I had the privilege of corresponding with Halley Sutton, author of The Lady Upstairs and her new thriller The Hurricane Blonde, set to come out on August 8, 2023. During our correspondence, Sutton and I discussed the ethics of writing and reading thriller novels, and we tried answering the question: Is it even possible to have a feminist thriller novel if the victims in the story are women?
Below are thoughts Sutton shared with me on this topic.
What are your thoughts on the tension or clashing of ideals of being a feminist while writing thrillers where women are killed? Can a feminist crime novel be written if women are the victims in the story?
Of course there can be feminist crime novels with women as victims! Are most of the crime novels historically written that feature [woman or woman-identifying] murder victims feminist? Probably not.
Too often, women are victims in crime novels to give heroes — often male, but not always — a reason for the plot. Women’s lives and suffering function as entertainment in this way. There’s something aesthetically pleasing about a corpse, frozen in a particular moment — all the better if the corpse is young and beautiful.
I write books in which women are frequently the victims of a violent crime. Women’s bodies, and our cultural relationships to them, are inherently more interesting to me than men’s bodies — probably because I was born into one. My narrators are also female and see themselves in the victims, the way true crime featuring dead women can potentially serve as a conduit for understanding victimhood… understanding the feelings of powerlessness that many women — both cis and trans — encounter daily.
But is seeing ourselves in fictional victimhood also a way to fetishize that role? I wonder.
Something I think about frequently is how often media consumption impacts our understanding of the world, even fiction. We see so many dead women on the page in commercial thrillers and crime novels — frequently dead white women. It’s not that white women aren’t murdered in this country. But we’re also disproportionately the group whose murders are likely to be solved. Presenting white women over and over as the ultimate victim, the center of victimhood, rewrites the reality that in this country, young men of color are the most likely to be victims of a violent crime. We go to fiction to escape our reality, but it shouldn’t rewrite the truth, either.
We also seem to be able to tap into sadness about a victim who is a (cis) woman in a particular way — we like to project things onto her, what her death says about our society, or murder, or misogyny. You see this in cases like Gabby Petito or The Black Dahlia. Their murders seem to mean something, artistically, aesthetically, whatever, in a way that their lives didn’t. These women made the news because of how they died, and not because of how they lived. And, of course, even that is a privilege. Not everyone’s story gets told just because they get murdered.
So, can a crime novel be feminist if women are killed? Yes. But I think it’s worth wrestling for anyone — myself included — with why we’re continually drawn to this trope. Being able to understand something doesn’t mean you get a free pass to use it, but maybe you’ll come to a deeper understanding of it.
What is an author’s responsibility to their fictional characters and to their readers when they write about victims of crime?
There’s an expression that the terrific crime writer, Tod Goldberg, uses to express this phenomenon. He said that when he kills someone in a book, he wants the ripples of that action to reach the shore. Even fictional lives should have weight and dignity; there’s always going to be someone who loved that person, who mourns their absence. I do think that if you’re going to kill someone on the page, you need to bring those ripples to shore by showing a human cost to that action.
One thing that I think about frequently is how thrillers (by white, cis, heterosexual women, featuring white, cis, heterosexual women) have contributed to Missing White Woman Syndrome or the White Women in Peril narrative. I don’t really have a good excuse for this, because as a writer I must balance this consideration — reading the landscape of thrillers of the last decade, you’d think the number one cause of death for white women is serial killers or, like, murder by mysterious neighbor — with wanting to craft a good narrative with tense stakes. For better or worse, life and death peril create strong stakes and narrative propulsion. But I don’t think crime novels or thrillers must have life-or-death stakes to be engaging. Wondering whether a character will lose their morality, make a choice they can’t come back from — that’s a strong question that can be at the heart of a story.
I do think it’s worth considering how these stories contribute, among other things, to a certain feeling of centering white victimhood. I think upwellings of art circling similar themes tend to reflect cultural anxieties. At the very least, these trends prove there’s an appetite for certain stories. I’d like to see fewer books about a white woman in the ‘burbs slowly starting to realize she might not know her husband all that well — whoops, he killed the babysitter…again! — and more books where the central anxiety is reckoning with complicity with the patriarchy and white supremacy. Vanessa Lillie’s terrific novel, For the Best, does this really well, I think.
Do you think writers and readers have a moral or ethical obligation to be mindful of the crime media they create and consume? What does this mindfulness look like to you as an author?
I think it’s certainly worth considering, as both a creator and consumer of crime media, how this media has impacted our perception of crime. That to me is one of the most insidious effects of shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, to which, don’t get me wrong, I have probably devoted months of my life over the years.
SVU is copaganda at its finest, brilliant but rogue cops who are out of control but use their unconventional (and illegal and unethical and problematic) workarounds to save the day. It also features white aggressors, which its creator, Dick Wolf (where is my six thousand word think piece on how nominative determinism has impacted this man, please), has openly said is to make it easier for us to align ourselves with the detectives with whom we spend each episode.
It’s not a great look in 2022, where police officers are responsible for, by at least some estimates, 8% of homicides in this country.
I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone what they should or should not watch, or how they should or should not watch it. But for myself, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel if this was my story or the story of someone I know or love. I try to consume different angles on it, which sometimes impact my decisions, too. Reading how the new Netflix show, Dahmer, has not reached out to victims or offered compensation for using their life stories — I probably won’t watch that. I try to understand how it fits into the broader world. And sometimes I do consume problematic media — it is, truly, hard to avoid all the time in all the places — and reserve the right to change my opinion about it later. We can change and learn and grow. Things I thought were okay to consume ten years ago don’t sit well with me now, but I think that’s an important human experience for all of us, too.
Where does the inspiration for your stories come from? Have you ever been influenced by true crime stories, and if so, how do you ensure victims and their families are not exploited?
My inspiration comes from a variety of sources. My first book wasn’t inspired by any one person or event, per se. I started writing it before the #MeToo movement really took off, and before the parallels between my creepy casting couch director in the book and Harvey Weinstein were so clear. But my character was based off an archetype. Part of what’s so troubling about Weinstein was how much of an open secret it was. So while I wasn’t using his crimes as inspiration, the archetype of the sexual harasser in power in Hollywood had already permeated our cultural understanding.
My second novel, The Hurricane Blonde, does directly feature true crimes and deaths that occurred in Los Angeles. That comes out of my own fascination with Hollywood’s self-referential reverence for its dead women: Marilyn, Sharon Tate, the Black Dahlia… I could keep going. They don’t drive the plot, but they function somewhat as a Greek chorus for my main character, Salma, as she tries to parse their lives for lessons that might help her better understand the mystery she finds herself in.
I’ve done my research on these women, but it’s not possible to know them and to be honest, it’s not really feasible to interview their families for this book. On the one hand, I’m writing fiction, so I do believe, deeply, that it’s acceptable to bring my own imagination and understanding to these women in a way that helps me get at different truths. But on the other hand, people aren’t lessons, or fodder for better understanding of the world — or at least, not just that. I think you can do something in good faith as an artist, but if you’re using real people’s stories as inspiration, you also need to be willing to accept criticism for it and learn from that. Too often we mistake critiquing for being canceled, and they’re wildly different.
Do you think creators (authors, podcasters, docuseries directors, etc.) can use true crime or fictional crime as a foundation for educational purposes? Such as raising awareness for how to stay safe, bringing attention to unsolved crimes, and supporting families of victims.
I take, perhaps, a pragmatic approach to this. I don’t know that using true crime as a foundation for educational purposes is the most ethical approach, but while people are partaking — and the appetite for true crime has shown no sign of dying down — I think creators need to think about what actual good their work can do in the realm. Can you help someone else? Can you teach valuable skills or bring awareness to a crime that’s been forgotten?
There are significant cases where increased attention to a case has moved the needle on the efforts to solve the case, or at least brought it into consciousness. Probably the most famous example is the Golden State Killer, where work by Michelle McNamara and other armchair sleuths helped propel the conversation forward, and into an arrest after decades.
I think we shouldn’t look at that as the norm, though. We want our stories about crime wrapped up, but the truth of most violent crimes is that even finding a perpetrator doesn’t end the pain and suffering of the victim’s loved ones. There is no pat ending with a bow to grief or senseless suffering, and stories that attempt to do that — true crime or fictional crime — I think are reinforcing, to some extent, an unhealthy myth. We don’t like to sit with open-ended questions, but that’s what violent crime creates: a black hole at the center of someone’s life.