I’ve read several books lately that have what I would classify as anti-heroines as protagonists. Anti-heroes have been around a long time in literature (the word was coined as early as the 1700s), and can be defined as central characters who lack conventional heroic attributes. Anti-heroes in novels usually have dark traits often associated with villains, such as amorality, violent tendencies and traits that blur the moral line between a protagonist and antagonist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antihero). Anti-heroines seem to be becoming more prominent in novels lately.
The most famous anti-heroine in recent memory is Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series (which starts with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She’s mysterious, anti-social, violent at times and is morally ambivalent. She’s one of the most unusual female characters to come along and the series took the world by storm.
I've enjoyed three novels which have characters with anti-heroine attributes, so I thought I'd combine these books in one post. I’ll be writing about Nola Brown in Brad Meltzer’s The Escape Artist, Alice Vega in Louisa Luna’s Two Girls Down, and Amanda Pharrell in Candice Fox’s Crimson Lake.
Meltzer, Brad. 2018. The Escape Artist. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group. ISBN: 978-1538746783. $28.00 USD.
I had not read anything by Brad Meltzer before The Escape Artist, though he is a popular author with my library patrons. And I must say that I'm now a fan! I had been seeing some buzz about one of the characters in his book (‘who is Nola Brown”), and the plot sounded interesting. I am grateful to Grand Central Publishing for allowing me to read the novel before it was published.
Who is Nola Brown? She is a mystery, she’s in trouble and she’s supposed to be dead. In The Escape Artist, the main character is Jim "Zig" Zigarowski who works for the Army restoring the bodies of fallen soldiers before burial. (This is a real job, and the author did a lot of research about this noble profession before writing the book). Jim is told that there has been a plane crash, and there are military bodies arriving who will need his special skills. One of the bodies turns out to be someone he knew many years ago who helped his daughter in a bad situation. But Jim knows something about Nola, and soon he realizes the body on his table is not actually her. His connection to Nola Brown causes him to investigate what actually happened to her, and that’s the basic plot of the book.
The character of Nola Brown is an anti-heroine because she doesn’t feel much for people, and frequently manipulates those around her to get what she wants. She also has lethal skills courtesy of the military and doesn’t seem to feel any remorse for her violent actions. She’s a sympathetic character in a lot of ways because the author gives us alternating chapters describing her horrific childhood. But she cannot be trusted, and puts people in harm’s way to achieve her goals. In the book, Jim keeps trying to help her, but gets in dangerous situations because of it. We are not sure Nola really cares about him at all, in spite of all the ways he tries to help her. Nola Brown is definitely one of the more interesting characters I’ve encountered recently, and the book tells a great story.
Luna, Louisa. 2018. Two Girls Down. New York, NY: Knopf/Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House. ISBN 978-038554249. $25.95 USD.
I also was able to read Two Girls Down pre-publication courtesy of Knopf/Doubleday and it's appreciated. In this novel, we are introduced to another anti-heroine, Alice Vega, an enigmatic bounty hunter who is hired by a family to find two missing girls. Alice has a reputation for being able to find missing children, but the reader is given very little information about her background. She’s tough, anti-social, and needs very little sleep, but she manages to always get the job done. The police department in the town where the girls went missing is stretched thin by budget cuts, so Alice recruits a disgraced former cop named Max Caplan to help her. Their relationship is initially antagonistic, but they learn to respect each other and work toward a common goal. This book is an excellent read, character driven and propulsive, like the best thrillers. It’s not graphically violent, but the language is pretty rough, which is the only negative thing I have to say about this excellent debut.
Fox, Candice. 2018. Crimson Lake. New York, NY: Forge, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. ISBN: 978-0765398482. $25.99 USD.
Finally, another book with an interesting anti-heroine is Crimson Lake by Candice Fox. I was able to read this one courtesy of Forge Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. I have read some excellent novels written by Australian authors lately, including The Dry and Force of Nature by Jane Harper. Candice Fox is another Australian author, based in Sydney, and she has partnered with James Patterson in the U.S. in writing several books, including the recent Fifty, Fifty.
In Crimson Lake, the main character is Ted Conkaffey who was accused, but not convicted, of killing a teenage girl. His life is in shambles, and he’s hiding out in a small town trying to get his life back together. When his parole officer sets him up with a job assisting a private investigator, we meet the final anti-heroine covered in this post: Amanda Pharrell, who did time for murdering a friend when they were teenagers. But all is not what it seems, as happens in the best novels! As you can imagine, Amanda is fairly damaged from what happened to her as a teen: she doesn’t trust people, has few people skills and doesn’t seem to care much about anything. But she’s good at her job. And when she and Ted are hired to find out what happened to a local celebrity, they have to find a way to work together in spite of their traumatic histories.
These three novels contain great examples of the anti-heroine character, adding depth and emotional heft to the stories contained therein.