Our Cultural Obsession with Missing Women

Why are there more "gone girls" than "gone guys"? David Bell, author of Bring Her Home, explores.

I’m going to admit to a bit of youthful cluelessness here.

Many, many years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University, I engaged in a conversation with a female friend. Something came up about the idyllic nature of our campus, how beautiful it was, how pleasant to walk through.

“And safe,” I said. “I walk around in the middle of the night all the time, and I never have to worry about anything happening to me.”

Yes, I was surprised to see the puzzled look on my friend’s face.

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She proceeded to tell me that she never felt safe walking around campus or the town at night, that she felt safer walking down the middle of the street in New York City, surrounded by people and lights and cars, than she ever did on our bucolic campus.

I learned my lesson: It’s different for women.

Is that why so many suspense novels deal with “gone girls” instead of “gone guys”?

It’s a fact that men are more likely to be killed by strangers than women are. But the flip side of that coin is this—women are more likely to be killed by someone they know. A family member. A partner. A spouse.

Without giving too much away, in the kinds of novels I write—novels of domestic suspense—the victims of the violent acts at the center of the plots know the perpetrators. For me—as a person and as a writer—about the scariest thing I can imagine is thinking I know someone very well and then learning that I don’t. It happens to all of us. We’ve all been burned by a person we trusted, we’ve all been hurt by somebody close to us.

Is this the only reason so many novels of domestic suspense deal with missing or murdered women instead of men? Not at all. The reasons are deep and complex. But this is part of it.

Sometimes when I give readings, people ask me where I get my story ideas and what kind of research I do for my books. I always use this occasion to make a reliable joke. I tell the crowd that if my wife, Molly, ever disappeared, and the police searched my browser history, I’d be in immediate trouble. They’d see that I searched for information about murder weapons and decomposition rates and autopsy procedures.

The audience laughs because they understand. Sure, I’m a writer, so I look those weird things up. But they also laugh because they know it’s true. When is the last time they saw a news story about a woman suspected of killing her husband and hiding his body? The numbers don’t lie—it’s rare.

So why do we have all these “gone girl” books?

Isn’t it simply because suspense novels imitate life?

That’s the world we live in. That’s the world we write about.


Featured image: IMBD; Ben Affleck, Lisa Banes, and David Clennon in Gone Girl (2014); Author Photo: © Glen Rose Photography

DAVID BELL is a bestselling and award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. He received an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a PhD in American literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His novels include Bring Her HomeSince She Went Away, Somebody I Used to KnowThe Forgotten GirlNever Come BackThe Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl.

About DAVID BELL

DAVID BELL is a bestselling and award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. He received an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a PhD in American literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His novels include Bring Her HomeSince She Went Away, Somebody I Used to KnowThe Forgotten GirlNever Come BackThe Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl.

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