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These Male Authors Don’t Mind if You Think They’re Women

With psychological thrillers told from a female point of view a hot genre, male writers find an ambiguous pen name doesn’t hurt; trying on a bra.

By

Ellen Gamerman

Is Riley Sager, author of the new thriller “Final Girls,” a woman?

George Eliot

The writer’s gender-neutral name won’t answer the question. Neither will the author biography on the book’s back flap, which avoids male or female pronouns, or the book-jacket photo, which is nonexistent. The website for the novelist features trees against a hot pink sky and the author’s Instagram account includes shots of books, desserts, animals and fruity cocktails.

While it isn’t exactly a secret that Riley Sager is the author Todd Ritter, it is fine with him if some people assume he’s female. In fact, it is good for business.

“Final Girls” by Riley Sager.Photo: Penguin Random House

Riley heads to bookshelves as male writers adopt ambiguous pseudonyms for suspense novels rooted in the inner worlds of women. Female authors like Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) and Paula Hawkins (“The Girl on the Train”) have been leading this booming genre in a realm dominated by women readers. The problem for men: Some fans doubt the authenticity of the female narrator’s voice when it is delivered by a male author.

“Final Girls,” out last week, is told in the voice of a woman in her 20s who is the only survivor of a slasher-movie-style massacre. (The author’s Twitter avatar is a picture of Jamie Lee Curtis from the 1978 horror movie “Halloween.”) The first Riley Sager novel is one of five Book of the Month Club picks for July. Despite the excitement, Mr. Ritter isn’t doing a book tour. Some online posts have referred to him as a woman, a mistake he sometimes ignores. He won’t lie about his identity, created with help from a list of gender-neutral baby names, but he isn’t trumpeting the truth, either.

“I didn’t want there to be people thinking I was trying to deceive them in any way, but at the same time I think it’s cool to have a little mystery,” said Mr. Ritter, a 43-year-old author from Princeton, N.J. He said he chose the pseudonym partly because this book was unlike any other he had written and thrillers published under his real name hadn’t sold well.

The world has changed since the Brontë sisters and the woman born Mary Ann Evans, writing as George Eliot, had to disguise themselves with masculine-sounding pen names to be taken seriously. Women hold a large share of the power in the reading public. Last year, women bought 59% of all fiction, according to NPD Books.

A 2014 Goodreads survey of 20,000 male and 20,000 female participants on the site found that of the 50 books published that year that were most read by women, 46 were written by women. (One of those was by J.K. Rowling under the pen name Robert Galbraith.)

The stakes are high for male writers not to make mistakes that female readers would catch. S.J. Watson—Steve Watson—tried on a bra in his office while writing his 2011 best seller “Before I Go to Sleep.” The book refers to the undergarment at least seven times. If he had messed up a reference to bra mechanics, he said, his mother, one of his first readers, would have told him.

Quiz: Here are excerpts from novels written by men and women, most featuring a female narrator. Can you spot the male writers? Bonus points for question 11.

Pen names offer benefits, including the freedom of a clean slate. Retailers may rule out another work by an underperforming veteran in favor of a debut from a splashy newcomer. Authors who switch literary genres say readers don’t like expecting one type of book while getting another.

In recent years, many female readers have been drawn away from international espionage thrillers, a genre predominantly written by men, in favor of suspense novels told through the point of view of female characters, often compared with the 2012 juggernaut “Gone Girl.” Since then, certainly, men have written psychological thrillers under their own names and women have used pen names. But once a formula is successful, publishers try to replicate it.

“I’d be totally disingenuous if I said I haven’t noticed women are the ones powering these books,” said Daniel Mallory, 37, whose thriller “The Woman in the Window” comes out in January under the name ​​A.​ J. Finn.

Mr. Mallory, vice president and executive editor at William Morrow, constructed the pseudonym using initials, like other male authors do, with help from his cousin’s French bulldog, Finn. He used the name for his debut novel to steer clear of his ties in publishing and appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Daniel Mallory, whose pen name is A.J. Finn, wrote “The Woman in the Window.” Photo: Daniel Mallory; HarperCollins

Authors who use pseudonyms argue that a good writer can be genuine in the voice of the opposite gender—or a dog or a space creature, for that matter. And they accept that nothing stays a secret for long in the age of the internet.

A quick Google search linked Tony Strong to his pen name, JP Delaney, even before his 2017 best seller “The Girl Before” hit shelves. Publisher Ballantine Books identified JP Delaney as a pseudonym in the book-jacket bio but didn’t use telltale pronouns like “he” or “she.”

If readers assume he’s a woman, Mr. Strong said, it signals to him that he wrote a believable female narrator. “At almost every event, someone will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you weren’t a woman,’ and I’m always pleased.”

JP Delaney, actually Tony Strong, wrote “The Girl Before.” Photo: Sequoia Ziff; Ballantine Books

Last year, Amy Feld referred to author S.K. Tremayne as a woman in an online post about the 2015 thriller “The Ice Twins.” Ms. Feld, 53, a child psychologist from Conshohocken, Pa., said she is more likely to pick up a first-person female narrative written by a woman. When she finds authors she likes, she reads all their books, follows them on social media and tries to develop a feel for them. When informed of S.K. Tremayne’s actual gender recently, she balked. “It leads me to be suspicious of the writer,” she said. “I just feel a little bit lied to.”

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Sean Thomas, 53, the Londoner who is S.K. Tremayne, had been toiling for years as Tom Knox, a pen name that distanced his fiction from his work as a journalist but never delivered literary stardom. When he took on S.K. Tremayne, with what he called its “slight feminine feel,” his luck changed. “The Ice Twins” was a 2015 international best seller printed in 30 languages and optioned for a movie.

Mr. Thomas​ adopted the pen name on the advice of his all-female publishing team but he didn’t set up social-media accounts ​for it because he didn’t want to flesh out the fake identity. “We didn’t overtly lie,” he said. ​“It’s a cutthroat industry.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

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