On the dark side: a look at the rise of ‘domestic noir’ novels
In the United States, it is being marketed as “the gripping psychological thriller that’s not to be missed”. In the United Kingdom, it is already a bestseller. So you can forgive author B A Paris for being a little excited about her debut novel, Behind Closed Doors.
“It’s a huge thrill that so many people have already taken Behind Closed Doors to heart,” says the Franco-Irish writer. “People seem to be fascinated that a modern young woman could actually be kept prisoner.”
This contemporary feel is just one of the reasons why her tale of a dark secret lurking in the shadows of Jack and Grace Angel’s relationship not only appeared on one influential website’s list of “11 Summer Thrillers to Read If You Love Gone Girl”, but also why it is firmly filed under “domestic noir”.
No wonder Paris is thrilled: the last debut novelist to cause a stir in this genre, Paula Hawkins, broke into Forbes’ list of the top 10 highest-paid authors last week – above Game of Thrones creator George R R Martin – after The Girl On The Train racked up a staggering 11 million sales, and earned her US$10million (Dh36.7m), in just 18 months.
Read more: 5 of the best domestic thrillers for readers
It’s fair to say, then, that domestic noir is having a “moment” – but what exactly is it?
In 2013, novelist Julia Crouch was searching for a way to describe her books. They are not quite psychological thrillers, but too intricate to be thought of as procedural crime fiction.
“So I came up with the term domestic noir,” she wrote on her blog. “In a nutshell, it takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.”
Crouch was blogging as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – the suspenseful tale of a dysfunctional marriage in which the husband is implicated in the disappearance of his wife – was becoming a smash hit. Publishers, naturally, were immediately hungry for the next Gone Girl – and so were readers.
Which is why Emma Chapman’s bestselling How To Be A Good Wife was so perfectly timed.
“I didn’t realise that How To Be A Good Wife was a domestic thriller until my agent informed me,” says Chapman. “I had simply written a story about a woman called Marta and her husband, Hector, and how their lives change when Marta begins to question certain things about their marriage.”
She’s being modest – How To Be A Good Wife is a lot more complicated and haunting than she makes it sound. Chapman marvels at the twists in Gone Girl and the use of unreliable narrators played off against each other, but her book has a lot of those thrilling elements, too.
“For me, domestic thrillers, in the same way that horror films do, allow us to imagine our worst fears – of something dark entering our lives,” says Chapman. “The marriage thriller perhaps plays into some darker fear we have about whether we can ever trust another person, even if they are the person we have chosen to spend the rest of our lives with.”
Her key components for a good domestic thriller are largely shared by B A Paris’s editor, Sally Williamson, who, of course, comes across a lot of authors playing with the genre. So what makes the good ones stand out?
“Readers need to feel as though they could be in the same situation as the characters and this is what makes domestic thrillers so scary and compelling,” says Williamson. “They’re relationship-based, claustrophobic in feel, with a brilliant twist or two – this is absolutely essential in ensuring reader satisfaction.”
“For a novel to be classed as a thriller, it needs to have the reader on the edge of their seats, so there needs to be a huge degree of tension within the story,” she says. “In a domestic thriller, I think this tension has to come from a relationship that is founded on lies, or where there is a degree of abuse, whether physical or psychological.”
Williamson also edited Dubai-based author Annabel Kantaria’s thriller Coming Home. – part of the debut novel’s manuscript won her first place at the inaugural Montegrappa First Fiction Prize in 2013, held as part of Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – and, as with Chapman, it was something of a happy accident that it came at the time domestic noir was gaining traction.
“I wasn’t really aware of this genre,” says Kantaria. “Gone Girl had just started to become popular and the genre was yet to explode into what it is now. At that time, I was just interested in writing about a psychologically damaged character, and how that damage shaped her behaviour later in life and affected her family.
“I was also fascinated by the saying: ‘Every expat is running away from something,’ and I wanted to create a character living in Dubai who was running away from some sort of psychological trauma back home. I wanted to force her to go home and face it.”
It is interesting that for all of the writers’ talk of the common elements that make for good domestic noir, none of them felt like they were writing to a prescribed formula. In fact, they were concerned with the same issues that writers such as P D James, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith and, more recently, Lionel Shriver have been writing about for decades.
“One of my favourite domestic thrillers ever is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – and that was written in 1938,” says Williamson. “So the genre isn’t new, it’s just been called something a little different.
“Gone Girl definitely reinvigorated it and defined it for the 21st century, but ultimately I think people like great, gripping stories and these books deliver that in spades. Readers also often want to escape into a book – and a page-turning suspense story is a world away from real life.”
Yet this same page-turning aspect has led some to deride domestic noir as nothing more than a darker version of production-line “chick-lit”. The suggestion seems unfair, not to mention sexist. Chapman, Kantaria and Paris are exploring real issues in thoughtful, often stylish, ways.
“As a young woman thinking about marriage at the time to my long-term partner, I was deeply concerned that all the old-fashioned clichés about a woman’s role in marriage would still be true,” says Chapman. “Those fears underpin How To Be A Good Wife: that getting married would prevent me in some way from reaching my potential outside the home.”
In the end, it is such explorations of the complex, secretive world of imperfect relationships we can all identify with – woven into suspenseful plots – that enure the domestic noir trend shows no sign of slowing.
For B A Paris, it is the start of what she hopes will be a long, fruitful career.
“The next books I write will definitely be psychological dramas of some sort – I’m very aware that it’s what readers who enjoyed Behind Closed Doors will want and it’s what I enjoy writing,” she says. “But because domestic thrillers have become so popular, the hard bit is going to be coming up with a new twist.”