Wayward Men and the Troubled Women Who Love Them: Love, Death and Relationship Dynamics in Classic and Modern Thrillers
Warning: spoilers, spoilers abound.
As a child, I was drawn to mysteries, devouring Christopher Pike, the Nancy Drew series, and a bit too much Mary Higgins Clark. As my attention got lured to fantasy and science fiction, I ended up finding the thriller genre formulaic, discarding it completely in favor of straight horror and other forms of heart-racing entertainment.
Almost by accident, my affair with thrillers picked up again a few years ago, when I listened to a friend’s suggestion and singled out Gone Girl, knowing absolutely nothing about it except that there was an insane twist that would either awe me, or enrage me to the highest extent (the latter happened, incidentally. I still can’t watch the film because of the furor the book instilled in me).
What I learned in the years since is that — perhaps in reaction to the sometimes voyeuristic quality of the stories penned by their male counterparts — women have absolutely reclaimed the genre and taken back the narratives. Even when they are not particularly well written, the stories are always strikingly, mind-bendingly, intoxicatingly crafted.
More importantly, they hit home, chillingly so.
Perhaps this was a byproduct of my growing up and understanding the context of the genre much more clearly, but what I also noticed was this: especially as they relate to romance, thrillers offer similar takes on gender dynamics. They are equivalently grim, as scathing about the men at their respective centers as they are bleak, concerning women.
In short: if thrillers are to be believed, falling in love is as dangerous as leaving your front door unlocked, or walking down a dim, dark street at night. In this age of accessibility and ample dating opportunities, these novels feel less like fun escapism than they do cautionary tales for women.
But of course, the lesson is never that simple, and the meaning runs much more deeply than that. Upon taking a look at some of the books I recently read, I was immediately reminded of my favorite novel, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1937), which I’ve revisited countlessly, each time with a new layer of understanding.
The book is as profound as it is ambiguous, and no doubt many twisted thrillers owe their creative approach to the literary classic that pitted complicated women against difficult men. It is easy to interpret Rebecca as another run-of-the-mill warning against love — until one digs deeper. Rebecca, in truth, isn’t pointing a finger at one party, so much as it is asking challenging questions about accountability, toxic exchanges and self-awareness: more on this in a second.
Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes (2017), Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) and The Husband’s Secret (2013), Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2015) and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) all operate on the same principle: fragile women fall for dangerous men, which ends up spelling disaster for them, sometimes fatally.
They are only a small sampling of a trend I’ve started to take note of, but a very telling one indeed.
In Gone Girl, readers are taken on an exhausting rollercoaster of unreliable storytelling and confusing red herrings; at face value however, its plot is seemingly simple. Amy Dunne, is the perfect, lovable wife of angry, violent Nick Dunne, and when she vanishes without a trace on their anniversary, all fingers point to him. The more we uncover about him, the less likable and believable he seems, even as doubts remain as to his absolute guilt: he is a cheater, he is jealous, he is vindictive, manipulative, and makes, at times, misogynistic statements that echo those of his woman-hating father.
Even if Gillian Flynn hadn’t mentioned the national response to the 2002 Scott and Laci Peterson case as a source of inspiration for her book, the similarities would have been impossible to disregard. In similar fashion, the public scrutiny and mounting interest in the Dunnes bring about indelible narratives: Amy is America’s sweetheart, the daughter of a couple who made their fortune writing beloved children’s books loosely based on their young daughter’s life. Nick, conversely, is the scumbag husband with contradicting stories, whose charm translates as sociopathy, and who, thus, is eviscerated in the public court of opinions.
The Girl on the Train pushes that notion even further. Scott Hipwell’s wife Megan has disappeared, like Amy Dunne, and he is being suspected of having had a hand in it. This, exacerbated by the fact that Rachel Watson, a lonely alcoholic whose train passes by their townhouse window, is convinced she has witnessed the couple engaged in a violent altercation. Even as she feels inexplicable attraction to him, this conviction deepens, and his behavior doesn’t help dissuade her, or us, the readers. Scott is portrayed as violent, possessive, even cruel at times. It seems conceivable that he either killed his wife Megan, or else she ran away to escape his controlling behavior.
Scott, however, is just a smokescreen for the real evil of the novel, in the form of Tom, the seemingly stable (if not a tad long suffering) presence of the story. His relevance is threefold: he lives next door to Scott and Megan, is also Rachel’s ex-husband, and has moved on with a younger woman named Anna, with whom Rachel often clashes. In a shocking development, it’s revealed that not only has Tom been taking advantage of Rachel’s alcoholism to gaslight her for years, he has also killed a pregnant Megan, with whom he was having an affair. Tom’s silvertongue is witnessed in action toward the end of the novel, when Rachel tries to warn Anna that the man they both fell for is dangerous; Tom almost manages to soft-pedal Anna into staying loyal to him and getting rid of Rachel.
The magnitude of Tom’s influence is understood in hindsight: his genteel manner and the way he is able to placate and detract Rachel’s suspicions throughout the novel is chilling, masterful.
Behind Her Eyes and The Husband’s Secret are more subtle in their portrayals of the treacherous man.
In the latter, Cecilia Fitzpatrick’s splendid life is shattered when she falls upon a letter, written by her husband John-Paul, intimating that he’s been holding on to a terrible secret. His panicked reaction when she confronts him about it only needles her interest further, and despite promising him that she won’t open it, she is unable to resist. The secret in question is that almost two decades earlier, John-Paul murdered his girlfriend Janie in a moment of crazed passion: he was desperately in love with Janie, but she, according to him, laughed at him and his feelings. The murder has never been solved, and an innocent man named Connor has long been accused of the crime.
Before we find out about John-Paul’s grisly link to Janie, he is portrayed as a gorgeous, well-to-do, loving family man. His daughters adore him and he is revered in the community. After the discovery, he becomes pathetic. He pleads with his wife to forgive him, and his theatrical displays of guilt and self-loathing are as infuriating as they are unsettling: will he, in his desperation, snap like he did with Janie and kill Cecilia? We never get to find out because Cecilia decides to stay with him through it all, Janie’s mother doesn’t press charges, and we are left wondering whether John-Paul just got away with murder.
Behind Her Eyes is a bit more complicated, and one cannot mention the book without its infuriating (read: legitimate?) plot twist, which will be expanded upon a bit later. Until the very last pages of the novel, the story seems to follow the same pattern as The Husband’s Secret: a “good” man doing increasingly dreadful things and passing it off as romance. Louise falls for a married man named David — although she doesn’t know, when she first meets him, that he is taken. This, nevertheless, does not stop her infatuation even after she realizes that he is her new boss, even after she meets and befriends his wife Adele. Louise and David enter into a passionate, dicey affair, at which time Louise starts to understand that something is off with David and Adele’s marriage.
Adele seems utterly terrified of her husband, her entire life apparently regulated by an increasingly aloof David. David, on the other hand, is apparently frigid and emotionally unavailable — that is, when he isn’t being vicious (and possibly violent?). Adele and Louise, while problematic in their own ways, are ultimately victims of his fitfulness, and seem more than willing to engage with his toxicity. He is supposed to be irresistible, but his behavior straddles the line between “abusive” and downright “unstable". David’s alcoholism, his volatile temper, his infidelity and lying are romanticized in the most bewildering ways, and he is never truly held accountable for his actions…
… unlike Perry White from Big Little Lies. The abusive husband of Celeste, one of the three protagonists of the novel, is killed at the end of the novel when one of the characters, having witnessed him assault his wife, pushes him over a railing. It’s a satisfying, shocking end to a heartbreaking story, but it does not erase the subtle horror Perry White has left behind him. Throughout the novel, the dichotomy between his charming exterior and the horror he inflicts upon his wife Celeste is bewildering.
He is a devoted father to their twins. He beats Celeste when she “provokes” him. He lavishes his family in any way he can. He controls who Celeste can speak to at all times. He constantly tells Celeste he loves her. He nearly chokes the life out of her when she talks back to him. He gives her free rein with his credit cards. He threatens to kill himself — or her — if she leaves.
Perry appears, to the untrained eye, as merely a seriously damaged individual, and thus, he is almost easy to write off. Liane Moriarty portrays him as an affection-starved, insecure man who is channeling his desolation through his wife — that is until the final plot twist of the story is revealed. Jane, one of the three main characters of the novel, is a young single mother whose child was conceived through rape. During the confrontation toward the end in which Perry is ultimately killed, Jane recognizes him as her rapist, and understands that he was able to escape accountability, in the years since, because he seduced her under a false identity.
This revelation unravels the illusion that Perry is a “victim” of his mercurial passions and his codependency to Celeste: he is, in fact, an absolute maniac and a woman-hating prick who has probably left more trauma in his wake, throughout the years, than he even knows.
The plots and tones of the novels are different: Gone Girl is a psychological thriller, as is Girl on the Train. Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret are dramas, while Behind Her Eyes is a magical realism take on the genre. Still, across the board, striking similarities between the characters remain.
The men are needy, seething underneath their irresistible exteriors. In spite of their distinctions, they are all either a variation of the charming, smiling psychopath, or the man-child whose too-deep attachment often smothers, because the object of his affection obviously cannot fill the void, or reciprocate the intensity of the feelings.
This is expressed in varying degrees of evil: the downright wicked sociopaths (Tom Watson, Perry White), the formidable assholes (Nick Dunne, Scott Hipwell), the allegedly “good” guys whose instability could quickly turn dangerous (David, John-Paul Fitzpatrick).
No doubt inspired by the tendencies of its True Crime counterpart, the thriller genre has overwhelmingly relied on the premise of the vile husband who murders his angelic wife. Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Highsmith, Megan Abbott, Sandra Brown, Jayne Ann Krentz and the like have built literary empires, over the decades, on these storylines, and they do indeed make for electrifying literature (with some room for concessions, of course).
But the latest wave of contemporary thrillers — the good ones, at least — seem more interested in the questions Daphne du Maurier posed, almost a century ago with Rebecca: are stories really one sided? Does everyone get off scot-free? Is the truth really the truth? Where does accountability lie where love and heartache are concerned?
Through this scope, the female protagonists of these novels take on a different connotation. A closer look at them reveals that the woman are either as messed-up as the men in these stories, or at the very least, toxic in self-sabotaging ways.
Celeste White is evidently a victim of domestic abuse, but she is interesting, because she thinks she has leverage over her husband. She wants to believe that she is in control of the situation, that she is not scared of him, and this makes her feel brave, reckless: she admits to picking fights with Perry, and to provoking him into blowing up on her. She sometimes ignores his calls and goes on outings, knowing it will make him apoplectic with rage: this masochistic tendency is, of course, indicative that Celeste has latent issues she clearly hasn’t dealt with.
She’s not so different from Megan Hipwell, the victim in The Girl on the Train. Although she is deceased in the novel, we get her side of the story up until she is killed, and it reveals a deeply damaged woman. She suffers from depression, tries to assuage her gaping insecurities through wayward relationships with sometimes brutish men, and self-medicates her grief over losing her baby girl. She is an eerie counterpoint for present-day Rachel, the raging alcoholic whose career and marriage with Tom has fallen apart after receiving the news that she cannot have children. Rachel is a loose cannon in the novel, and draws contempt and ire from every character in the book, including Tom’s new wife Anna — who might seem like the stable one at first, but who is as flawed as Megan and Rachel.
In The Husband’s Secret, the instability once again comes from the victim herself: here, it’s Janie Crowley, whom John-Paul murdered by “accident” because of her perceived cavalier attitude vis-à-vis his declaration of love. While she is no Megan Hipwell, in all the latter’s emotional imbalance, she is nonetheless described as a rosy-eyed teenager who dreams of freedom from her religious parents’ rearing. Janie, who’s a little insecure, doesn’t know how beautiful and charismatic she is, and consequently, unknowingly raises the hopes of the two boys she is flirting with, namely John-Paul and Connor (the man who is later accused of having killed her).
In Behind Her Eyes, Louise reveals the extent of her brokenness when she continues her relationship with a very married David, who has shown her, more than once, that he comes with enormous baggage — this, while maintaining a friendly relationship with his wife Adele. She is also a big drinker and has serious impulse control and boundary issues.
Adele, on the other hand, is not the demure and frightened trophy wife she appears to be. As readers explore the story through her viewpoint, it is clear that she is actually manipulative, maniacal. She is engaged in a cat-and-mouse mind game with her husband David, whom she knows is cheating on her with Louise (something she’s inexplicably fine with), and charms people into doing her bidding.
As previously mentioned, the novel also comes with a plot twist at the end that either delighted or infuriated readers (it infuriated me. it infuriated me to pieces). The story takes an abrupt turn into the supernatural, with the revelation that Adele isn’t actually Adele, but Rob, a childhood friend of hers she met in the psychiatric hospital, and who was able to high-jack her consciousness. It’s all very Being John Malkovich-like. That fact either rules Adele out from this categorization of the female protagonist or it does not, depending on whether you choose to disregard the Rob reveal at the end.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of the troubled female protagonist is Amy Dunne, the victim-turned-surprise-antagonist in Gone Girl. Her psychopathy easily rivals Perry White’s or Tom Watson’s. The entire first half of the novel is a fake account from her diaries about how much she fears her husband, and this manages to muddle the impression we have formed of Nick throughout. She is no victim of foul play: in fact, she has orchestrated her disappearance, leaving the diary and enough damning clues to point the police and media to Nick — and it works.
It works in part because “Amazing Amy”, as she was baptized in her parents’ bestselling book series, is the ultimate “It” girl: elegant, unattainable, gorgeous. She’s a big city gal who comes from wealth, and whose career ambitions have been thwarted by the recession. All those who meet her either fancy her, or envy her glamor. Nick, on the other hand, is the asshole who, after having lived off her fortune for years, has forced his wife to move back to his humble hometown because of their unemployment. His abrasive attitude and his budding alcoholism do nothing to reconcile the dichotomy between the husband and wife.
But more eerily, it works because Amy understands how the public’s impulse of inserting itself into true crimes has warped objectivity. She knows that the husband is always guilty, that the wife is always the victim, that everyone loves a sensational sob story. She knows that even if she re-emerges from the dead, the world is more likely to believe her version than Nick’s, however strange — and it is precisely what happens. Amy gets away with it, while Nick is forced to stay with her, trapped in a marriage from hell with a woman who will always be ten steps ahead, and who could ruin him at any given moment.
So what are these books saying? That birds of a feather flock together? That only damaged people could be this attracted to each other? That for every lonely woman, is a man with abandonment issues, craving someone to hold onto? That, by extension, these tragic women deserve the abominable men they’ve ended up with, men who, in some cases, have ended up killing them violently?
Because after all, if the latter have anger problems, the women have just as many impulse control issues; if they are brooding, the women are needling; if they are vindictive, the women are manipulative, either out of self-preservation, or with gleeful abandon. The parallels are inescapable.
But maybe this was never the point at all. Maybe it’s this precise inescapability that these authors are trying to call out. Maybe they are trying to say, “things are more complicated than that”.
It’s not a coincidence that many thrillers use romance as a starting point: love and death are the oldest companions in the world. In the same way that relationships crest and flounder on the intricacies of scandal, unspoken passions and motivations, and the never-ending “they said, they said” upon which many an argument has been founded, so do crimes. The same level of volatility is involved, so is the same level of tunnel vision. Breakups are as comparably contested and defended to friends and family as is liability to prosecutors and juries. Character assassinations abound in separations and divorces, not unlike those that occur when victims and perpetrators’ lives are exposed in court. And so on, and so forth.
It is, thus, easy to see why the above-mentioned novels all use the “multiple POV” device, and/or the “unreliable narrator” trope. Amy Dunne’s account is as dubious as Rachel Watson’s, even though their motivations are completely different; Louise and Adele are both unaware that they are hiding things from one another; Nick Dunne’s understanding of his shortcomings is as myopic as Megan Hipwell’s…
… which brings me back to Rebecca.
In it, a young, nameless protagonist, marries a dashing older man named Maxim de Winter, who is harboring a terrible secret: after years of alleged emotional abuse from his first wife Rebecca, he murdered her. This, he only reveals after a few months of stale romance with his new wife, who is feeling increasingly dejected about Maxim’s stiffness. The reveal is supposed to explain why he is so distant and insensitive, why he gets into rages at the mere mention of Rebecca, why he is cagey and suspicious: Maxim is traumatized.
For most of my life, I understood the novel on this premier level, namely the one which framed beautiful Rebecca as the spectral villain, haunting the de Winters from beyond the grave, in various ways.
The new Mrs de Winter — by comparison much less enticing — is consumed with love and agony, convinced as she is that her husband still loves Rebecca. Upon hearing about his crime, she is only bothered for a moment, choosing instead to focus on the part where Maxim tells her he loves her, and hates Rebecca. Maxim’s confession only humanizes him for her, and Mrs de Winter #2’s choice to remain with him, through the re-opening of the case and the burning down of their house reads as romantic, supposedly.
When the star-crossed lovers escaped the fire at the end of the book, I used to breathe a sigh of relief, and was sad for the rubbles of Manderley, and their truncated life therein. (If this all seems too peachy-keen, a reminder that I was a kid and didn’t know better.)
This is not to say that I didn’t have qualms with the story. Maxim murdering his first wife was, of course, hugely problematic, not to mention that his general coarseness (which bordered on terrifying, at times) did not sit well with me. I was as intrigued by him as the narrator was, but I remember concluding, even at my tender age, that I wouldn’t want a marriage like hers: stale, passionless.
Their “victory” at the end rings hollow: they have no joy, no excitement, no Manderley, even if Maxim has avoided justice for Rebecca’s murder.
But in recent years, upon reading the new slew of thriller books written by women, I have come to see, perhaps very belatedly, du Maurier’s novel in a different light. True, Rebecca, like the other women described above, falls under the umbrella of the seemingly wild and volatile woman. Even in her absence, she is as stifling and as present as the other characters of the novel, perhaps more so.
Still, Maxim may have been the duplicitous villain all along. He, too, falls under the category of the needy, tantruming man with wildness brooding underneath his stoic exterior. Like Perry, like David and Tom, he is capable of the very worst. Like Nick and John-Paul, he disintegrates at the mere thought that a woman may be laughing at him. Suddenly, his verbal onslaught on the memory of Rebecca feels more infantile than justified. Suddenly, in fact, Maxim’s crime seems less motivated by logical, rational thinking than by resentment and desperation over not being able to “control” his wife.
Because objectively, even without the ambiguous context of their marriage, even without our loyalty to the nameless protagonist which makes Rebecca naturally antagonistic, one must admit: Rebecca was kind of fabulous. She partied, had her own social circle, transgressed the constraints imposed on women of the time. She was charismatic, confident, and seemingly did not discriminate between genders in her romantic pursuits. It’s only natural that a stiff traditionalist like Maxim could never compete with that.
In fact: Rebecca may have been flippant about her marriage to Maxim precisely because she wanted to thumb her nose at his controlling behavior. Maxim admits that he killed her because she told him she was carrying another man’s baby. Much later, he finds out that she had a tumor, and would have died a few short months later. Maxim concludes that Rebecca’s lie was her final tour de force, because although she was dying, she wanted him to kill her in a fit of jealousy, so that the act could haunt him forever.
But once I started to change the way I interpreted Rebecca, even this moment took on a new significance for me. Like in The Husband’s Secret, like in Behind Her Eyes, like in Girl on the Train, the tale Maxim spins is, technically, only one version of events. It’s his word against a dead woman’s. How do we know things happened the way he says they did? How do we know any of it is true, down to the way he portrays Rebecca? Maybe Mrs Danvers, the terrifying housekeeper who hates the protagonist out of undying loyalty to Rebecca, has reason to be displeased with the new arrangements because she knows Maxim for the monster he really is.
Maxim isn’t a vulnerable victim, confessing a terrible crime to his new love in the hopes that she will forgive and understand him. He is a coolheaded manipulator, telling a pushover something he knows she will never repeat, either out of fear for her own life, or because she loves him too much.
Maybe this is the novel’s frightening truth, or maybe it’s the version I spent so many years believing: namely that accidents happen, that even good people can do hateful things. Maybe it’s somewhere in between, a little bit of both, and maybe it’s none of these variants at all.
This uncertainty, cast in the middle of the story, is easily responsible for the novel’s lasting success: and it’s the way most modern thrillers have undoubtedly paid homage to Rebecca.
Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret and Behind Her Eyes all feature the shocking confession, the dysfunctional relationship, the heady mix of suspicion and blind adoration, even the good old “he said, she said” that made Daphne du Maurier’s novel so irresistible. And while the latter remains superlative, I can commend the thriller genre for having updated the age-old concept to our times.
Why are these stories still so fascinating and/or relevant, nearly a century since Rebecca? Is it because of the morbid appeal of the charming brute? Because of the insidious suggestion that we don’t truly know who we think we know? Or is it that chaotic relationships engross in a way ugly trainwrecks do? That we’re still trying to figure out why some people like hurting others?
Maybe, simply, it is that we have yet to have those conversations in real life, so it’s easier to work through them in literary (read: safely faraway) version.
As far as I’m concerned: however warped they may be, these scenarios bring me closer to understanding the damaging ways human beings have always harmed each other, especially when love and loss are concerned. They bring me closer to understanding that the raw underling ugliness present in all of us could emerge, unprompted, at the most spontaneous moment, in the most stupefying of ways.