By Lexi Landsman
A generation of savvy social media users has given way to an obsession with portraying ‘perfect lives’. But it’s what’s lingering behind the filter, hidden in the artful cropping and distorted by the ‘blurs’, that has made the genre of domestic noir so popular, writes author and television producer Lexi Landsman.
Before I wrote my second novel, The Perfect Couple, I’d never heard of the term ‘domestic noir’ so it came as quite a surprise to find that I had unintentionally written under the genre that is in the midst of a boom.
I handed in the first draft of my manuscript to my publisher at Penguin Random House, thinking I’d penned another family drama only to be told that the psychological slant and plot twists I’d used to explore the breakdown of a seemingly perfect marriage, had pushed it into this subgenre of crime fiction.
In my subsequent research into this new territory, I learnt that it has been around for a long time, interchangeably referred to as ‘domestic thriller’, ‘suburban noir’, ‘psychological suspense’ and ‘marriage thriller’. But it was only in 2013 that the buzz-phrase ‘domestic noir’ was coined by novelist Julia Crouch when she was trying to find a better way to describe her books.
“In a nutshell, it takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants,” Crouch wrote on her blog.
Crouch’s definition came in the wake of Gillian Flynn’s smash hit, Gone Girl, a psychological suspense tale of a decaying marriage in which the husband is implicated in his wife’s disappearance. It plays on a fear that is central to the genre – the idea that a partner could be harbouring a dark and life-altering secret. Flynn’s book sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, boosted no doubt by the film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
A slew of popular psychological dramas followed. Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on The Train, broke into Forbes’ list of the top 10 highest-paid authors in 2016 after the book earned her US$10million in just 18 months. Closer to home, Australian author Liane Moriarty’s novel, Big Little Lies was one of the biggest winners of last month’s 2017 Emmy’s, nabbing a total of eight awards.
It begs the question, why is there such a hungry readership for stories where perfect relationships unravel, along with their dark secrets.
I posed this question to acclaimed Sydney-based author Michael Robotham, whose twelfth novel, The Secrets She Keeps, explores this domain. He believes the growing appeal lies in readers being able to relate to the familiar territory of secrets, lies and long-buried grudges.
“Domestic noir taps into the everyday fears that we’ve all experienced: a child missing in a supermarket; a loved one who is late getting home on a cold wet night; the sound of sirens at 3.00 in the morning,” he says.
“We love these stories for the same reason that we drive past accident scenes with a mixture of fascination and horror. Deep down we know that someone we love could be lying beneath the white sheet.”
Now that I’m more familiar with this realm of crime fiction, I can see how neatly my latest novel fits in. The Perfect Couple follows the breakdown of a marriage that seems perfect from the outside and goes on to delve into infidelity, lies and secrets. It follows archaeologists Marco and Sarah Moretti who discover the famed San Gennaro necklace on a dig in Florence, only for a car accident on the same night to rob Sarah of her memories of the preceding 48 hours, the result of which has devastating repercussions.
It’s told from the perspectives of unreliable narrators playing off each other – another one of the hallmarks of domestic noir. In The Girl on the Train, Rachel is an alcoholic and prone to blackouts so there are huge gaps in her memory. In Gone Girl, readers are initially reliant on the misleading diary entries of psychopathic Amy Dunne. In SJ Watson’s, Before I go to Sleep, Christine suffers from crippling amnesia that wipes her memories clean every time she sleeps.
This form of storytelling forces readers to constantly question what to believe is true by luring them down the wrong paths. And judging by the genre’s increasing popularity, it’s clearly a journey they’re willing to take.
I would argue that our growing appetite for domestic noir is a direct result of the rise of Facebookers, Instagrammers and Snapchatters, who are hell-bent of portraying their ‘perfect’ lives.
In this social media age, we are all, essentially, unreliable narrators of our own lives. Photos are edited, cropped, blurred and posed. Posts are filtered and trimmed, the information carefully selected. This manufactured reality makes us eager to discern the truth from what is hiding somewhere in the omissions.
Melbourne author and journalist Megan Goldin, whose psychological suspense novel, The Girl in Kellers Way, was released earlier this year, believes the fascination has to do with “a certain nasty streak that exists in most people, that makes them curious to know whether every relationship is as perfect as it seems on the outside”.
“That fascination, which is not new, has become more voracious as we have people’s Instagram lives thrown in our faces on a daily basis,” she says.
Indeed, with the right filter, the right cropping, the right exposure, life can seem picture perfect.
Domestic noir breaks this all down. Underneath the glossy, manufactured facades are cracks. Small but there. Fissures.
Telling a story in this sphere, as I discovered, is a bit like editing an image before posting it to social media. You crop out your arm taking a selfie so it appears as if you were caught in a pose by a mysterious second person; you filter the grey sky to seem blue; you blur out the parts you don’t want people to see. You take reality and adapt it until you’re happy with its new version. A little sunnier, a little brighter, a little more perfect.
You’re telling the truth, just not all of it.
The Perfect Couple
There are secrets in every marriage... and some are more dangerous than others.
Sarah and Marco Moretti are the perfect couple. Together they have travelled the globe building high-profile careers as archaeologists. Now, at a dig in Florence, they are on the brink of the discovery of a lifetime.
However their marriage is not what it seems.
On the very evening that Sarah uncovers the San Gennaro necklace - a long-lost antiquity that will bring them worldwide fame - she witnesses Marco kissing another woman. Blinded by tears, she drives home alone in the dead of night...