Among psychological thriller writers, it’s widely accepted that author Julia Crouch (The New Mother) coined the term “domestic noir” to describe the subgenre of psychological thrillers that place a woman in jeopardy in her own home or workplace.
The danger in domestic thrillers comes from a person that the female protagonist knows, or thinks she knows; someone with whom she is in a relationship. This person can be a bad spouse, bad boyfriend, bad employer, bad mother, bad mother-in-law—even a bad child.
For example, in Big Little Lies, the hugely successful TV series based on Liane Moriarity’s novel of the same name, the biggest dangers facing the female protagonists are to be found inside their beautiful multimillion dollar waterfront homes.
Indeed, the most chilling (and therefore the most popular) domestic thrillers are those that pit husband against wife—for what is more chilling than finding out you don’t really know the man/woman who is sharing your bed.
However, even though she defined what a domestic thriller is, Julia Crouch did not invent the subgenre of domestic thriller. Neither did Gillian Flynn, as many believe she did, with her stunning 2012 novel, Gone Girl.
Think instead of classics like the 1938 bestseller Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, where Rebecca is the dead first wife who threatens the unnamed narrator’s marriage and happiness because the narrator believes her husband, Maxim, still adores that first wife, Rebecca. But what the narrator doesn’t know about her husband—and doesn’t find out until the very end—is a far grimmer truth.
Then there’s the 1957 Patricia Highsmith domestic thriller, Deep Water. Highsmith, who created some of the most brilliant psychopaths in literature (Tom Ripley), depicted a marriage where we feel almost from the beginning that husband Vic is a psychopath, or at the very least, a sociopath, but we don’t really know what wife Melinda is capable of until well into that novel. Interestingly, Gillian Flynn stated in one interview that Deep Water was an inspiration for Gone Girl—as Gone Girl was an inspiration for my own thriller, Fool Her Once.
The dread and anticipation in reading a domestic thriller relies to a great degree on the reader knowing there are big red flags surrounding the actions of certain characters who are close to the female protagonist. Very often, the reader can see through the husband/boyfriend (Behind Closed Doors by B. A. Paris; Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson) or the mother (Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn) before the protagonist can. So then, there’s that awful moment similar to the one in horror movies where the viewer goes: “No! Don’t open that door! Don’t step outside!”
In the beginning of my new thriller, Fool Her Once, Jenna Sinclair, the female protagonist, sets out on a search for the man she outed as the secret, illegitimate son of an executed serial killer. Because of certain bad incidents happening as the book opens, she believes that a couple of decades after her exposé he is still out for revenge and now wants to harm her daughter as well.
But, in the undercurrent of Fool Her Once, and then forefront from about a third of the way in, there is a niggling feeling that Jenna faces more of a threat from her husband, Zack, who is very, very unhappy about Jenna’s search for the serial killer’s son.
Zack, an innkeeper and marina owner on the North Fork of Long Island who was there for Jenna when her career and personal life crashed following the exposé, knows that Jenna is about to dig back over the last 20 years. Now, he is terrified that during her investigation she will stumble onto his own particularly nasty, devastating secret.
When the reader finds out—before Jenna—what that secret is, the reader will realize that Jenna faces a greater threat in her own home.
What will she do if she uncovers her husband’s secret during her search into the past? What will her husband do to Jenna, his wife of 16 years, when he discovers that she knows the truth about him? How can any of it end happily?
These are questions at the very heart of domestic thrillers like Fool Her Once.