By Dawn Ius
Is your beloved significant other actually a psychopath? How much should you trust the woman sleeping beside you? Does your child have a dark secret?
These are not the kind of questions normally asked in traditional thrillers that involve crime, terrorist plots, international espionage, globe-trotting adventure, or hard-boiled detectives.
The plot lines of a domestic thriller are set within familiar environments—homes, families, and spousal relationships. They are the kinds of thrillers that come with their own brand of suspense—the disturbing feeling that it could happen to me. Not exactly new territory, but the domestic thriller does seem to be enjoying an upsurge in popularity.
“Certainly two of the biggest books in recent years, The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, have brought more attention to domestic thrillers and their success is prompting more authors to try writing them, and more publishers to seek them out,” says New York Times bestselling author Linwood Barclay. “But they’ve always been around. Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion fall into this category.”
Barclay, a master at blending domestic components in his page-turning thrillers—including his upcoming Far from True (March 2016)—has a theory about why these stories have such appeal. “The domestic thriller is rooted in the fact that we can identify with the characters. They’re not spies or ace detectives. They’re people like us, which means we can imagine, without too much of a stretch, being in their position, experiencing their fear and anxiety.”
But it’s not just that we can see ourselves in the characters, it’s that family harkens the strongest emotions, says Anthony Franze, author of this March’s highly-anticipated novel The Advocate’s Daughter.
“I’m always trying to make an emotional connection with readers—I want readers to care about my characters, I want them to feel,” Franze says. “For many readers, family evokes the strongest emotions, good and bad, and I think having a family component can heighten the drama, stakes, and suspense of any story.”
In The Advocate’s Daughter, Sean Serrat, a prominent DC lawyer, has it all: powerful job, married to the love of his life, three great kids—even a possible Supreme Court nomination. But everything falls apart when someone threatens to reveal a dark secret from his past.
Secrets and law: Many an author has built a successful career combining these two elements in a typical legal thriller, and Franze, a Supreme Court lawyer himself, could have left it at that.
“But it’s not the law or the secret that I think heighten the suspense. It’s the dangerous implications of the secret for Sean’s family, and the lengths he and his wife will go to for their children…that’s the heart of the story,” he says. “We’re in a renaissance of sorts, with not just Flynn and Hawkins, but authors like Linwood Barclay, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder, Gregg Hurwitz, and Carla Buckley incorporating family elements into their fast-paced, twisty thrillers.”
In Buckley’s new release, The Good Goodbye (January 2016), the “bad guy” isn’t a terrorist or psychopath in a hockey mask, but the question that lurks in every parent’s heart: how well do we really know our children?
Told through three alternating points of view, The Good Goodbye is the gripping story of an estranged family forced together under traumatic circumstances. As the mystery of the events begin to unravel, disturbing truths come to light, placing everyone under the dark shadow of suspicion.
“I take families in crisis and make things worse,” Buckley says. “When I sold my first novel back in 2007, The Things That Keep Us Here, the question that cropped up between agent and publisher was, what is this book and how do we categorize it? Back then there was no such thing as a domestic thriller, or at least there was no such term.” (To learn more about Buckley’s career, read our profile.)
As for readers, they seem to be reaching more and more for domestic suspense, perhaps looking for a different, more authentic, kind of scare.
“I have a love / hate relationship with them,” says avid reader and reviewer Kylie Green. “I love exploring the darker side of relationships in fiction, but I hate how it makes me question what’s happening in my own life.”
Green admits that after reading Gone Girl, she may have been extra hard on her husband for a few days. “When the story is that close to home, or has the potential to be, it’s tough to shake. But by the time I pick up the next one, I’m like, ‘Bring it on!’”
Another reason for the upsurge in domestic thrillers is that we live in an age of exposure. Every day we face a social media onslaught—Facebook, Twitter, Reality TV—giving unprecedented access to other people’s personal lives. Cryptic status updates become domestic thriller hooks, further rooting the idea that truth is sometimes stranger—and more disturbing—than fiction.
But a novel doesn’t have to be categorized as a “family thriller” to make great use of domestic relations for success.
“For me, it’s not whether something is categorized as ‘domestic suspense’ but how the author uses familial themes to elevate their story,” Franze says. “I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, for example, is an espionage thriller where the main character grapples with his relationship with wealthy foster parents. Joseph Finder’s The Fixer is about government corruption and a cover-up, but also has a great father-son component. And Barry Lancet’s upcoming Pacific Burn adds intrigue by making hero Jim Brodie a single father.”
Whether 2016 will bring another cultural phenomenon like Gone Girl or Girl on the Train remains to be seen. But it’s a sure thing that the year promises another crop of thrilling domestic suspense. And perhaps another year of looking at your significant others, children, and siblings in a different light . . .