Trends in crime fiction: from psychological thrillers to domestic noir


Luana Lewis is a LWC member and we were delighted that her book, Don’t Stand So Close, was published in February of this year. She wrote the following guest blog on trends in crime fiction and will be joining us for our crime writers workshop on July 22. Book your ticket here.


I wrote a crime novel by mistake. While adore Jane Tennyson on television, I don’t read police procedurals. I also stay away from serial killers and testosterone fuelled international spy gun-toting car-chasing thrillers. But as I have discovered, crime writing takes many forms. And, looking at the winners of the Crime Writers Association Dagger awards, it seems these differences are welcomed by the crime-writing fraternity. This post explores some of the more popular variations on the crime novel.


The emotionally disturbed family of origin


In 2007, Gillian Flynn won the John Creasey Dagger for a first time novel, as well as the Ian Fleming dagger for best thriller for her debut novel Sharp Objects. This, the first of her three novels, is my favourite – Gone Girl, the latest, being the one that has taken the world by storm.


Sharp Objects begins when journalist Camille Preaker is sent back to her hometown to investigate and report on the abduction and murder of two young girls in small-town Missouri. Camille is the daughter of one of the richest families in town, haunted by a childhood tragedy and estranged from her mother. Working alongside the police, she tries to uncover the mystery of who killed these little girls and why, but there are deeper psychological puzzles to be solved as Camille’s relationship with her emotionally disturbed mother threatens to topple her own mental stability and her old habit of carving words into her flesh begins to take hold.

Flynn delivers crime novels with spectacular characterization and sharp, edgy prose. I would label her work ‘literary fiction’, but perhaps she and her publishers would not be so happy with that. The CWA judges said:This was a novel characterized by its vivid and poetic writing’ which also looks at the reasons for self-harm.


A common feature of these ‘psychological’ crime novels is that they are character driven. The focus tends to be not only on who did it, but why. Often, this is resolved by way of a mental illness: ranging from psychosis to psychopathy.

S.J. Watson burst onto the scene in 2011, also a winner of the CWA John Creasey Dagger for his first novel Before I Go To Sleep. The plot revolves around a woman suffering from amnesia. As a result of an injury, her memories of past and current events, as well as of people, are lost each time she falls asleep.  Her husband begins to look increasingly like a suspect rather than a supporter.


Is your beloved husband/partner actually a murderous psychopath?


In the past few years, there have been several successful novels that play on the notion of whether we really know our intimate partners. This so-called ‘domestic-noir’ thriller is not exactly new territory, but it does seem to be enjoying an upsurge in popularity. An early and famous prototype is Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, first published in 1938, not out of print since and selling millions of copies.


Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is probably the best known of the current novels, but there’s also Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff-Korelitz and Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse. Lianne Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret did well on the best seller lists.


Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and the Tom Ripley novels play with the idea of the psychopath who charms his way into the affections of others, though not necessarily in the context of a marriage.


In January, The Telegraph carried an article headed “Our growing appetite for ‘chick noir’ “ (16 January 2014).  According to this piece, the phrase refers to ‘a new genre of toxic marriage thriller.’ The label, also viewed as offensive and degrading by many, caused some upset and debate. The word “chick” inevitably implies female; or synonym for ‘not to be taken seriously.’ In fairness, some of the books that fall into this genre do fall somewhat short of Flynn’s careful prose and stray over into easy-reading, clichéd territory.


The term ‘psychological thriller’ is fashionable in the current market. For me, at the heart of the psychological suspense novel is the way in which some form of trauma or abuse (usually in early childhood) impacts on and warps the development of empathy and twists and pervert human relationships. This is an obvious point of overlap between my career as psychologist and my new persona as a writer.


These labels can help the reader to discover those crime novels which are not exclusively focused on police procedure, or external events (such as international spy conspiracies, weapons caches, jewel heists, war zones and so on) and where the main objects of torture comprise emotional manipulation and deceit, often perpetrated by those people closest to the protagonist. There may be an unreliable narrator, and blurring of boundaries between imagination and reality.


Could the “emotional mystery” be on the rise?


The Bookseller (27 May 2014) carried news of the acquisition by Michael Joseph of two new novels by established novelist Louise Candlish. The first novel, The Sudden Departure of the Frasers, sees Christy Davenport move into her much yearned for ‘forever home’ in South London only to become obsessed with the previous occupant whose departure months before is shrouded in mystery.? ?The commissioning editor described the novel as “a contemporary Rear Window”, which seems to place the book in the remit of crime fiction. She said: “It takes us right into the heart of a closed community whilst containing enough twists and turns and emotional reveals to have you on the edge of your seat and then needing a lie-down afterwards, so shredded are your nerves.” She referred to Candlish, who has also written several previous novels, as the “Queen of the emotional mystery”.


So which, if any, of these categories does my novel fall under?


In my first book, Don’t Stand So Close, psychologist Stella Davies struggles with a custody case that devastates her career, puts her marriage under pressure and ultimately threatens to destroy what’s left of her own sanity.


There are elements of all of the above themes in this novel: a spouse who may or may not have a sinister side; mental illness (post traumatic stress and agoraphobia) and the fallout from childhood abuse and neglect. My publishers have gone for the category of ‘psychological thriller’, comparing the book to Rosamund Lupton’s Sister.  Glamour called the story ‘compelling creepy’ but also referred to the book as: ‘a relationship drama,’ a term I really like – though perhaps not quite as much as the term the ‘emotional mystery.’


All of the books I’ve mentioned can be included under the roomy and flexible umbrella of crime fiction and there are advantages to a book being shelved in the “crime” section of our remaining bookshops. There is a tremendous public appetite for the genre, and crime sells – at the rate of about 21 million books a year in Britain according to The Times (May 19, 2014).  There is also ready made community waiting for the crime writer – in the form of the Crime Writers Association ( who send out a regular newsletter with details of members’ publications and events of interest.


Luana Lewis is a clinical psychologist. She is a member of the London Writers Club and was introduced to her agent, Madeleine Milburn, at one of the LWC events.  Don’t Stand so Close was published in hardback by Transworld in February 2014 in the UK, with the paperback to follow in September. It will also be available in German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish and Korean in 2015.


2 Replies to “Trends in crime fiction: from psychological thrillers to domestic noir”

  1. Hi there, Isn’t she clever. Glad you enjoyed it. Luana is speaking at London Writers’ Club on July 22. Book to come to the live event or to receive the video.
    Booking details are on the blog post.

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