An 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.