November 2015: Crimeculture is pleased to continue its ‘Editors’ Choice’ series, reviewing of some of the best crime fiction published during the last couple of years.
Rebecca Whitney, writing in the Independent earlier this year, thoughtfully analyses the huge current appeal of domestic noir – our fascination with “the toxic marriage and its fall-out.” Several successful novels have fed this fascination by constructing ‘romance gone wrong’ plots in which a woman marries an intelligent, charismatic, chisel-featured homme fatale who, by the third act, has turned out to be a dangerous psychopath, multiple murderer and/or serial rapist. But what if the chosen partner is simply too dedicated to the role of the traditional husband – a man of business who is ambitious, overbearing and possessive?
In some of the most interesting recent examples of domestic noir, we follow the stories of women whose fates lie in the hands of such men, their lives distorted by a domineering partner who expects absolute fidelity. In two of the novels reviewed here, the man of the family not only forbids dissent but bullies and humiliates his wife, betraying her trust and driving her to desperation: Jill Alexander Essbaum, in her haunting psychological study, Hausfrau, conjures up a claustrophobic, repressive world in which a wife’s extreme submissiveness makes her “ill with inaction, a person sitting passively in a dark cinema”; Rebecca Whitney’s The Liar’s Chair is a tense, well-constructed domestic thriller that centres on the disintegrating relationship of an apparently prosperous, successful couple. Laura Lippman creates a more complex version of the unequal marriage in her wonderful, nuanced family drama, After I’m Gone, in which the patriarch is a criminal version of the forceful businessman. Having has “made his own game”, he will brook no challenge to the rules he plays by, and, when he absconds, the five women he leaves behind still lead lives dominated by the game he has created. Read our reviews of Jill Alexander Essbaum, Rebecca Whitney and Laura Lippman.
Crime fiction has often been accused of indulging in the clichés of the dangerous and the endangered woman – the femme fatale, the female victim. The degree to which such generalisations oversimplify the genre is apparent if one reads the steadily growing number of women crime writers who, from the 1940s on, have created subtle, diverse explorations of a great range of female protagonists – from damaged children and wilful teenagers to deceived partners, oppressed housewives, guilty mothers, tough businesswomen. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, psychological thrillers have given readers a chance to enter into the subjective perceptions of non-stereotypical women in ways that subvert and reappropriate some of the most familiar and time-honoured generic conventions.
Our focus here is on teen-centred crime fiction. Some of the most highly regarded contemporary female crime writers have written compellingly about teenage experience – Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French. They represent transgression, resistance to constraints on female agency, dawning sexuality, and, above all, female friendship – being best friends and also, of course, betraying and destroying those friendships. Amongst recent novels, two of the outstanding examples of teen-centred psychological thrillers are Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Tana French’s The Secret Place. Read our reviews of Megan Abbott and Tana French.
The protagonists of psychological thrillers are very often in thrall to the dark secrets of the past: characters go through their lives imprisoned by the past; or they take flight from it, imagining they can escape; or, just when they least expect it, someone from a former life resurfaces and threatens to destroy them. Harriet Lane’s superb, chilling novel Her begins with a chance meeting between two women whose lives were intertwined in the distant past. In Amanda Jennings’ gripping thriller The Judas Scar, the central relationship from the past is male rather than female, and, from the disturbing prologue on, the reader knows that male brutality and violence are at the core of both past and present narratives. Daniel Woodrell’s extraordinary piece of Southern noir, The Maid’s Version, gives us a past secret that is a communal tragedy rather than a private torment, and we hear the voices of an entire town as we try to untangle the lies and evasions that have proliferated in the decades following a dance hall explosion decades earlier. Read our reviews of Harriet Lane, Amanda Jennings and Daniel Woodrell.
A mark of good crime fiction is that readers can intensely experience the spaces through which the characters move or in which they are trapped. Whether they are in urban mean streets or small towns, buildings are more than background or setting. They can generate the fears and desires that drive characters to commit crimes; they conceal secrets and retain the impress of crimes committed; protagonists may dread to enter them or feel a false sense of security when they lock the doors. Three excellent recent crime novels construct gripping narratives that centre on the manifold ways in which buildings are perceived, experienced and remembered. In Christobel Kent’s atmospheric novel, The Crooked House, the house of the title is a gothic embodiment of past terrors, containing the lost narrative of a murdered family; in D. D. Johnston’s forthcoming The Secret Baby Room, an almost equally gothic building, a derelict tower block, summons up the protagonist’s worst fears; and in Paula Hawkins’ tense thriller, The Girl on the Train, what we’re led to reflect on is the deceptive uniformity, the apparent interchangeability of suburban houses, so blank that it is easy to miss their role in concealing disastrous and violent acts. Also reviewed is a novel first published a few years ago (2006), Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, a playful, enthralling mix of romance and mystery, in which houses stimulate desire and feed the imaginative hunger for enigmas. Read our reviews of Christobel Kent, D.D. Johnston, Paula Hawkins, and Liane Moriarty.
The noir thriller has proven itself capable of powerfully depicting the breakdown of society and the human consequences of political evils, lies and betrayals. Contemporary urban disintegration, violence and economic collapse are at the heart of Lauren Beukes’ complex novel, Broken Monsters. Equally fascinating – and equally relevant to the political experiences of our own time – are two pieces of historical noir, both of which anatomise the treacherous political decisions, the crimes, guilts and corrosive allegiances of earlier eras. Lynn Kostoff’s Words to Die For, set in the deregulated corporate world of the Reagan era, plays out at an individual level its compromises and cynical deceptions; Paul Johnston’s The Black Life, which partly takes place in modern-day Greece, also encompasses the horrors of Nazism and the holocaust. All three novels stand out in my recent reading and exemplify the best qualities of the outward-looking crime story, which, as Andrew Pepper argues (Unwilling Executioner, forthcoming from OUP), “remains the most politically-minded of all the literary genres.” Read our reviews of Lauren Beukes, Lynn Kostoff’ and Paul Johnston.
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