Two compelling female detectives: Rachel (The Girl on the Train) and Maud (Elizabeth is Missing)

I’m writing this post from under a pile of essays – or at least it feels that way. In any case, time for a quick breather from marking to flag up two interesting reads, both from the UK.

While on a train journey recently, I couldn’t resist starting Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (Riverhead 2015), a psychological thriller that’s been a huge word-of-mouth hit. Its ‘accidental detective’ is Rachel Watson, a rail-commuter who in true Rear Window fashion, sees something disturbing out of the window that will change her life. The novel is a very enjoyable ride (albeit with a few too many coincidences towards the end), but what I particularly liked about it was its characterisation. Rachel, whose life has disintegrated since the end of her marriage, is a complex creation who gives a vivid insight into the destructive effects of alcoholism. She makes for a very intriguing investigator, especially as her drinking means she sometimes can’t trust her own memory.

The author is originally from Zimbabwe, although she’s lived in the UK for many years. There’s an interesting Guardian article on her and the novel here.

Rachel reminded me of another excellent female investigator I encountered recently – 82-year-old Maud Horsham in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (Viking 2014). Maud is also investigating a mystery – the disappearance of her best friend Elizabeth – and does so in the most difficult of circumstances: she has dementia and her memory, or rather lack of memory, is constantly tripping her up. A gripping psychological crime novel, Elizabeth also offers the reader a sobering and moving exploration of what it’s like to live with dementia – both for Maud as an individual and for her family. Like Rachel, Maud is portrayed as a determined, characterful, complex woman. I enjoyed meeting both of them very much.

Come to think of it, we could add Christine Lucas from S. J. Watson’s Before I go to Sleep to these two. Do we have a little subgenre emerging?

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13 thoughts on “Two compelling female detectives: Rachel (The Girl on the Train) and Maud (Elizabeth is Missing)

  1. What excellent choices for discussion, Mrs. P.! In both cases, you have intelligent female sleuths who are hampered by their own minds, but still are smart enough and keen enough to want to find out the truth. It is interesting to think about how one might go about something as complex as finding the answer to a difficult mystery if one’s battling either addiction or neurological degeneration. To tell such a story without making the character an object of either scorn or pity takes a deft hand. Glad you enjoyed these.

    • Thanks, Margot – I absolutely agree. Both authors have to be very skilled in terms of the way they deal with the women’s situations. It would have been so easy to get this wrong, and I imagine both would have carried out a significant amount of research ahead of writing. The authors also have to be skilled in another respect: creating a narrative in which those characters are believable as investigators who can reach an effective outcome. There is some suspension of disbelief involved, but in each case, their personal tenacity and belief that they must get to the truth makes them engaging and credible.

  2. I find the fact the one’s memory is tainted by alcohol and the other by dementia interesting.
    That will keep the reader not only on the edge of their seat….but always creating a tension.
    Can these gumshoes be trustworthy narrators?

    • Aha! I’ve just been ruminating on that point in my response to Margot above, Nancy. I think the answer is both yes and no, and that the tension generated by their situations is indeed one of the things that keeps the narratives so interesting.

  3. The Girl on the Train has been selected by my face to face book club this month so I am about to embark upon it…shall look forward to it more now after your thoughts (I was a bit disinterested, thinking it was another hype fuelled thing which I tend to shy away from).

    I guess this type of character is compelling to write about but I think it’s hard to get right. I didn’t think SJ Watson’s central character terribly believable though I couldn’t really tell you why – something just didn’t ring true for me. I liked meeting Maud though I kept (unfairly) comparing her to Jennifer White who is the protagonist in Alice La Plante’s TURN OF MIND. Jennifer too is suffering from dementia and I thought the depiction spookily accurate – having two parents both suffering different forms of dementia for the past couple of years has given me more insight than I ever wanted into what it’s like living with such fracturing of the mind and White is the best depiction I’ve come across so far.

    • Thanks, Bernadette. I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, even though I had some quibbles with the way the ending played out. Will be interested to hear what you and your book club make of it.

      I’d not heard of Alice La Plante’s Turn of Mind, so thanks very much for pointing me towards that one – I’ve just seen that it won the Wellcome Trust Prize in 2011 for medical writing as well. I can imagine such works are particularly difficult/poignant to read when you have loved ones suffering from dementia.

      There’s a good article on Turn of Mind from 2011 here, in case you haven’t seen it: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/22/alice-laplante-alzheimers-turn-of-mind

  4. I enjoyed The Girl on a Train – I was particularly fascinated by the train aspect and wrote a Guardian piece on trains in books as a result. The positive reviews I’m seeing for the Emma Healey book make me feel I should read it…

    • Your piece sounds fascinating – will try to track it down (pardon the pun). Or, if you see this comment, could you copy over the link? Thanks!

  5. I had a similar reaction to The Girl on the Train – some of the plotting got to me towards the end, but Rachel’s characterisation compelled me. Haven’t read Elisabeth is Missing, but love the sound of it – on the to-read list!

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