Crime fiction is one of the most political forms of popular literature, and American women authors are killing it (no pun intended) with the likes of Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman being responsible for a new golden age. The reasons for the success of female-authored crime fiction novels are many, but considering the current political climate, it is just natural to see how these narratives about social injustice and trauma as the perfect breeding ground for those stories that women have been keeping silent for years or even decades. Megan Miranda’s latest novel The Perfect Stranger (2017) perfectly exemplifies this new era and the role women are proactively playing on it:
It is 2018 and as the late feminist activist Kate Millet warned us more than thirty years ago, the personal is political. In crime fiction, this has meant a period of introspection n which we are no longer happy with tales of moral decay in the city, drug-use, and complicated robberies. These stories, once interesting are too further removed from the reality of a society where everyday crimes like rape, treason and pathological lying make international headlines weekly. We clamored for more. And we got it. Twenty-first-century American crime fiction has taken Millet’s affirmation to an extreme by offering an exploration of our private darkest secrets. Many critics date the beginning of this new era to the publication and later international success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in 2013. Though many experts pointed out that the best-selling novel borrowed most of its key elements from 1950’s domestic noir or domestic suspense, Flynn’s tale of infidelity and revenge pointed out to something more embedded in societal norms with a scope beyond the immediate domestic life.
The Perfect Stranger (2017) is Miranda’s latest adult crime novel after the success of All The Missing Girls (2016), and it offers an accurate and chilling portrayal of modern female adulthood in the times of Trump, Weinstein and #metoo. Leah Stevens is a journalist turned high school teacher who dropped everything that mattered to her in Boston to move to a small town in Pennsylvania with Emmy, a friend she had not seen in years. On her way to work one morning, she comes across a crime scene that awakes her dormant investigator only to find out upon her return home that her friend and housemate has been missing for days. With a wise and updated approach to how young women live in the current economic crisis, Miranda presents the reader with the workings of a household where what happens inside closed doors has an impact on the outside world. As a symbol of the permeability of these artificial barriers, Leah and Emmy’s house has big windows that allow them to see a beautiful and quintessential American lake. But glass works both ways, and Leah soon discovers that there is someone hiding in the wild, watching her in return. The American countryside here having evolved from the original and artificial description of the land of opportunities to a potential threat: “I don’t know what’s happening to this place. It’s a safe place. It’s always been a safe place” says one local man.
Miranda’s choice of a past in journalism for her main character is not arbitrary, and Leah’s experience researching and writing qualifies her to analyze and produce a deeper understanding of crime and how female victims are expected to fit certain narratives. She knows how information and crime stories work both in the private and the public spheres and the impact of presenting an untainted victim with no flaws: “I wanted him to know that she was strong, that she would not let someone walk all over her […] But that’s not the story to tell. The purpose of the story, I knew, was to get people to care, to get the public on your side. To make them see everyone they’ve ever loved in the face of this missing girl”.
Miranda’s main character masterfully describes her struggle to accommodate the public and personal narratives that have constructed her as a woman, and her insistence on following Millet’s philosophy: “I have poor boundaries. I know that. I can see that, now that it’s been pointed out to me over and over again. Professionally, personally. I don’t see the distinction. There’s always too much overlap, and I can never figure out exactly where one element ends and the other begins”. This conscience of how women are dismissed and treated in crime narratives is at play during the whole investigation with Leah’s fixation on the truth. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off,” said feminist activist Gloria Steinem, and Leah honors once again the values of American’s second wave feminists when she admits: “You can get there and not like the truth you find”. Any resemblance to the current political reality is pure coincidence, the book should warn us.
This subtle interaction between crime fiction and feminist politics once thought outdated is not new to American fiction, but recent events have demanded an exercise in feminist archaeology in the name of survival. Furthermore, crime fiction and women have long held a troubled relationship as these narratives have traditionally offered readers a female victim, lying on the ground, still, and silent. The perfect object, waiting for the detective to come and bring her the justice that she deserves, for her body might be the one who spins a tale of murder, but she is also dead. Decades of political activism fighting for women’s rights have resulted in the possibility of imagining an alternative universe in which the victim is not silent anymore because though death is the ultimate crime, psychological and social developments have highlighted that survival can be, sometimes, the worst of crimes. Hence, women writers from all over the country have decided not to remain silent anymore about all those crimes that have traditionally constructed a woman’s lived experience.
As the novel progresses and according to the suggestive title, Leah finds that Emmy may not be who she said she was. In fact, Emmy’s disappearance brings back Leah’s past where a dark secret has been hiding for years. And even though she tries with all her will to keep the past silent, she knows that it is both impossible and morally wrong: “And by not telling the police, I was ultimately responsible for all that followed […] There had been more of us”. She is a survivor who, while investigating some suicides on campus soon after graduating, is drugged, and sexually assaulted by her roommate’s boyfriend at their house. Like many other women, Leah is unable to remember the crime, and Miranda uses her main character’s ambivalence to explore how contemporary society systematically questions victims of sexual assaults up to the point of incepting doubt in themselves too. But, The Perfect Stranger is a product of its times and Leah’s fight though personal is deeply influenced by the current political climate which has led to a revival of what many considered “radical feminism” and that merely consists on women advocating for their right to be heard and believed and their life experiences recognized. A glimpse into the still popular idea of the hysterical woman who makes things up comes when the police and her neighbors suggest Leah is lying about the existence of a housemate named Emmy, for no one has seen or heard of her.
The novel’s secondary characters are also dominated by women’s life experiences and the book celebrates the connections among women and the fact that we have historically not been alone. Central to Leah’s experience are her hyper-critical mother and her ambitious sister. Though only the sister makes a secondary appearance in the novel, their presence can be felt in the constant phone calls and in Leah, who knows herself part of a network of women who are struggling too. Her recently divorced colleague’s appearance hints at a lack of communication among women that is quickly fixed by a meeting at a local bar where all social expectations and barriers fall apart so that they can sincere themselves with each other in a cathartic scene. However, this celebration does not struggle with the reality of human interaction and despite the recent attention that support among women has gained, Miranda masterfully manages to create a flawed relationship between two women that is not rooted in old, patriarchal modes of representation. Women can stand united but still fight, have disagreements, and behave in a less than morally perfect way. The lesson here is that women are complex human beings too.
The Perfect Stranger could not be a crime novel without a tortured and considerate police officer. Detective Kyle Donovan’s life mirrors Leah’s experience of trauma and a nomadic life consequence of a mistake produced by that a magical combination of naïveté, youth, and lack of experience that characterizes early adulthood. It does not hurt either that he is handsome and feels immediately attracted to Leah. But Miranda gets creative with gender roles and though Leah plays hard to get, it is clear from the beginning of their relationship that Kyle is Leah’s love interest and not the other way around. She is the main character and it is around her that other characters must orbit. The text’s tempering with crime fiction conventions goes as far as to suggest a blurry line between the traditional roles of the victim and the villain. When Leah discovers that Emmy is not who she once thought, she embarks on an investigation that will redefine her former housemate’s identity.
Though Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger was released last year, it remains a necessary reading as alternative facts and the crimes committed in the supposed haven of privacy are showing the rotting foundations of the power structures ruling the country and the most powerful industries. We are witnessing a cultural and social revolution where crimes against women are no longer being silenced. Be it on the red carpet or inside the safe realms of a fictional story, it is no longer an option to lay still and let the police do their work. We are making (her)story.