Domestic Noir – crime that’s close to home by Alice Castle
Domestic noir is not new. Ever since the first performance of Medea in 431 BC, or Mrs Bluebeard’s first peek into that forbidden chamber, women have been confronting horrible truths close to home. There is evidence, though, that domestic suspense becomes even more popular than usual in times of national turmoil.
There was a significant rise in the genre after the Second World War, when soldiers, many of them affected by the conflict, were demobbed. A barrage of ‘marriage thriller’ books, plays and films emerged, showing women at bay. They included the Ingrid Bergman classic Gaslight, which lent its name to an entire specialised strand of domestic abuse.
One could argue that now is another such time of crisis. Whichever side of the Brexit divide we may find ourselves on, we can all agree that the past few years have created an exhausting and frustrating mood of national uncertainty. Added to that turmoil, we (currently) have a Prime Minister who has a chequered record with the opposite sex, who declines to specify the number of children he has fathered and who dismisses female MPs’ concerns about rape and death threats as ‘humbug.’ Meanwhile the US President, the most powerful man in the world, is on record saying he likes to introduce himself to women by ‘grabbing them by the pussy.’
Women could be forgiven for feeling that things may not be going our way at the moment. If the leaders of our great nations are modelling less than respectful behaviour towards us, then what on earth could be happening behind closed doors? It turns out we already know the answer to this. Three women in the UK are killed every week by a current or former partner. Meanwhile, more and more rapes and assaults are being reported, while convictions have sunk to a record low.
It is no wonder that women turn to books about the world they know: the world of domestic violence. It is also no wonder that women write about what they know: gaslighting, coercive control, stalking, intimidation and murder. Not all victims of domestic abuse are female; not all writers of the genre are women either. And not all readers or writers will have experienced abuse at first hand. But yes, most of the people in all these groups – the writers, readers, and indeed the victims – are female.
These dark books, with their sudden, heart-stopping twists, their stalkings and stabbings and their terrifying denouements, can be very useful for women. Each one, as well as making for a thrilling read, can act as a sort of training manual, revealing the signs of abuse, validating a reader’s experiences, or even describing what to look out for. Cautionary tales like Little Red Riding Hood have always served many purposes; they are partly stories that give children an enjoyable frisson of fear in a safe way, but they are also warnings that only the foolish should ignore. They have powerful messages to impart. Stay on that path. Even your grandma may turn out to be a monster! Similarly, domestic noir books have their underlying themes. Things are not as they seem. Be careful who you trust. How well do you know that person?
One of the reasons we read any book is to enjoy the feeling of universality it can offer. We like to feel we are not alone with our emotions, whether they be love or terror. A good writer creates a world that resonates with readers and helps us see through the eyes of the protagonist, whether they are facing the man of their dreams, or their worst nightmare. It can be a wonderful – or chilling – feeling when you recognise an experience you’ve had yourself, in the book you are reading. Though we can often be gifted at seeing where other people are going wrong, it’s always harder to see the wood for the trees with our own lives. Arguably one of the first psychological thrillers, Jane Austen’s Emma has an entire strand of plot which involves the heroine failing to spot multiple clues to an intrigue being carried on in plain sight.
In many ways, domestic noir books are the polar opposite of the other popular genre for women, romantic fiction. They do, in fact, share a common trait. Both rely on the protagonist getting her man. In the romance, you’ll often find her, dressed in white, and standing at an altar. In a psychological thriller, she could be clad in rags by the end of the book, but she, too, will have achieved her aim, of making sure her man is right where she wants him. And, unlike real life, that’s usually behind bars.