In my early twenties, I fell out of love with crime thrillers. After reading yet another book in the genre with a female character who seemed to be present for the sole purpose of being stalked, abused, and gratuitously sexually assaulted (with zero character development), I was exasperated. How did an entire genre have such disproportionate violence toward women? The intrinsic misogyny of these novels, and the male authors who wrote them arguing such violence as “necessary” to the plot, left my stomach churning. I found myself moving toward fantasy, where I discovered with some delight that feminist fantasy is now a thing. Like a bad relationship, I said thank you, next to crime thrillers.
That is, until early last year. Almost ten years after I had given up on crime thrillers, I found a crime thriller that changed my perspective on what the genre could be. A story so fiercely feminist, a story that looked at the genre through a female gaze, a story that whispered seductively into my ear: this is the crime thriller you’ve been waiting for. I didn’t go back to my toxic ex, no—I found a new love entirely.
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel My Sister, the Serial Killer speaks volumes, not just about the genre of crime thrillers, but about the world we live in today—within the slim volume is a determined and loud voice demanding to be heard, and rightly so, for it has a lot to say.
The novel starts mid-conflict, in modern-day Lagos, where Korede—a nurse—cleans up a blood-drenched bathroom. “Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him. / I had hoped I would never hear those words again.” Korede’s sister Ayoola maintains she killed her boyfriend in self-defense. Korede suspects her sister murdered him. After all, this is not the first time Korede has helped cover up the death of one of Ayoola’s boyfriends. What follows is a thrilling journey of two sisters bound not only by their own blood, but also by the lengths to which a sister will go to protect her own. Korede and Ayoola’s sister bond really is the backbone of the novel, with older sister Korede narrating throughout. It’s got that “I would die for you” energy that anyone with a strong female bond will feel deeply in their soul. These women are flawed, yes (aren’t we all?), but they are strong, and although they have been told to stay quiet and be good girls, they are fighting back in a way that’s electrifying to read.
It is particularly striking that the novel takes place in Nigeria, against the backdrop of a patriarchal society with a strong culture of male dominance and female subjugation, and it is particularly striking when the person perpetuating violence in the novel is a woman, her victims men. Korede even remarks that no one will suspect her sister of murder because she is automatically perceived as weaker. Korede uses this “weaker sex” reasoning entrenched in her society to her advantage, by positing Ayoola as an innocent, grieving woman—even as the likelihood of her involvement piles up. It is this I find particularly intriguing about the novel: the subtle references to societal norms that constrict women being used by these same women to fight back and reclaim the power taken from them.
“Have you heard this one before? Two girls walk into a room. The room is in a flat. The flat is on the third floor. In the room is the dead body of an adult male. How do they get the body to the ground floor without being seen?
“First they gather supplies.”
Having spent years reading about male serial killers and their female victims in books—and in real life—My Sister, the Serial Killer is a startling read. It shows a skeleton in society’s closet, and it screams out with an anger and a weariness I feel deep in my bones. As a white woman, I cannot feel any of the pain Korede and Ayoola have suffered as Black women, but in a world where women are not safe at home or on the streets, I feel that pain. It is a story that will resonate with many across the world who will see the truth displayed on a backdrop behind these fictitious murders.
At 224 pages, it is a short read, but an impactful one. Not only does the novel flip the script on old-school crime thrillers by subverting tired, clichéd norms, it is a testament to the strength of women in a world that tries to assert dominance and control over them and their bodies. It does a spectacular job of bringing a fresh perspective to a typically white, male-dominated genre and wraps it neatly into one story that delighted me, every single one of the three times I read it last year. Note: the audiobook is wonderfully narrated by Weruche Opia.
If you need proof that feminist crime thrillers work, My Sister, the Serial Killer has the receipts to prove it in the form of multiple awards and nominations: the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller (winner, 2019); the British Book Award for Crime & Thriller Book of the Year (winner, 2020); the Women’s Prize for Fiction (shortlist, 2019); and the Booker Prize (longlist, 2019).
Ultimately, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a triumph of a book. It has the edge-of-the-seat anticipation I have always craved in a crime thriller which, combined with a strong female gaze, delivers a crime thriller that finally thrilled me. There are layers of tension and fast-paced action in a story that lingers long after it’s been read: this is a book I haven’t stopped thinking about, almost a year after I first read it. And after my second re-read, I’m still thinking about My Sister, the Serial Killer.