Domestic noir has sinister real-life inspiration
by B E Jones
It’s the story about the shoes that has always stuck with me. Years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter in Cardiff, I was asked to write a feature on domestic abuse. I was only 27 but I’d already seen my fair share of court cases about battered women. Like many people I thought ‘I would never put up with that,’ but an interview with a woman I’ll call Cath made me rethink my approach.
Men (though not exclusively men) who hit or smash things are easy ones to spot but for many people, in ordinary homes, power, influence and control are more insidious things. This is where the shoes came in.
Cath was not much older than I was at the time and said her husband had never actually laid a hand on her. He got his kicks in a more subtle way. He had many ‘foibles’ including the fact that he hated her having friends and didn’t like it if she left the house while he was in work where he couldn’t keep track of her. When he left for the day he’d lock all her shoes in the bedroom wardrobe, leaving her only slippers so she would have to stay inside, caring for their young son. This was just one of his little tyrannies which got worse by the year. Of course I asked her why she had let it happen, why she didn’t tell someone.
‘It happened slowly,’ she said, ‘with such little things. In the beginning he made it seem like he was concerned about me, that I wasn’t as focused on our new baby as I should’ve been. He made me doubt myself. By the time it got worse I was ashamed. How could I tell anyone that I’d let someone treat me like that? That a grown woman was being denied her shoes? Everyone thought he was such a nice friendly guy too.’
Cath eventually left him when he started to involve their young son in his little power games, asking him to decide whether or not his mummy had been ‘good’ that day or ‘bad’, giving or withholding certain little privileges depending on how he answered. But the disturbing tale stayed with me, as have many others that I experienced working as a reporter and then for the police as a press officer.
I think it’s natural for writers to want to draw on their experience, and I can ensure you that truth really is stranger than fiction from the inside of a story or an investigation, especially the cases that never make it into the news. But I always try not to treat these experiences as plot novelties, or as story fodder, but as insights into just how complex personal relationships can be.
I drew on Cath’s experience while writing my latest novel Where She Went. My protagonist, Melanie, is a TV reporter who loses control of her own life when she becomes the ‘victim’ of a fatal crime. The novel touches on some of the more subtle issues of power and influence that Melanie encounters in the home of a controlling man and his cowed wife. Every time I found myself thinking in clichés I thought of the story of the shoes, reminding myself that no chooses to be a ‘victim’ or to think of themselves as one. Sometimes it just takes time to pluck up your courage and find ways to flee or fight back.
Beverley was a reporter for Trinity Mirror newspapers before becoming a broadcast journalist with the BBC in Cardiff. She worked on all aspects of crime before becoming a press officer for South Wales Police, participating in investigations and emergency planning. She channels her experiences of ‘true crime’ into her dark, psychological thrillers.