Domestic thrillers serve as a reminder that not everything is well in our carefully constructed worlds.
I liken domestic thrillers to the opposite of the Hobbit hole from JRR Tolkien’s fantastical world. In The Hobbit, Bilbo leaves his comfy, cozy Hobbit hole home and his comfy, cozy Hobbit life to have grand adventures. When he’s finished, he returns home to his safe existence, his tidy little Hobbit hole waiting for him like a fluffy blanket.
The domestic thriller beings the danger right to the Hobbit hole. There’s no leaving home to have a grand adventure, then returning to find regular life waiting and ready to resume. Instead, the drama happens right here at home, irrevocably changing our main character’s everyday life.
This recent pair of domestic thrillers shows in sharp relief the dangers of getting too comfortable at home.
Not That I Could Tell
Published March 2018
St. Martin’s Press
Kristin, a rule-following doctor’s wife, goes missing with her two children. What happened to her? The neighbors try to puzzle out where she went and if it was voluntary. Clara, a stay at home mom with past trauma of her own, finds herself getting increasingly involved in the case, much to the consternation of her husband and the detectives. Can they trust their neighbors?
The Perfect Mother
Published May 2018
A group of new mothers has a rare night on the town. During the evening, one of the babies goes missing. It’s the terrifying mix of an innocent person being gone and the ultimate morality tale. How dare these mothers have an evening away from their babies, the public cries. Each character is under suspicion as the mother becomes more and more despondent. Could she have done something to her child?
Domestic thrillers don’t necessarily rotate on a female axis.
In Not That I Could Tell and The Perfect Mother, though, the experience of the home being disrupted belongs distinctly to the women. The sole male in the inner circle of The Perfect Mother is even nicknamed “Token.” It’s only later in the novel that the women sheepishly realize none of them know his real name.
Part of the tension comes from outsiders who won’t take the women seriously. Those who are the most vocal, the most on-the-nose, are dismissed as hysterical, too involved, nosey. As stay at home moms (or worse, baby-abandoning working moms, gasp), they are seen as having too much time on their hands and too many dark thoughts running across their little heads.
It’s a dismissive brush-off that underestimates the intelligence and care these women can offer.
The payoffs are satisfying, if not somewhat uneasy. That’s the heartbreak of the domestic thriller. Even when the thrill is gone, life at home still suffers from a deep, unmendable tear.
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