Psychological thillers/chick noir: Less of a darkness, more a sort of homely duskiness

Sophia Martelli
Thursday 17 September 2015 14:07

Ever since Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl became a thing, the label "chick noir" has attached itself to all sorts of novels that are domestic of setting, dark of theme, and where paranoia creeps in at the edges (and an unreliable narrator often to top it off). Reviewers have enthused over "toxic marriage thrillers" or "tales of intimate betrayal or mistrust". Usually, "chick noir" novels are written by women; and the "new" genre, which arguably goes back to Du Maurier and the Brontës, has a flavour of a witch trial about it.

In fact, Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly Macmillan (Piatkus £7.99) is a distinctly contemporary twist on Salem circa 1692: at the heart of this detective thriller is the trial by social media of a vulnerable, grief-stricken mother. On an average Sunday walk in a wood outside Bristol, Ben, son of recently divorced Rachel, vanishes and a police investigation is launched with all the blare of the media upon it. When Rachel's press conference plea to the cameras goes off-script, the public turns on her with the viciousness seen in the pages of Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed. A pacy, twisty thriller, the novel's engine relies on pulling the strings of maternal guilt, with the tabloid cry of "bad mother" finally shown to be what it is.

Another novel where guilt and shame drives the story is The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson (Piatkus, £13.99). Flashing between the 1980s and 90s, the central character is Klaudia, whose identity issues lead her to rechristen herself Eliza Bennett. Although she thought she had problems before (her German father was not only possibly a murderous Nazi in the Second World War but he was also, to Klaudia's shame, the janitor of her secondary school), it is after her switch of persona that her trouble really starts, much of it intertwined with her decision to fabricate a new life. This is only to be expected in a culture where the cliché of staying true to yourself is the only truth. The book's retro Brixton, Croydon and Leeds settings makes this the most nostalgic – and indeed sentimental – of this round-up.

Gutsier is The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly (Bantam Press, £16.99), which explores Indecent Proposal territory in the less glamorous surroundings of post-recession Cumbria. Middle-aged Ros Toovey is a likeable physiotherapist who has been left with a debt mountain after her split from the father of her eight-year-old son. When a new, married friend of her sister's propositions her for money, Ros thinks she has nothing to lose. The fact that the stakes are small does not detract from the drama of the story. In fact, its down-to-earth nature enhances it, and poses (as well as answers) pertinent questions about the transactional side of relationships and the nature of success.

In Sophie McKenzie's Here We Lie (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), Emily is on a family holiday with, among others, her fiancé (a rich, older, adoring lawyer called Jed) and his two children from a previous marriage. The shocking death of Jed's 13-year-old daughter by poison leads to Emily investigating further with the help of her journalist ex-boyfriend Dan, and leading them predictably into danger. If obvious characters, lifestyle porn and ludicrous plot twists are your thing, pack it for your beach read next summer.

While all these domestic thrillers dabble in the dark side of chick lit, if they're attempting to be "chick noir", these writers may have missed a memo: their protagonists have not embraced their dark sides with a cackle like Amy Dunne, not to mention her creator, cleverly did. Their tone is earnest, the characters striving for likeability; although some heroines (notably Daly's and Macmillan's) succeed in being more complex, to page-turning effect. Read, enjoy, but don't expect these to catch fire in the way a game-changing book does.

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