Hitchcock, the maestro of suspense and morbidity, introduced his iconic show ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents succinctly. ‘ Television has brought back murder in home, where it belongs.’ Said the man who loved to wring our nerves to bits by creating the best suspense ever.
Now the hot selling ‘Marriage thrillers’ are taking up the book world by storm and Hitchcock would have loved it to his morbid pits. Marriages turned sour or plain boring, cheating spouses, deadly secrets, subtle mind games and usually a couple of dead bodies, voila, a successful book that is usually marketed with a tagline, ‘if you liked Gone Girl…’
Gone Girl is a book too clever for its own good, and sexist to boot, but addictive nonetheless. I have devoured almost all the recco readalikes from 2012 onwards and some are good, some bad, some excellent. Overall, I love the premise of intimacy of relationship gone putrid, and these books take a special pleasure in ‘twisted’. If you like Gothic genre, which is also fantastic from feminist point of view, (A post on it some other time.), you will see how this new trend heavily borrows from it. This article does a great job listing these classic female noir writers. (I am not a big fan of the classic noir, but it is interesting how these women writers were sidelined completely in a genre that celebrated depression era angst and virulent sexism at its worst.)
Marriage thriller, typically features a couple in troubled relationship, with a few deadly secrets and eventually a nasty meltdown, usually resulting in a dead body or two. Or three. The writing is evocative, full of tiny details that string the relationship, psychologically nuanced and smart/witty. An elegant morbidity a la Hitchcock hangs in the air, poisoning it oh so daintily, till the facades are torn and ugliness wipes out the oaths of ’till death do us part’.
There are several reasons quoted for the success of this trend. I agree with some of the analysis. After all,intimate relationships ( spouses, lovers, friends, parents, colleagues) are always potent with power dynamics. And it is very easy for power to turn abusive, for abuse to turn violent, for violence to turn bloody. The tiny details that make the relationship dynamic simmer, make for a delicious brew that slowly drips venom in the guise of sweet, normal moments of togetherness.
I also think the trend owes its success to crumbling of marriage as an institution. On one hand, the wedding business has gone through the roof ( it is only business that was not hit by recession, according to a close friend who is a successful wedding photographer), but the naiveté that accompanied the premise of marriage is no more sacrosanct. Virtually everywhere in the world women are asking for divorce in higher numbers and the stereotype of a ‘pathetic middle aged divorcee’ is drowned by high earning power of ( many, if not all) women of a certain class.
But think it boils down to a simple truth: women, like men, want to read interesting and thrilling stories featuring women, and men.
So far, majority of your typical interesting stories in crime/ action genre marginalised women’s experiences , and/or only authorised certain experiences seen from a certain perspective as worthy of being told, and/or ignored a woman’s point of view by making female characters objects rather than active subjects. Now, we have women writers topping bestseller lists in crime genre, writing about diversity of experiences that treat women as people capable of an array of choices in life and women are dominating the readership, thus driving trends.
Many, if not all, writers of this genre are women, and if publishers are to be believed, so are the readers.
What do you expect happens then? Hmm… women’s lit!! Or chick-lit!! Or in this case, Chick Noir.
Because women are ‘women’ while men are people. When men write, produce films, paint, shit, fuck, it is people doing all the said things. When women do the same, it is ‘women’s $#%&’.
And that’s what annoys me, this tag- Chick Noir, that accompanies any dark book which is told from female point of view or has a female character that is not a masturbatory fantasy of a male writer. Like that annoying term ‘Chick Lit’, ‘Chick Noir’ dumps all women writers writing about ‘relationships gone sour’ into one condescending bucket.
Because art that is produced for women or by women is almost always looked down upon, in virtually every culture.
Had Flynn been a male writer or had not written about marriage, but say, about two buddies who play mind games with each other, she would be hailed as 21st Century’s Raymond Chandler. Nobody calls Thomas Harris a ‘serial killer dick lit’ guy, do they, just because he happens to write about serial killers? And you know what, they would have dumped him in the Chick Noir category had he included another strong character like Clarice in his novels and not resorted to Hannibal Lecter fanboyness.
Agatha Christie, the original Queen of Crime escaped the label sheerly because of her male detective, Poirot, while Miss Marple is a far more original detective. Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and other Gothic masterpieces with marriage as a violent catalyst are, well, masterpieces, so they can’t be branded as the offensive ‘chick’ label, can they now?
Sometimes, I want to own this ‘chick %$#%’ label and raise my middle finger. Yes, we are ‘chick’ readers who happen to read about ‘chicks’ who do all sorts of interesting things in a great story. Murder, or invent sci-fi machines, or turn nasty, or do brave acts, or kick ass, or survive in outer space, or rid the world of impending disaster, or teach young kids, or travel around the world looking for redemption.
Because women are people too, I know it is tough to swallow this dramatic truth for majority of ‘man’kind. But it is true. Women’s experiences have been marginalised so far, but it is high time we stopped labelling them as ‘women’s experiences and start looking at them as ‘human’ experiences.
More on some of these popular Marriage thriller books you should read whether you are chicks are not, whether you are married or not, whether you are in a relationship or not, in part 2.