Suspicion, Marriage and Murder- The History of the Domestic Thriller

Domestic Thriller 1

Run through a list of the most popular novels of the last few years, and the rise of a new kind of thriller is easy to spot. With book sales dominated by the likes of Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep and the smash hit Girl on the Train, crime authors have been swapping spies and serial killers for husbands and wives, cold-war paranoia for marital distrust. Marriage, the traditional ending point of the Romance narrative, has become the starting point of Crime. Given a variety of names such as “the domestic thriller”, “female noir”, or “chick noir”, we are now in the midst of a thriller boom in which the dominant setting is not that of CIA boardrooms or police headquarters: it is the very kind of bedrooms and living rooms in which the novels are to be read.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl brought the subgenre in its current incarnation to international success, tackling the question of whether you can ever truly trust your partner. The novel begins with a married man wondering what is on his wife’s mind, and what damage they have done to each other throughout the course of their relationship. In Gone Girl, the “happy ever after” of marriage is but a prologue to the dark games that the characters play on each other, repositioning themselves again and again after reassessing their partner’s capacity for violence. The book’s success has lead not only to the publication of a multitude of thrillers with “girl” in the title, but also to countless crime tales that allow murder to seep into the domestic sphere, the dynamics of relationships satirically heightened to levels of murder.

It would be tempting to think that the current boom of domestic thrillers is the feminist reaction to romantic literature, subverting the idea that a female character’s happiness depends on marrying the right man. It is also appealing to credit it to the breakdown of the institution of marriage: in a world where divorce rates continue to climb, mistrust of how “happy” that “ever after” will be is at its highest. Domestic thriller authors such as Flynn and Lucie Whitehouse have argued, however, that authors use our fears over marriage precisely because they are still so potent and intimate. What is certain is that these anxieties are a fixture of our culture, and have been the subject of novels reaching back to the 1700s. Fittingly for a literary tradition that deals with characters’ mysterious pasts coming to the surface, the staples of the domestic thriller return periodically to our bookshelves, and have done so for centuries.

Domestic Thriller 2

Murder and Madness in the Gothic Household

We can first detect the roots of the domestic thriller in the Gothic tradition. At its core, the subgenre revolves around the idea of marrying someone who could be harmful to you- and we can see this theme explored in notable early tales such as the French folklore story of Bluebeard, a character with a habit of murdering his wives. During the 18th century, when the Gothic genre was popularised in Britain by the likes of Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, the template of Bluebeard was endlessly reused to describe men imprisoning innocent girls in their castles, tyrannical male figures who would show their violent tendencies as the narratives progressed. The frisson of those gothic novels was to imagine that marriage could place you at the mercy of an unhinged despot.

However, with the formula of imposing castles and pathetic fallacies, Gothic stories lived in a world of their own. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte utilised the trappings of the genre- with imposing settings, hellish fires and characters taken by madness- and placed them in a world that was much more identifiably our own. Jane Eyre is a plain-looking but complex individual, a contrast from the damsels in distress of the Gothic genre, and her voice, addressing us directly as “reader”, invites us to share her fears and distrusts (a tactic used to manipulative effect in recent shockers such as The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl). Through her eyes we are introduced to Thornfield Hall with dread and foreboding- it is even compared at one point to “Bluebeard’s castle”. It is also through her doubts that we question the untrustworthy husband with a murky past, a role taken by the character of Mr. Rochester.

During the famous passage in which Jane hears a demonic laugh outside her room and goes to investigate, she travels between her room and Rochester’s- a journey that ends in both violence, as her husband-to-be accuses her of being a murdering “sorceress”, but also the first hint of romantic union. Here, marriage is inextricably linked to doubt, suspicion and murder. It is significant that just before these events, Rochester warns Jane that she will “come to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult”. What could that dangerous, life-changing event be but marriage?

Jane Eyre and the Gothic genre demonstrate that the further we go back in time, the more the idea of a duplicitous husband plays directly into the fears of a readership for whom marriage was a plunge into the unknown, a life’s pledge to someone who could have been little more than a stranger.

Domestic Thriller 3

20th Century Psychoses

Jane Eyre might have had a foot in the literature of the past, but it also served as a key influence on the texts of the future. The boom of the domestic thriller as we would recognise it today came in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was heralded by a text that updated elements of Bronte’s work for contemporary readers: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Published in 1938 to immediate success, it was a novel of a girl who, upon marrying Maxim De Winter, moves to Manderley, where the presence of the dead previous wife haunts every corridor. Again, the husband has a mysterious past that the heroine, ill at ease in surroundings that doesn’t befit her class, has to uncover. Here, jealousy and an unmentionable past relationship is a crucial part of the novel’s structure, Du Maurier taking a typical marriage issue and tying it into a murder-mystery narrative.

With the novel’s success, Du Maurier became part of three key figures to spearhead the Domestic Thriller subgenre. The second was acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock, who made his name in America by adapting Rebecca for the big screen. While Hitchcock spent much of the 1930s immersed in the spy genre, his successful work with Daphne Du Maurier lead him to other thrillers that were based around family mistrust- the clearest example of this being Suspicion, which depicted a wife who gradually comes to suspect her husband of murder. The film boasts one of Hitchcock’s characteristic staircase scenes, in which a character slowly travels to another part of the house, afraid of what might lie there. It is a fitting encapsulation of the domestic thriller: who is the person who lives in your house… and do they mean you harm?

The subgenre popularised through his films, Hitchcock went to on to collaborate with another thriller writer at the start of her career- Patricia Highsmith. A specialist on the psychotic marriage, Highsmith is the missing link to the domestic thrillers of today. She made sure that the readers spent time in the company of the killers, and were exposed to their twisted ways of thinking. In one of her novels, Deep Water, the husband gets more and more frustrated with his wife’s affairs and decides to kill her lovers. His motive is fuelled by the familiar emotions of jealousy, and until the first act of violence we are encouraged to identify with him. He is not a mysterious character in the vein of Rochester or Mr. De Winter- he is but an ugly version of us, his marriage troubles relatable even when his actions are psychotic.

Domestic Thriller 4

It is only a small step from Highsmith to the domestic thrillers currently in vogue. Gone Girl is a mix of Rebecca and Jane Eyre’s mystery-narrative and Deep Water’s distorted portrayal of marriage dynamics- a template that spawned a legion of imitators. Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl (and professed fan of Highsmith) has stated that the domestic setting is ripe for suspense simply because it denotes comfort and safety, and it is this perversity that makes the domestic thriller so appealing: the juxtaposition of the familiar and the horrific. Just as the titular Girl on the Train is spurred on by witnessing something suspicious in a neighbour’s garden, we invite thrillers into our homes for a glimpse of violence in a recognisable milieu. While the subgenre exploits our fears of broken relationships, sending us down our own hitchcockian staircases of paranoia, it uses marriage to pose the central question of all crime literature: who can you trust?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: