by Karen Bourrier
I’ve been listening to a lot of the bestselling (contemporary!) author Liane Moriarty on audiobook over the last year. She’s the one who wrote Big Little Lies. If you haven’t read the book, maybe you’ve had a chance to watch the HBO series? At the same time, I’ve been teaching an upper year seminar on “The Victorian Bestseller,” which includes a unit on sensation fiction. We read The Moonstone as it was originally published in periodicals, comparing its appearance in Harper’s in the US to its appearance in All the Year Round in the UK. (We also do a digital assignment comparing The Moonstone’s appearance in these two publications, which you can read about here.)
All this has me wondering whether domestic noir, the genre that Liane Moriarty as well as Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) and Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) write in, is the new sensation fiction. There are a lot of similarities between sensation fiction and domestic noir on both a formal and a thematic level.
On a formal level, both genres often use narration from multiple first person perspectives, as well as diary entries and interviews, to increase the suspense, to delay the reveal of the mystery, and sometimes to add humour. Wilkie Collins was a master of this technique–my students still find Miss Clack hilarious. Liane Moriarty similarly conveys her murder mystery through the voices of multiple parents on the playground.
On a thematic level, both sensation fiction and domestic noir are concerned primarily with the mysteries that happen within the home, often a respectable middle-class home. These novels are not generally populated with Dukes and Duchesses but with middle-class families.
Compare Henry James, writing in 1865:
What are the Appennines to us, or we to the Appenines? Instead of the terrors of “Udolpho” we are treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely more terrible.
To Julia Crouch, writing in 2013:
In a nutshell, Domestic Noir 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. That’s pretty much all of my work described there.
To Mr Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.
And A. I. Waines writes, almost 150 years later:
The Family…is a cauldron for crime, bringing with it abductions, incarcerations, issues with infertility, infidelity and missing children. The home is rife with buried family secrets that come back to haunt us. This subgenre plays on the idea that the home is the safest place to be – OR IS IT..?
In his Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction, John Sutherland suggests that bestsellers appear cyclically, with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) appearing almost eighty years after Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1992), which it “blatantly rewrites” (39). Why is sensation fiction reappearing now? Are we in a similar cultural moment in terms of shifts in perceptions of gender and technology, as Beth Palmer suggests? I’d love to hear your thoughts!