In our last column, Shannon and I discussed psychological thrillers, a brand of mystery which is dominating the bestseller list right now. This time out we tackle the domestic thriller. A domestic thriller is essentially a mystery novel which centers around familial relationships. It can involve an ex – such as The Girl on the Train – a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, mom, dad or sibling or current spouse. They are always eerie reminders that we can never really know another person – even someone we love deeply.
Maggie: This is an extremely popular sub-genre. In the last two months you’ve reviewed five novels that fall into this category: Our House by Louise Candlish which you gave an A; The Thinnest Air by Minka Kent, which was an A- for you; Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell, B+; Liar, Liar by Lisa Jackson, also a B+ and Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent, which was an A- for you. What do you think attracts readers to this genre?
Shannon: I’m personally drawn to these books because the stakes are very, very high for our protagonists. They’re usually struggling to uncover some kind of deeply buried secret about a family member, and what they learn almost always has life-changing results. Family dynamics are tricky even under the best circumstances, and once you add in a certain amount of dysfunction, it makes for a deliciously chilling read.
Maggie: So true! Many of the books have a confessional quality to them, such as in Our House and Sabine Durrant’s 2013 release Under Your Skin. I like this setup because it adds an air of tension to the story from the start. You know something bad has happened – the narrator more or less admits it – and the stress just ratchets up as the tale continues. What are your thoughts on the confessional style narration of some of these texts?
Shannon: I almost always enjoy those types of books. I love trying to figure out exactly what happened. When the story is told in a confessional style, I find it adds a layer of intimacy I don’t always feel when I’m reading a thriller. It somehow makes me feel closer to the characters, especially the protagonist.
Maggie: I agree with you on the intimacy issue. Hearing the character’s story in their own words can make the whole situation much more personal and compelling. Another writing technique many of the books use is alternating narrators. This can give us an intriguing look at the same situation from two- or more – sets of eyes. I tend to enjoy it because it’s a nice reminder that no one person holds all the facts in any situation but instead a full picture is painted by seeing multiple points of view. What are your thoughts on that?
Shannon: I love seeing situations from multiple points of view. Families are often very messy and complex, and having multiple narrators allows this to be communicated very effectively. I generally have a better understanding of how the various characters relate to one another if I’m not stuck seeing events through only one lens. Let’s take Our House as an example. Both Bram and Fiona possess certain information that is crucial for the reader to understand, and each of them has a unique perspective on the way events unfold. We could have seen things strictly from Fiona’s point of view, but I think the story would have lacked a certain richness if the author had chosen to tell it that way.
Maggie: I agree. There were pieces of the puzzle only Bram knew and the story would have been nowhere near as compelling without his input. One of the strengths of these tales is, I think, that you don’t have to like the characters in the book for the novel to be a riveting, engrossing read. I didn’t like Bram from the start and I also found it to be that way with The Thinnest Air. The kindest way to describe Greer was difficult, but I’d probably go with something less polite to be honest. Meredith was sweet but vapid; she struck me as someone who wanted to do the right thing but would wind up making poor life choices. But I found the story really intriguing, so I kept reading. Do these books work for you even when the characters don’t?
Shannon: Obviously, it’s great if I like and relate to at least a few characters in a book, but it’s not absolutely essential, especially if I’m reading a thriller with a plot that completely sucks me in. I think it’s often the unlikable nature of many characters in these stories that attracts people to them. Sometimes, it’s fun to lose yourself in a story involving people who don’t think or act in ways society has deemed appropriate.
Maggie: Very true. Quite a few of the most riveting narratives in this genre contain characters who aren’t just unlikable but who are downright psychotic. I felt it was that way with J.T. Ellison’s No One Knows and Michelle Sack’s You Were Made for This. I tend to prefer tales like Our House where I have someone that I can at least root for a little bit (in that novel, Fiona) than stories where everyone is equally villainous, but these more horrific stories do make for a powerful read. What are your thoughts on that?
Shannon: I’m a huge fan of dark, gritty thrillers, so I’m definitely in favor of those deeply troubled characters. I can’t always relate to them, but I find them incredibly compelling. I haven’t read either of the books you mentioned above, but the fact that they contain these types of characters has definitely caused me to move them up on my massive TBR list. There is, of course, something to be said for a character you can really pull for and believe in, and there are certainly times I find myself in the mood for something like that, so it’s great that both kinds of stories exist.
Maggie: Do you have a top five list of domestic thrillers? If so what would they be?
Shannon: This is a hard one. I read a ton of domestic thrillers, and I’ve loved most of them. Still, my personal favorites in no particular order would be The Memory Box by Eva Lesko Natiello, Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine, and The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond. Which ones are your favorites?
Maggie: In the Blood by Lisa Unger; The Widow by Fiona Barton; The Good Girl by Mary Kubica; Remember Me This Way by Sabine Durrant and An Act of Silence by Colette McBeth. The only book on your list I’ve read is Gone Girl. I will definitely have to check out the others.
Shannon: I haven’t read the last three on your list, but I definitely want to. Thank you so much for chatting with me about these super addictive books.
Maggie: It’s been so fun, we’ll have to do this again soon.
Where reviews are available, they have been linked in the text; other books mentioned in this feature include: