Tearful Nights, Angry Dawns*

DomesticNoirAn interesting post from Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me thinking about what many people call domestic noir. It certainly isn’t a brand-new kind of crime story, but it’s gotten an awful lot of press in recent years. I thought it might be interesting (I hope it will!) to have a look at some examples and see how it’s evolved. Now, before I go on, please pay a visit to Reading, Writing and Riesling. Lots of great reviews, recipes and fabulous ‘photos await you there.

Domestic noir mostly concerns itself with intimate family relationships (sometimes friends are involved too). And that dynamic is an effective backdrop for a crime novel, since such relationships are complex. What’s more, the complexity and conflict aren’t always obvious on the outside. All of this means (at least to me) that it’s not surprising at all that those relationships are featured in so much crime fiction.

As I say, threads of domestic noir have been woven through crime fiction for a long time. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow is in part the story of John and Gerda Christow. He’s a successful Harley Street specialist; she’s his frumpy, adoring wife. One weekend, they’re invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, who’ve put together a house party. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and was in fact, invited for lunch that day. When he arrives, his first thought is that the scene of Christow’s murder has been staged for his ‘amusement.’ Soon enough it’s clear that this is a real murder, so Poirot works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who the killer is. There’s a network of relationships here that matter in the course of this novel. There’s the Christows’ relationship, the relationship Christow has with his former lover Veronica Cray (a famous actress who’s also taken a cottage nearby), and the relationship Christow has with sculptor Henrietta Savernake, who is a member of the Angkatells’ house party. And (also in the tradition of domestic noir), this story doesn’t end happily for most of the characters. Admittedly, most people wouldn’t call this a ‘pure’ example of the sub-genre, but it’s an interesting take on it.

Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell wrote several novels you might argue are examples of domestic noir. One of them is her first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye. In that novel, journalist Daniel Stewart decides to do a story on the execution of Vera Longley Hilliard. Years ago, she was hung for murder, and Stewart wants some background on her life and on the events that led up to the killing for which she was convicted. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn, hoping he can persuade her to help him write his story. As the two begin to collaborate, we learn the background of the proud, ultra-respectable Longley family. There’s a very complicated network of relationships in the family; and as they are explored, we see how they’ve led to murder.

Wendy James’ The Mistake offers readers an intimate look at the various members of the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney, and is being put forward as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife Jodie is beautiful and intelligent, and a good mother to their two healthy children, Hannah and Tom. On the surface, they’re a family to be envied. Then one day, Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. It turns out to be the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another girl – a baby she never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But when the nurse checks, she finds no records of a formal adoption. Now all sorts of ugly questions begin to surface. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, can she be contacted? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the stories get worse and worse, the Garrow family begins to splinter, and we how complex and sometimes difficult those relationships really are.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife introduces readers to a successful Chicago couple, Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Although they’ve been together for twenty years, they’ve never formally married. Everything changes for the couple – or better to say, a lot is revealed – when Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. Todd’s strayed before, but this time things are different. Natasha becomes pregnant, and wants marriage and a family. Todd says that’s what he wants, too, and moves in with her. Under the advice of his lawyer, Todd arranges for a letter to Jodi, evicting her from the home they’ve shared for years, and making it clear she has no claim to it, since they were never married. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi begins to withdraw from life. Meanwhile, Todd has his own problems. He’s finding that life with Natasha isn’t at all what he imagined it might be, and is missing Jodi. Then, he’s murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking or burglary gone wrong. But it’s not long before the police discover that the killers were paid. The question of who paid them and why is of course an important aspect of this novel. But so is the slow peeling away of the layers of Todd and Jodi’s relationship, and their relationships with the other people in their lives.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry begins when Alistair Robertson and Joanna Lindsay make the long trip from Scotland to Victoria, where Alistair was born and raised. The idea is to be closer to Alistair’s daughter Chloe, who lives there with her mother Alexandra. Alistair wants to get custody of Chloe, and he knows his changes are better if he lives near her and re-establishes his relationship with her. The journey to Melbourne is nightmarish. Alistair and Joanna have with them their nine-week-old son Noah; and as anyone who’s ever been on a long flight with an infant knows, it’s difficult under the best of circumstances. And Noah is not an ‘easy’ baby. But, they finally arrive and begin the trip from the airport to their destination. That’s when they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police are alerted and a massive search is undertaken. The Australian media make much of the case, and there are all sorts of fundraising and other efforts in support of the family. But then, questions begin to come up about, especially, Joanna. There are certainly cases where parents are responsible for the loss of their children, and many people begin to wonder whether that’s happened here. As matters spiral out of control for both Alistair and Joanna, we get an ‘inside look’ at their relationship and the relationships they’ve formed with others. As is the case in a lot of domestic noir, not much is as it seems on the surface.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel explores another sort of relationship: the mother/child dynamic. Eve Moran is driven by her desire to acquire – money, things, men. And she’s toxic enough to do whatever it takes, including killing, to get what she wants. Her daughter Christine depends on her mother, as children do, and is drawn into Eve’s web because of that dependency as well as an unwillingness or inability to see her mother for what she is. It’s a very complicated relationship and it grows more and more dysfunctional. Then Christine begins to see that her three-year-old brother Ryan is being drawn into the same unhealthy, devastating pattern. This compels Christine to try to find a way to break free (and free Ryan) from Eve. In this novel, Abbott shows how the intimate relationships among parents and children can be at least as damaging as partner relationships.

There are a lot of other novels, too, that you could argue are examples of domestic noir (I know, I know, fans of Pascal Garnier, Minette Walters and of Karin Alvtegen). What do you think of this sub-genre? Why do you think it’s gotten so popular?


ps. The ‘photo is a reminder that lots of relationships aren’t noir at all. Happy anniversary, Mr. COAMN, and thanks for so many good, good years.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jacob Brackman and Carly Simon’s That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Helen Fitzgerald, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

37 responses to “Tearful Nights, Angry Dawns*

  1. Happy anniversary indeed!
    I think domestic noir of some description has always been around but is now a ‘trend’, like vampires or magicians were a few years back. What fascinates us readers, of course, is probably the aspect of ‘it could happen to anyone’ or ‘who would have thought/suspected that…’. While the original noir is usually set in a gritty urban environment and in a milieu that we can avoid if we are wise enough and that few of us actually have a direct link to (gangsters, drug dealers or addicts, prostitution etc.), there is no avoiding the ‘darkness that lurks within the house’. And that, perhaps, makes it even scarier…

    • Thank you, Marina Sofia. 🙂 I think you’ve hit on something really salient here. When we read noir stories that take place in a gritty context, and among people most of us don’t mix with, it’s easy to separate ourselves. We can certainly get drawn into the story, but there is a degree of separation. But domestic noir really is different. I think there’s an element of ‘There, but for the grace of God…’ as we read a well-written domestic noir story. And that adds a level of suspense. It really is interesting that that sort of story is ‘trending’ right now…

  2. I am just about to start reading Concrete Angel and the other books sound interesting.

    Happy Anniversary. And I am sure there will be many many more happy years ahead of you two.

  3. Happy anniversary, you two, and thanks for this postful post again. I’m very curious about Concrete Angel– it keeps cropping up in my blog reading, and I think I’ll like it very much. As for your question about the appeal of domestic noir, I think it’s part curiosity about what goes on behind closed doors, especially because of the often-repeated crime statistics re: being hurt by someone you know. That’s kind of a clunky sentence, but you get the idea.

    • I certainly do, Rebecca. I think people do get curious about what goes on in people’s lives, especially, as you say, given what we know about violence. In a way it’s realistic, too, for that reason (i.e. most real-life violence is between people who know each other). Interesting point! And thank you very much for the good wishes. 🙂

  4. Happy Anniversary and may you have many more:) As you are aware Margot I do love this sub genre and finding lots of good, recently released reads that fit this category but after reading you post I had a thought – do you think We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver, fits here? This must be one of the creepiest books I have ever read (along side Into the Darkest Corner- Elizabeth Haynes – which thus far is the best example of Domestic Noir I have come across)

    • Thank you, Carol 🙂 – And thanks for the inspiration. I absolutely agree that We Need to Talk About Kevin fits into this category. It really is creepy, and certainly explores the nuances of family relationships. So much to think about in that novel, too! And thanks for mentioning the Haynes, too. If ever there was a clear example of domestic noir, that’s one.

      • Margot the Haynes is a standout for me – it had me jumping at shadows as I read it. I don’t think I ever wrote a review of that one…I think it was before my blogging days had begun. I might need to re read one day. ( the same for “Kevin”) though the impact will not be the same in a re read.

  5. Col

    A couple of the examples I’m hoping to get around to one day – they’re in the stacks! Congratulations on the anniversary!

  6. Kathy D.

    Happy anniversary to you and Mr. COAMN. May you both have a lot of happy, healthy years ahead.
    On the domestic noir front, there are so many mysteries with this theme in one way or another. After all, when someone in a relationship is killed, the partner/spouse is always the first suspect.
    Then there are the basic mysteries where a relative kills another relative over an inheritance. I’m sure the Belgian detective uncovered plenty of these plots, and so did Nero Wolfe.
    The book that quickly comes to mind though is “Defending Jacob.” Now that book is a real shocker from beginning to end. It is a hard book to read.
    And then there’s the zany family in Fred Vargas’ “Ghosts of Oredbec.” That family does have a deep-seated murder within it,.

    • Thank you, Kathy. You’re quite right, of course, that the plot point of a ‘domestic murder’ is really common across the genre, and it’s not hard to see why. There are so many real-life cases where the spouse or a family member is the killer.
      I’m glad you mentioned Defending Jacob. As you say, that’s such a creepy story, and certainly does count (Well, I think so, anyway) domestic noir. The theme of relationships within a family is woven throughout it. And the family in Vargas’ Ghost Riders of Ordebec has it secrets, including murder.

  7. Happy anniversary! As you know this is my favourite genre but you’ve managed to introduce a new one to me – I need to check out The Concrete Angel.. Like Marina the appeal to me of this genre is that I am able to imagine what I would do in a similar situation because that is possible (although hopefully not) rather than some crimes which deal with gangs, espionage etc. which are outside my terms of reference.

    • Thank you, Cleo! I do recommend Concrete Angel. In my opinion, it’s a good story. And, keeping to the point here, it’s a clear example of how complex the mother/child relationship can be, and how it can lead into very dark places. You’ve got a good point about the nature of domestic noir, too. As readers, we can imagine what we might do in a domestic noir story, because we have points of reference. That can really add to the suspense, too, as we can easily imagine the situations that lead to awful things.

  8. Reblogged this on Reading, Writing and Riesling and commented:
    Spotlight on Domestic Noir – thanks Margot – you have such great knowledge of all things books.

  9. Margot, ‘Happy Anniversary’ and wishing you and Mr. COMM many, many more. The domestic noir is a fascinating look at how relationships can lead to such strange and twisted events sometimes.

    • Thanks very much, Mason 🙂 – And you’re right about domestic noir. It is a really interesting way to explore relationships and what can happen in them (and to them).

  10. Patricia Stoltey

    I’d say The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins qualifies as domestic noir, and a lot of the “suspense” novels I read also do. Dysfunctional family relationships make great stories, especially when murder is in the mix.

    • Quite true, Pat. And I’m glad you mentioned The Girl on the Train. It’s a great example of the way domestic noir has gotten to be extremely popular and to get a lot of notice.

  11. Yet another great topic, Margot, and a fascinating sub-genre. Another interesting aspect of domestic noir is that the characters are ‘normal,’ in the sense that they aren’t criminal psychopaths, brilliant arch-villains or eccentric private detectives. In this sense we relate to them all the more. He may not have been the first but James M. Cain was one of the most influential practitioners of domestic noir with novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree more, Bryan, about Cain’s work (and thanks for the kind words). As you say, his characters are normal people (in the sense of not being supervillains or psychopaths). Yet they are driven to real depths. And that really is the focous of a great domestic noir novel.

  12. Patti Abbott

    So very, very nice to turn up here. Thanks so much for reading it and mentioning it here. xoxo

  13. Honestly, I don’t know much about domestic noir. I have a few friends who write noir, but I always thought it meant a grungy feel with no HEA. Perhaps grungy isn’t the right word. It’s one of those genres, like literary, that has different meanings depending on who you ask.

    • I think it really does, Sue. The truth is that classifying any sort of book is challenging for just that reason. At least in my view, just about any context can have a bleak, noir feel to it, depending on the level of optimism, suspense and so on the author wants to convey. Domestic noir just takes that concept into the home. At least for me, it does.

  14. Congratulations Margot! (and to your other half too). Harriet Lane has written two excellent books – Alys Always and Her – which I would class as very superior domestic noir. Some of the recent feted books have been enjoyable but forgettable, but I think Lane will be a longterm winner. I also enjoy the books of Liane Moriarty – domestic but not all that noir-ish, but very very funny and observational.

    • Thank you, Moira 🙂 And thanks for mentioning Lane’s work. You’re right that some of the current domestic noir is not exactly what you’d call memorable or unique. But there are some great ones, and it’ll be interesting to see how Lane’s career goes.

  15. Margot, I received an email from Hachette headed ‘Domestic noir – the hot genre on everyone’s must-read list’. Here’s what their media release had to say:

    “What is domestic noir, I hear you ask, and why would I want to read it?

    Well, if you’ve read Gone Girl,, The Silent Wife, Under your Skin, What Lies Within or The Girl on the Train, you’ve already dipped your toe in to the thrilling, murky pool of what we here at Hachette Australia have dubbed Domestic Noir [hmm, not sure Hachette can take all the credit for that!]. It’s always gripping, sometimes gritty, with scenery that could be your home and scenarios you hope you never find yourself in.

    “We asked Gone Girl publisher Kirsty Dunsheath why we’re so fascinated by this nail-biting genre: ‘I think we’ve long known that some of the most dramatic situations can be domestic – what takes place at home, behind closed doors. Within the intimacy of family life, of partnerships, we share our innermost thoughts and feelings, we lay ourselves bare and in doing so, we also reveal our weakest points. It is a truism that those we love the most have the greatest power to hurt us, because they know exactly what makes us angry, or disappointed, or frustrated, also what drives us and makes us feel content or fulfilled.’

    “Kirsty goes on to say that ‘It is that dynamic, where passions are the strongest and most keenly felt, that provides such rich territory for writers. What if we explore all those simmering tensions and take them to extremes? What if, after several years of being together, we were to wake up one day and no longer recognise the person lying next to us?… I think readers identify with this, they are aware of the way couples can manipulate each other, the little power plays – often unintentional and without malice – within a close relationship. It is simply that we know what makes each other tick.’”

    To your list, I would add Australian author Honey Brown, especially her genuinely frightening novel After the Darkness. Also English author Sophie Hannah combines police procedural with domestic noir to great effect in her novels such as Little Face and The Point of Rescue.

    • Thanks very much for this, Angela. I think it’s fascinating (‘though I’d agree domestic noir is not all Hachette of course). And thanks for mentioning Honey Brown, whose work I am coming to like very much, and Sophie Hannah. I thought Little Face was a fine book, and of course, a good example of domestic noir.

      • Margot, I’ve only just started reading Sophie Hannah in preparation for interviewing her when she comes to Melbourne next month. A wonderful writer (a poet, among her many accomplishments) who sure knows how to keep a reader in suspense.

        • She does indeed, Angela. Lucky you that you’ll be interviewing her, too. I think her novel Little Face is a terrific example of the way a domestic story can take on a real level of suspense.

  16. A belated happy anniversary to you and to Mr. COAMN as well. As far as domestic noir goes, I think the anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman, contains a lot of stories that would fit the definition, though she calls it “Domestic Suspense.” Most of the stories, though, are pretty bleak, with that noir-ish feel. Great collection, though!

    • Thanks very much, Les 🙂 – And thank for suggesting Troubled Daughters, Troubled Wives. Interesting isn’t it how the labels for that kind of story change over time. Definitely a collection I’ll want to try.

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