A.V. Club Most Read

Karin Slaughter recommends 7 thrilling, disturbing mysteries written by women

Karin Slaughter (Photo: Alison Rosa)
Karin Slaughter (Photo: Alison Rosa)

With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.

The reader: Karin Slaughter often hears from male fans that she’s the first female author they’ve read. It might be because she writes in a genre more often associated with men: the detective thrillers full of gore, murders, and flawed protagonists. Slaughter told The A.V. Club she wonders if the men who never read female authors are afraid their dicks will fall of if they do—as far as we know, all the men who have dived into Slaughter’s blood-spattered pages emerged with genitals intact. Known for her debut novel, Blindsighted, and her Will Trent series, Slaughter released her latest, The Kept Woman, last month. The A.V. Club spoke to her about other female-penned books that anyone who likes a good, bloody mystery should check out, but especially dudes—if they’re man enough.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Karin Slaughter: You’ve probably read Gone Girl, right?

The A.V. Club: I did read Gone Girl. And I love it for the fact that the complicated protagonist is a woman, which you don’t see much.

KS: I think that was startling for a lot of people. [Author Gillian Flynn] purposefully wrote about a really bad person. I think Curtis Sittenfeld said it—I heard her say in an interview that, when a woman creates an unlikable character, a lot of people think it’s a mistake. But Gillian is just fantastic at writing these dark, interesting women. I think one of the reasons that book works so well is it starts out with her being a stereotypical good girl, right? So she’s basically the face of what a lot of women present—go along to get along—but then the latter half is how she really feels.

AVC: That’s something that the film kind of lost in translation. You’re not exactly rooting for her in the film like you do in the book.

KS: Yeah, and she’s a real antihero. I think a lot of men—it’s kind of like my generation’s Fatal Attraction. But the response was sort of the same, which is that men were saying, “Well, don’t get mixed up with a crazy bitch.” And women were saying, “But he cheated on her. He was an asshole.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Exactly.

KS: You see the different perspectives. I will say, I know all but four of the women on this list, and they are married or partnered to really fantastic men. So I think that maybe because their personal lives are so nice, they feel the ability to write about bad things.

Like Gillian’s husband? You will not meet a more sweet, nice, intellectual, extremely feminist, wonderful man. So you think about the character she creates, and it just reminds you it really is fiction.

AVC: That’s the mark of a good writer.

KS: Absolutely.

AVC: In the books that you’ve chosen, there are themes of really flawed women and protagonists with mental health backstories.

KS: Yeah, they’re multi-layered. I grew up reading crime fiction and, especially in the ’80s, women were just there to be saved or screwed. So, as a woman reading these books, it’s like, “Yay! Finally, we get to read about women who are more than just their vaginas, basically.” They have power and sometimes they use that power for really awful things and sometimes they use it for good things, but they’re actually multi-layered, interesting characters.

Tokyo by Mo Hayder

KS: Just another fantastically screwed-up woman. [Laughs.] There’s definitely a theme there. The original title, in England at least, was The Devil Of Nanking. It’s about what Mo [Hayder, the author] actually was—at one point she was an escort, and she was over in Tokyo. She’s a tall, thin, blond, good-looking former model, so she would work—not as a sexual escort, but they have, in Tokyo, businessmen who will pay women to talk to them and pretend to be interested in them.

So she would do that, and she wrote a book about someone who does that. And it revolves around the Nanking Massacre, which was in 1937, though it’s set in present day. It talks about the fact that these men that this woman is fake-dating don’t really know about the Nanking Massacre. The protagonist, Grey—she’s just so amazingly screwed-up and such an unreliable narrator, and this is an older book. I think it was written 12 years ago. Mo is just amazing at writing about how women, when something bad happens, they can punish themselves, you know? Usually, guys, when something bad happens, they punish someone else.

AVC: True.

KS: But for women—there’s a reason why Gillian [Flynn] wrote that great book Sharp Objects. Mo is really good at tapping into that deep, dark psyche.

Mo’s also written another book called The Treatment, one of the most terrifying books I’ve read in my life, but I didn’t put it on the list because it would freak too many men out.

AVC: How would it freak men out?

KS: It’s the only book I’ve read that just really freaked me the hell out.

AVC: Really?

KS: Yeah, it’s about a serial killer. You should read it if you’ve got the stomach for it. But it’s just freaky.

AVC: Sounds like it would be a good read for Halloween.

KS: Yeah. But if a man who didn’t want to read women read it, he’d be like, “Shit, I cannot read women. This is just too scary.”

Garnethill by Denise Mina

KS: Denise Mina is so fantastic about writing about what’s really close to what actually happens with most crimes, which is that people just make stupid mistakes. And they keep making them and keep making them, and suddenly they can’t dig themselves out. The main character in this book is an addict—she’s an alcoholic—and she gets blackout drunk, and she wakes up and her boyfriend has been brutally murdered, and she’s not sure whether or not she did it. It’s really just a fantastic opening. The boyfriend is also her therapist. She has a psychiatric history that’s really dark and just the suspense of who she is—did she do this horrible thing? Is she capable of doing this? The not-knowing is just a fantastic trick that Denise pulls off.

AVC: It kind of sounds like The Girl On The Train.

KS: But Denise wrote it 10 years ago. Yeah, The Girl On The Train definitely pulled from a lot of different sources. You can go back to Rear Window, though, so…

Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger

KS: Lisa Unger. Also married to a fantastic guy. This one has a male narrator, so maybe it’s a little more palatable. It’s about a guy in a really bad relationship, and the woman does not want to be out of the relationship, and awful things ensue.

AVC: Is this another psychological one? Is it scary?

KS: Yeah. Especially for men. Because it would be like, “Holy crap, maybe I should think twice the next time I think about cheating on my wife.” [Laughs.]

AVC: So it’s told from the point of view of the man, but is the woman sort of empathetic in it for doing what she does, or kind of psycho?

KS: Ian is the narrator and he’s grown up with this woman and they were best friends, and then suddenly they move to the big city and she, the wife—Priscilla, I think—she goes down a very dark path. And then he meets a woman who is far less complicated and tries to pull away from her, and danger ensues.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling

KS: Have you read that one?

AVC: I have. I really, really like it. I think Rowling’s non-Harry Potter books are just as good as the Harry Potter books.

KS: Yeah, she’s an exceptional writer just right off the bat. And this doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand, but she’s an amazing storyteller. Of course, you know the publication story, but, even before it was revealed that it was her, the people in the know in the small book-mystery community were talking about this book and how fantastic it was and what a shame it was that the author didn’t get more attention. I like that it’s very dark in a way. And a lot of people were surprised by that. If you’ve read Harry Potter, you shouldn’t be surprised.

She knows what she’s doing. This is a book for adults. It’s not for people who are 12 and 13. She’s an exceptional plotter. She really, really knows how to put a story together and put in the right twists and turns to keep you engaged, which is a lot harder than it looks.

AVC: And she manages to do that while keeping it an almost classically old-fashioned mystery.

KS: Right. I don’t want to say Agatha Christie, but it just works on every level that a thriller needs to work.

AVC: And it must be telling that her pen name on this is a man’s name, right?

KS: And a lot of the guys who grew up reading Harry Potter, there’s that conversation of, if it had been Joanne Rowling rather than J.K., would they have picked it up? And if it had been about Hermione rather than Harry, would it have taken off with guys? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I think that there’s a different generation of guys coming up who are more open to that, hopefully, it seems like. But I think it has a greater—there’s a greater issue here, because a lot of men just don’t read. They don’t read fiction at all.

212 by Alafair Burke

KS: This one is really a New York-centric kind of murder book. It’s about Ellie Hatcher, who is a detective with NYPD, and she’s investigating the murder of a student. The girl has been targeted by people at school on the gossip website and all that. When I was thinking about books that men might be interested in and it might open their eyes to something different in the world, one of the reasons I like this book is because it shows just what—at a very personal level for the character—what that kind of stalking does.

I think a lot of guys who are on the internet a lot, they’re kind of anesthetized to some of the violent language and all that because they see it all the time. So they’re not as shocked, but I don’t think they think so much about, “Okay, well, what’s on the other side of that? What about the woman who’s reading that?” Also, it’s just a really good, hardboiled detective story.

AVC: From the description, it sounds like one of those page-turner potboilers.

KS: Yeah, it’s kind of like the Craigslist killer. Alafair [Burke, the author], she’s amazing—she was a prosecutor in Portland, she teaches at Hofstra law school, she co-writes books with Mary Higgins Clark—they’re very different than her regular books—and then she’s really successful with these books. So, technically, I should hate her because she’s so successful. [Laughs.] But she really knows about New York, she knows about the law, and she knows police work.

AVC: A lot of these sorts of books tend to avoid very modern technology that complicates things, or just overlook the internet altogether, but this is very much a book that takes into account what it’s like to live right now.

KS: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Alafair—a lot of her books are not ripped-from-the-headlines kind of stuff, but they’re really topical, really current. She’s really engaged with what’s going on and part of that is because she teaches law students, so they bring her all kinds of horrible stuff. [Laughs.]

The Judas Child by Carol O’Connell

AVC: I’m into the sound of this one because it’s about twins.

KS: I love twins stories.

AVC: This looks like one of my favorite detective stories, which is the one where the police person or detective has a dark background that somehow ties into their latest investigation.

KS: It’s from the point of view of a male narrator, and he also had a twin sister who was murdered. [Sings.] Dun-dun-dun! He’s young, he’s in his early 20s, he’s a cop, and, hey, as these things go—shock—the murder of his sister may have something to do with a new murder that comes up. Two kids have disappeared.

A lot of people, a lot of guys might cringe at a child-in-jeopardy story—I think they call it “kid jep” now—but it’s a really well-written book. It’s plotted quite well. I think that’s the problem for a lot of men. They think, “Well, women only write about children and domestic stuff.” The thing is, women are writing about some really horrific shit. When they’re writing about a child in jeopardy, it’s some rough stuff. Because that’s the thing—a lot of guys think, when you as a woman say, “I write thrillers,” that it’s romantic suspense with a dead body. Especially Carol O’Connell. She doesn’t pull her punches. This is a tough book. It talks about the crimes in a realistic way.

AVC: Sometimes you read the outline of the book and think, “Oh, I know exactly how this book will go,” but the best books often sound like they’re a trope, and it’s the writing that makes it so good.

KS: Exactly.

The thing is, Stephen Hawking—who’s one of the smartest guys on the planet right now, or maybe ever—when they asked him what’s the biggest mystery to him, he said that the biggest mystery is, and I’m paraphrasing, what women are thinking. And if you think about the fact that the smartest guy on Earth, that’s what he wants to know, is what women are thinking—I mean, if you’re a smart guy, you should really try to find out what women are thinking. I mean, we are 51 percent of the population.