Suspense Novels: Home or Away? by Helen Cooper
I write this while looking at the covers of my two novels. My debut, The Downstairs Neighbour, features a house with a half-open doorway: an ordinary, familiar image, but with an air of shadowy secrecy. My second thriller, The Other Guest, has a panorama of an Italian lake on the front, but also radiates a sense of menace you might not associate with a holiday snap. These two jackets put me in mind of the potential of ‘home vs. away’ in crime fiction. The ways in which suspense can arise out of the intimacy of a domestic setting or the alienness of an exotic one.
In fact, I see this in the titles of many other novels on my bookshelf, referring to either domestic settings (A Stranger in My Home; Behind Closed Doors) or away-from-home scenarios (The Sanatorium; The Holiday; The Retreat). And there are definitive examples in both camps. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl had us questioning the everyday with its claustrophobic plot set in a close-knit neighbourhood. On the other side, Alex Garland’s The Beach transported us to paradise and then turned it into a nightmare.
In my novel The Other Guest, I have a storyline in which my protagonist, Leah, travels to a luxurious Italian resort to investigate her niece’s death. But I also have a parallel plot, set in Derby, in which another character, Joanna, finds herself in danger in her own home. Their locations create tension in different ways. Leah is out of her comfort zone, isolated, stripped of her usual resources. Joanna is in a familiar environment, but her usual sanctuary, her home, has become a place of fear.
So I pose the question: which is more chilling, the idea of being in danger far from home, or the thought of danger finding its way through your front door?
I’ll start by thinking a little more about the ‘home’ team. There’s a reason why domestic thrillers have become so popular. Gillian Flynn and other trailblazers tapped into something tantalising: the darkness that might lurk in familiar spaces or behind the façade of ‘perfect’ families and homes. There’s also a reason why many are set in suburban or affluent neighbourhoods, as is my debut. It’s that contrast between apparent respectability and the crimes it might mask. Often, the home itself has the secrets locked inside. It’s not always as literal as Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, but frequently the clue that could unravel the domestic bliss lurks under the protagonist’s nose.
Many of these stories, therefore, are about a character realising their life is not all it seems. But often it falls to the reader to work out how far we can trust the people in the story, even the narrator themself. We end up eyeing everyone with suspicion, from the teenage daughter to the amiable uncle. And it’s a chilling process to go through, questioning everything that gives shape and stability to a life.
Thrillers that take the protagonist far from their usual environment also often feature a cast of suspect characters. The difference is they tend to be strangers. The character is thrust into an alien world and introduced to a range of new faces, and when bad things happen they must work out who they can trust. So, they have the same challenge as a character, or reader, in a domestic thriller. But instead of viewing ‘safe’ people in a disturbing new light, they’re trying to rapidly understand the unfamiliar community they’re now immersed in.
And the exotic setting is a source of danger itself. Perhaps a tropical island becomes marooned by a storm; a mountaintop hotel gets snowed in; or, as in The Other Guest, an exclusive resort starts to reveal its darker side. Add to this, the disorientation of a character who doesn’t know the culture or speak the language, then throw in some further environmental threats such as poisonous creatures or treacherous terrain. Often, too, something about the protagonist will make the situation graver, such as a medical condition or a past trauma reawakened. A perfect storm of powerlessness for them to overcome.
So I circle back to the question of which is the most frightening, discovering darkness at home or encountering danger while far away? Most readers can just as easily – if not comfortably – imagine a holiday from hell as they can picture what it would be like to discover their spouse has a dreadful secret. And that’s the essential element of psychological suspense: that the reader is forced to consider, ‘what if that were me?’ Whether set at home or away, a successful thriller has relatable scenarios colliding with universal nightmares. And that’s a pretty terrifying place to be!
Read more about Helen Cooper here.