The Renaissance of Domestic Suspense

On Tuesday 22nd July at Bloomsbury in Bedford Square, London there will be a talk between Julie Corbin, author of ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and Lucie Whitehouse who has written a novel, entitled, ‘Before We Met’. Both writers produce novels under the heading of ‘Domestic Suspense’. Both will be talking about this sub-genre in the world of crime fiction that appears to have resurfaced and is enjoying a renaissance.

As well as Corbin and Whitehouse, other writers have tapped in to this sub-genre to highlight those dangers that can be found much nearer to home than we can possibly imagine. Do you really know who that person is sleeping in the same bed as you? Do you know what your husband/wife is thinking? These are the subjects that are entrancing a new army of readers.

Fashions come and go. Only a few years back people were lamenting that the Horror and Ghost genre was dead (pardon the pun!) and suddenly there is a huge surge in ghost stories by great new talented young writers. With the dawn of the new Millennium people wanted to read detective fiction. People had this fresh desire to follow the adventures of people with ‘history’, a background. So, that was the psychological one-off thriller left in the box, unloved.

Then we had the tsunami which was Scandinavian crime. Larsson led the charge and only recently does the onslaught appear to be abating as readers search for something new.

And that is where ‘Domestic Suspense’ makes its entrance. So what is it we enjoy about someone feeling endangered in their own home? Why do we want to read of someone who is threatened in a fortress of their own making? Why are we fascinated about someone being in danger, not from the outside, but worse, being attacked, physically and psychologically from inside the home. Is it because we feel safe in the knowledge that it would never happen to us? Are we all so sure of those we share our lives with? How many women do we read about who have been killed by their ex-husband/boyfriend/fiancée. ‘If they couldn’t have them then nobody could’ is something we have heard a killer say many times before.

But ‘Domestic Suspense’ is not a new phenomenon. It has its roots deep within the world of crime fiction.

‘Domestic Suspense’ first emerged through the 40’s and 50’s of the last century when women crime writers appeared to give those big bad boys of crime fiction a run for their money. Men like Hammett and Chandler were producing masculine ‘Noir’ for the masses. Women were no more than decoration, something to be admired and normally found dangling on some guy’s arm without much to say for herself.

Then the ‘girls’ got in on the act. Names that are virtually forgotten today: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Mildred Davis, plus two of my favourites; Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin. There were many more but the only one who appears to have stood the test of time is Patricia Highsmith and even then her novels fade in and out of print.

For me, Celia Fremlin was a huge star of the ‘Domestic Suspense’ genre. Fremlin burst on to the scene in the late 50’s with her debut, ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ which won the Edgar for Best Crime Novel 1960.

In ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ Louise Henderson, a mother to three children, one a new-born who doesn’t sleep at night, has taken in a new lodger, Ms. Brandon. Soon Louise begins to suspect her new quiet tenant isn’t quite so innocent. Coupled with her sleep deprivation, Louise starts to wonder if she is imagining things as the lines between reality and her sleep deprived imagination begin to blur. Sound good to you? Then buy it. Everyone I have given this book to has loved it.

Despite only passing away in 2009, Fremlin’s novels had been out of print for many years before her death. It is only this year (2014) that Faber Finds have re-printed and released Fremlin’s entire catalogue. And that is something we should celebrate. Her early work is sublime and she had a wonderful knack of heightening the menace in the simple homestead.

Late last year I received a book I had only dreamed about. It was those women from the 40’s/50’s who showed that people’s living rooms, their kitchens and the bedroom could be just as good a setting for warfare and survival as any grimy street in New York filled with gangsters.‘Trouble Daughters, Twisted Wives’ edited by Sarah Weinman is definitely worth investigating. They are short stories from the women I have previously mentioned and they are classed as the ‘trailblazers of Domestic Suspense’. This collection includes entries from Millar and Fremlin, the latter being the only Brit to be included here. You should also check out Sarah’s brilliant website, Also Pretty Sinister is another great blog site to investigate.Pretty Sinister Blog

So, as for ‘Domestic Suspense’ – the battleground remains the same but obviously with the advancement of technology, the abuse from social media/Internet can add an extra level of menace. There are new tricks to this genre which is why it is such a good time for it to re-emerge and take on new avenues. It is certainly a genre that has many possibilities. I hope it stays around for a long time.

The event between Julie Corbin and Lucie Whitehouse is on Tuesday 22nd July. To book tickets please click on the link below.

Bloomsbury Institute Event


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