Domestic noir and the #MeToo moment

Gone Girls and their sisters in a genre that capitalizes on women’s deepest fears 

In Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Guardian review of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger—a post-war tale of a haunted mansion—she refers to the protagonist, Dr. Faraday, in his most important role: the skeptic. “Every ghost story,” Mantel writes, “needs a Dr. Faraday, a blunt literalist with a sturdy sense of self.” And whose sense of self could be sturdier than an English country doctor’s?

It’s no coincidence that Faraday is first called to the manor to treat an anxious serving girl, the least powerful, and therefore least reliable, member of the household. Before long both the elderly lady of the house and her daughter develop symptoms. Indeed, there is only one man in the family, the shell-shocked brother. He is quickly dispatched to an institution, leaving Faraday as a kind of de facto head of the household. The doctor’s real role, to pare back to essentials, is the patriarchal authority. Mantel describes Faraday as “determined, on our behalf, to avoid melodrama.” The story, by now, has come down to a bunch of women seeing ghosts.

This conflict—Faraday’s “sturdy sense of self” versus lady melodrama—seems the heart of the unreliable narrator trope in “domestic noir,” a term coined by author Julia Crouch in 2013, but a genre that far precedes that name, with roots in the marriage thrillers of the 1940s and 50s. A more encompassing popular term for the category is “domestic suspense.” In these books, woman-in-peril pacing sets the danger squarely at the heart of the matter: the protagonist’s marriage. The truth of the mystery is inextricable from the truth of her relationship, shrouded as it inevitably is by the uncertainties inherent in all relationships.

Definitions of domestic suspense tend to the concrete. U.K. editor Sally Williamson refers to books in this genre as “relationship-based [and] claustrophobic,” while author Rebecca Whitney sees at their centre the “toxic marriage and its fallout.” The genre exploded in 2012 with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a story narrated in part by a wife who has disappeared, and these days, this unreliable narrator is a usual formulation: almost always female, normally a wife (or ex-wife), an actor whose account is questionable based on her character.

In The Little Stranger, it is Faraday who narrates, but he is the reader’s proxy: the story of strange happenings at Hundreds Hall is told to him by the women of the house, and mostly by the daughter whom he eventually seeks to marry. She is the unreliable one, narrating through him to us. The question of whether it is in fact Faraday swept up in his own ego controlling the story is in part what makes the book so successful.

That, too, is an old trick. Certainly, there could be no more sturdy sense of self than that of Maxim de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and it is still Rebecca that domestic noir and suspense authors refer to over and over again in interviews today. As I write this, yet another article on du Maurier’s most famous novel has popped up in my newsfeed, with a story in the Guardian reminding me that Rebecca still sells in the neighbourhood of 4,000 copies a month. Virago published an 80th anniversary edition this year.

The unreliable narrator serves the story rather obviously by keeping the mystery aflame: the truth is that much more obscure. What interests me, however, is what this supposedly unreliable narrator provides specifically for women readers.

In an era of whisper networks, so-called shit lists, and #MeToo, why would women flock so committedly to a genre that almost takes for granted an unreliable narrator—that is to say, a woman who may or may not be trusted? One answer is that the common themes of domestic thrillers—secrets and lies between husband and wife, toxicity, abuse of every sort, but especially the kind of psychological manipulation that pushes a character to act in ways she thought herself incapable of, or keeps her from seeing the truth, or from leaving a relationship—are all the same themes that women have been discussing in real life since forever. The unreliable narrator stands on shaky ground, but we’re used to that: as women, we are constantly told that our accounts of our own experiences are unreliable. When I look at a genre that sometimes seems to capitalize on women’s greatest fears, I wonder if there is not some comfort for women readers in a story written from a woman’s point of view, one that meets the societal perception of unreliability head-on, and often confirms those fears to be well and truly grounded after all.

Recent events have spiked the public conversation around sexual assault. 2014’s bombshell of a reveal about Jian Ghomeshi led to two years of discussion in the mainstream news: about the ubiquity of the crimes, yes, as well as women’s reticence to report them. An analysis of Statistics Canada data used by the YWCA shows an average of 460,000 sexual assaults occur in Canada every year; of those, a scant 3.3 percent are reported to police, less than 1.2 percent lead to criminal charges—and only 0.3 percent end in a conviction.

Blame the justice system, but until very recently, the media hasn’t been without fault either. When Amber Heard first filed for divorce in the spring of 2016, long before #MeToo, alleging that her then-husband Johnny Depp abused her physically and verbally, media outlets worked valiantly to assist Depp’s attempts to destroy her credibility. Since then, we’ve seen a seismic shift that came with Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein exposé, published swift on the heels of a New York Times investigative piece. We’ve also seen the first waves of a backlash.

“The greatest threat to the peace of the characters in A Stranger in the House is the truth,” the novelist and critic Naben Ruthnum wrote in a review of a 2017 book by Canadian author Shari Lapena, who has dominated bestseller lists at home and abroad since her 2016 thriller debut, The Couple Next Door. Ruthnum was talking about Lapena’s book and more broadly about thrillers, but the notion is true of domestic suspense, which seems to turn on a fulcrum of secrets and lies.

It’s no coincidence that many of these books revolve around truth. The truth, we are told, is hidden or buried, it must be found, uncovered, untangled—occasionally, protected. The word appears again and again in the marketing. But truth is subjective: authority gets to define it.

My own version of the domestic thriller is Hysteria, about a psychiatrist’s wife at the dawn of the psychotropic drug industry, published this spring. Two kinds of fear drive Hysteria. On the surface level, the protagonist, Heike Lerner, fears for her child’s safety after he goes missing at the end of the novel’s first act. Heike wakes to find her child gone, and her husband, Eric—formerly her doctor—patronizing and unresponsive. Heike knows intuitively that something quite dark is at play in the disappearance of her son. Eric uses her anxiety to dismiss her, to diminish her credibility. At the deeper level, Heike’s fear is really about this perceived unreliability: How can she find the truth when no one believes her? Can she even trust herself? As a result, not only has she lost her child, she has lost her agency. That powerlessness is terrifying. And rather familiar.

As a writer, I’m often a bit frustrated by categories: I like to throw the word genre around, just to keep people on their toes. Once you look for it, domestic suspense crossovers are everywhere. Take Claire Cameron’s 2014 novel, The Bear, in which two young children must survive after their parents are killed by a rogue black bear in Algonquin Park. The narrator is a five-year-old girl; her mother is dead within the first pages. The story is not about the marriage, or at least not consciously so. Yet it is interesting viewed against the tropes of domestic suspense.

In a way, the book seems to turn that genre on its head. It is the child, and not the mother, who narrates the story, and “home” has been replaced by a Canadian idyll: the family camping trip. But in following the escape of the child protagonist, stomachs clenched, we as readers are in fact the mother’s proxy. She is, again, powerless to protect her child. It is because we are reading through her eyes that the story is so terrifying. The Bear is really a wilderness adventure; I don’t think Cameron was aiming at domestic suspense, nor was the book marketed that way. But the number of women writers drawing on the conventions of the genre speaks to how compelling those conventions have become.

I found Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger exciting for exactly that reason—it really is a ghost story. It’s a damn frightening page turner, in fact, while also being a novel about the crumbling of an empire. And the sentences are beautiful. When I asked Sarah Weinman, author of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s and self-described “Crime Lady,” about the difference between crossover and pure genre, she agreed that it can come down to style. But what makes a crossover literary is really about multiplicity of meaning, especially when it comes to that unreliable narrator.

“The key in Gone Girl,” Weinman tells me, speaking of the novel and not the movie that came afterward, “is that it’s not just Amy we can’t trust. We can’t trust Nick. Both characters get equal time to be untrustworthy.” That balance is part of what makes the book so complex. “It’s [also] very much a book about struggling with economic changes,” she says, recalling the global financial crisis that preceded Gone Girl’s 2012 publication. “They had this great New York City life, but he loses his job. So underneath the suspense plot there’s this other question: ‘What happens when your economic sense of yourself is upended?’ That’s what makes it good, you need that piece of social commentary. It’s not just about plot and narrative.”

The uptick in reader interest has largely ignored such lines in the sand. There is a raft of writers with literary reputations exploring genre territory, with readership often moving fluidly between. Bookseller Martha Sharpe says she knew Amy Stuart’s 2016 breakout debut, Still Mine, was something special as soon as the manuscript landed on her desk. She was working as an editor at Simon & Schuster Canada at the time. “I thought, this is a smart thriller—without pages and pages of thinly veiled excuse to dominate women’s bodies.” The book’s female protagonist, Clare, is on the run from an abusive partner when she gets co-opted into some private investigative work—by the very ­investigator who was hired by her husband to track her down. Sharpe was so excited by the book’s feminist approach that she signed Stuart to a two-book deal. “I had no idea that it was a building trend. I just knew I was sick of [the graphic violence].”

Genre has always allowed the writer to speak in code. Consider Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Part of Serling’s motivation to turn from realism to genre was that it allowed him to address real-world concerns of the time without drawing the attention of censors. Thematically, the Twilight Zone’s focus on the fear of the unknown allowed him to cover racism, Cold War anxiety, and of course, whatever discoveries the burgeoning space program might enable. The audience was rapt.

For the woman writer, as for the woman reader, the tools of genre offer a way to talk about what scares us and what needs changing, and, like a whisper network, a way to pass the message along. “Really good suspense,” Weinman tells me—and she mentions American writers Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott, among others—has “made the space for women to get into their deep-seated fear, their deep-seated compulsions.” Unreliable, my foot: there really is a bogeyman in the closet, and we’ve been talking about him all along.

The wave of “marriage thrillers” to which du Maurier’s Rebecca opened the door in 1938 was the natural predecessor of today’s domestic suspense, both in books and in Hollywood. Suspense authors like Helen Nielsen, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and the Canadian-born Margaret Millar were mainly concerned with the lives of girls and women, and as writers, often crossed back and forth between media: Nielsen wrote screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason; Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall has been adapted for screen not once but twice.

The genre emerged and thrived at a tumultuous time. Men returned home from war truly changed by PTSD, strangers to their own families. After decades of growing emancipation, women had been fully in the workplace through the war years. Now they had lost their jobs and faced a steady push for increased “femininity”: earlier marriages, more babies, and less freedom.

The marriage thriller, like today’s domestic suspense, turned on the question of secrets and lies in our most intimate relationships: How can you ever really know the person you’re married to? After twenty-odd years of steady success, the trend died in the 1960s, as social upheaval ushered in a new wave of popular feminist literature. Notably, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Gloria Steinem’s “A Bunny’s Tale” (parts I and II) both appear in 1963, and the decade gives itself over to non-fiction titles by Shirley Chisholm and Shulamith Firestone, among others. The books supported a movement. In the 1960s, feminism was a growth market.

Anyone unconvinced of domestic suspense’s predilection for channelling women’s more serious concerns need only look at the curious resonances between today’s genre bestseller lists and the non-fiction lists. There were just two years between Drink, Ann Dowsett Johnston’s bestselling non-fiction book about the troubling rise of alcoholism among women, and Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train, where the narrator’s drinking is what makes her unreliable; in Ruth Ware’s current bestseller, The Woman in Cabin 10, the narrator has both a drinking problem and anxiety issues. (How unreliable can you get?) Released on the same day as my novel, Feministing.com co-founder Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm turns a non-fiction lens on the same issue, the effect on women of sexism in the medical industry. Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus, roughly on the same topic, also hit bookstores the very same day.

In the six years since Gone Girl, we’ve moved from the whisper network to literally marching in the streets. In some ways, women were primed for the explosiveness of the #MeToo movement by the galvanizing force of the 2017 Women’s March. In the wake of the marches, women were encouraged to take up the mantle in their own communities: St. John’s poet and critic Andreae Callanan organized a book club. The idea, at first, was to invite a small group of like-minded participants to read together, not just books by women, but specifically non-fiction, feminist books, written almost exclusively by non-white authors. She says the focus on non-fiction was essential:

Part of the magic of fiction is that it allows readers to insert themselves into other people’s stories, and that’s very powerful, and there’s definitely a place for it. But it also means that readers’ biases will dictate how they read a story. I think that non-fiction—good, engaging non-fiction—reduces that bias…Fiction connects us; non-fiction disrupts us…We can pretend that fiction is about us; we can’t get away with that when we read a story that is clearly and explicitly someone else’s.

Callanan originally invited a group of eight readers to share the list she created based on those principles. A year later, the club still operates as a monthly meet-up—with an online read-along following of more than 150 others. Where fiction allows for such a thing as an unreliable narrator, non-fiction does away with the possibility altogether: in feminist non-fiction, women’s voices are the authority. No wonder the appetite for it is voracious.

With the rise of feminist non-fiction, is domestic suspense once again in for a decline? Not necessarily. When I ask Weinman what has her on the edge of her seat in the industry now, she sighs deliciously: Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty, set for Canadian release later this year. Of the book, Kirkus said, “Here’s a change—a psychological thriller in which a man is the crazy one.”

Weinman readily compares Our Kind of Cruelty to Dorothy B. Hughes’ ground-breaking 1947 novel In a Lonely Place. Both books feature a woman author writing an unreliable male narrator, and offer what she calls a “sly, angry commentary on the ways in which women are abused and victimized.” But the male perspective, she says, forces the reader to sit with the discomfort in a very different way.

“I fear that it will be copied to death,” Weinman says. “But that’s what happens to good books, isn’t it? People see it and they want to try that trick. It’s not about the trick. It’s about what’s underneath.”

Moving beyond the female unreliable narrator could well offer the extra life the genre needs to keep going. If the growing interest in feminist non-fiction is any indication, in the new wave of suspense, it will be women’s authority—our own “sturdy sense of self”—that defines what is a lie, and what is true about women’s lives.