from the Christie-esque living-room murder mysteries to include psychological thrillers, romantic-suspense, paranormal suspense, spy thrillers and more, women are increasingly bringing in their unique take.

As critic Laura Miller recently observed in Salon, “Their (women authors’) prose ranges from the matter-of-fact to the intoxicating, and the battlefields they depict are not the sleazy nightclubs, back alleys, diners and shabby offices of the archetypal PI novel, but a far more intimate and treacherous terrain: family, marriage, friendship.”

Thrillers, but three-dimensional

While plot is the real “hero” of crime fiction, there is no doubt that women writers are introducing three-dimensional characters and making thrillers more nuanced reads. As Kiran Manral, author of The Face at the Window, a paranormal thriller, says, “The female gaze is relentless, unflinching and does not take excuses. It is also empathetic, and delves more into the inner conflict that makes up as much of the drama as the external. It might be grittier, but it is more interior a journey for the reader. Women also experience violence – or perhaps the constant implied threat of violence – differently and more intensely than men, I think, and that emerges in the writing.”

Adds Usha Narayanan, author of The Madras Mangler, “The perception that women cannot write thrillers probably springs from the assumption that these books call for more violent scenes and characters than, say, a rom-com. But violence is very much a part of our lives today and our writing. Perhaps what women can add to the genre is a greater insight into the emotions and the motivations that underlie actions.”

What about pulse-pounding action scenes? How well do women writers tackle those? Argues Mukul Deva, the best-selling author of several military-ops thrillers like Lashkar and Salim Must Die, “Whether written by male or female, the guns, guts and glory type of thrillers are most gritty and realistic when they come from a writer who has had some exposure to this – say in the armed forces, the police, or some law enforcement, security, intelligence background. These tend to be more male than female.”

Aarti V Raman, who has written two thrillers – White Knight and Kingdom Come – disagrees. “It’s not as if women thriller writers do not put in the same amount of research or figure out the exact terminology that is used in military ops or a similar space. The difference, if there is any, is probably in the way the plots are twisted in the narrative and the amount of detail that sometimes is given to technicalities (yes, I am talking about Dan Brown in Deception Point).”

Pushing the borders

Interestingly, it’s women writers who’re leading the way into unexplored territory. As Raman points out, “In India, where college romances and histo-mytho sagas rule the bookshelves, people are attempting new styles of writing. They are subverting culture and taking on taboos inherent in society.”

It’s not surprising then to find women writers experimenting with genres or sub-genres. Those who write love stories are writing about guns and car chases, and vice-versa. A key reason for this “freedom”, avers Raman, is that “worries such as ‘what will my publisher think about this?’ or ‘will my agent approve?’ have been replaced with Amazon Kindle Publishing and other services. If your publisher or agent doesn’t like what you’re writing, you can always take it to the market yourself.”

Even so, concerns about how readers will react to a thriller written by a woman cannot be totally wished away. Call it marketplace reality. Admits Narayanan, “Initially, I was not too sure how Indian audiences would receive a thriller written by a female, and even considered using a male pseudonym. However, the book was released under my name and readers overwhelmed me with their discernment and praise.”

In fact, unlike their male counterparts, women writers are not afraid of giving their loyal readers a bit of a scare. Says Manral, “The Face at the Window has quite shaken my readers – my previous books have been happy, funny, romantic reads. After the initial moment of disbelief that I could have written this dark, grim, terrifying book, they’ve enjoyed reading it; so that’s a relief.”

As women delve deeper into the fictional arena of crime, murder and all things gory offering readers a wider choice of stories, it is inevitable that the gender of the writer will cease to matter. Says Deva, “Any writer can do any genre effectively, should they wish to. Just to test this out, one of these days, I plan to do a romantic, mystery novel.”

In fact, the real takeaway from a thriller for readers may not even be the action. Says Manral, “Crime and thrillers are in some way our modern day equivalent of fairy tales. We are looking for a peak of some sort of fear catharsis in the reading of these and the assurance that things will be set right by the end of it all.”

Adite Banerjie is an author and screenwriter. Her newest release is No Safe Zone, a romantic-thriller published by Harper Collins India.

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