Once upon a time, in the smoky, violent neverland of crime fiction, there were seductive creatures we called femmes fatales, hard women who lured sad men to their doom. Now there are girls. It started, of course, with Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 suburban thriller, Gone Girl, told a cruel tale of marriage and murder and sold a zillion copies. The most striking thing about Flynn’s cool, clever mystery is the childishness of its main characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, the sheer pettiness of the deadly games they play with each other. And the prize for winning is something like a gold star from the teacher: Gone Girl takes place in a world in which grown-up girls—and boys—will kill for no better reason than self-validation. This is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized. On the streets his people walked, motives were more basic—money, sex—and means were more direct. “When in doubt,” he once told his genre brethren, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” When today’s crime writers are in doubt, they have a woman come through the door with a passive-aggressive zinger on her lips.
For those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from time to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit, this is actually a welcome development, because the men with guns don’t do their job nearly as well as they used to. They’re old, they’re getting tired of walking through those doors, and the heroes they used to threaten—lone-wolf private eyes like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—have practically disappeared from the genre. Like the cowboy, the private eye once embodied male fantasies of rugged individualism. As individualism itself became a less sustainable concept, the popular imagination began to relocate its mythic figures to places farther and farther away from the real-world settings of the old West and the modern city (to, say, the Marvel universe).