Thrillers and mysteries have long been seen as split along gender lines, and for the first 70 years or so of the 20th century, they actually were. But things have been changing.
Thrillers were originally written by, for, and about men. The earliest thriller, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childer published in 1903, had not a single female character initially until his publisher forced Childer to add a minor woman character to the book.
Until Ken Follett’s bestselling thriller, The Eye of the Needle, with its female protagonist in 1978, women were only occasional minor characters within thrillers, and the primary readers of thrillers were men.
The thriller arose and became popular in the same time period as the western and the hardboiled detective novel (which grafted the danger and violence aspects of the thriller onto the mystery), all parts of a fiction aimed at men that had in common the elements of idealized male protagonists braving physical danger and escalating threat that built to cathartic endings of explosive violence.
Mysteries, on the other hand, have always had women readers and writers from Louisa May Alcott in the 1860s and her British counterparts, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, to Anna Katherine Green in 1878 with the first American bestseller of any kind and on into the Golden Age with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mignon Eberhart, Helen McCloy, Margaret Millar, and many others down to the present moment.
Thriller bestseller Ken Follett suggests that the thriller (and the men’s fiction in which it played a major role) arose at the beginning of the twentieth century because the nature of war had changed. War was no longer the province of a professional military class. With conscription, the violence and danger of war threatened all men and boys.
I think he’s right and would add that it’s no coincidence that women began to make headway into the thriller field as major characters, readers, and eventually writers during the time immediately following the Vietnam War. Of course, this was also the heyday of Second Wave feminism, which probably also played a part. It was only when the threat of conscription lessened that female major characters and women writers were allowed into the thriller field. This time period also coincided with dwindling numbers of male readers of novels of any kind. So it probably had a practical side, as well.
Thus, there seems a gender break from the very beginning of these two related genres with the hard thriller physically male-oriented and danger- and violence-filled and the pure, Golden-Age mystery intellectually gender-neutral and character- and puzzle-inclined. Fairly quickly, though, sub-genres developed that crossed these genre lines and mixed elements of each, the hard-boiled (and later, noir) sub-genre combining the detection of the mystery with the danger and violence of the thriller and the psychological/suspense sub-genre combining the threat of danger and violence of the thriller with the character elements of the mystery.
This continued throughout the last century until, by the early twenty-first century, the range of mysteries and thrillers forms a spectrum that runs from pure violent thriller to cozy puzzle mystery with all kinds of mixed-genre stops along the way.
Where the original thrillers were male-only in major characters, readers, and writers, that fact has changed now with women as lead characters, readers, and writers on a much more equal basis. The violence at this extreme of the spectrum, however, has continued to ratchet up higher and higher.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the pure cozy, a sub-genre of the traditional mystery genre with mostly female lead characters, readers, and writers and no real danger or violence (beyond the fairly bloodless murders which form the puzzles). Women form the majority of readers throughout the spectrum between these two extremes, and women write roughly half the books in the entire combined mystery/thriller genre.
A popular sub-genre of the thriller is the serial-killer book. These may involve strong mystery elements in which the protagonist is trying to figure out who the serial killer is so he or she can catch the murderer and stop the killing, or they may involve straight thriller elements where the killer’s identity may be known, but the focus of the book is to keep him from murdering the particular woman who is either the protagonist or the love interest of the protagonist.
I’ve used the specific terms “him” for the serial killer and “woman” for the potential victim because in these books almost inevitably the serial killer will be a man and the victims overwhelmingly women (as in real life). These books often offer some of the most intense and sickening violence, committed by the psychopathic serial killers and sociopathic recreational killers (or “rakes,” as the FBI calls them).
The torture and mutilation of women presented in many of these books often troubles feminists, understandably, some of whom even go so far as to call the most extreme “torture porn.” Yet most of these authors have researched the documented history of serial killings, and it would be extremely difficult to outdo on the page what actual serial killers have done in real life. Also, let us remember that now many of these serial-killer thrillers are written by women.
The actual gender split in the mystery-thriller field has faded, but perceptions seem stuck in the old days when thrillers were exclusively a male province. The fact that women buy and read the majority of books of all kinds plays a huge part in this. I think it’s also led to the proliferation of blended-genre books today. For example, urban fantasy, which is a melding of the hardboiled mystery with magic, supernatural creatures, and other fantasy elements, draws the vast majority of its readers from the female reading population. I think we’re going to see more and more blended-genre books being published.
Is the cozy serial-killer thriller just around the corner? Or is that a step too far? I can’t wait to see, can you?