The most difficult part of writing this article was deciding which books to recommend. English domestic thrillers have long been popular and perhaps never more so than in the past decade when the choice of suspenseful, chilling reads feels as if it has never been more plentiful. The current market for domestic thrillers is voracious, with approximately 80% being bought by women and, perhaps as a result, female authors have lately been leading the genre in the UK, though there are also some superb novels by male authors in the pack.
Writers of English domestic suspense can look to many precedents to inspire them. Agatha Christie springs instantly to mind, of course, as well as the rich history of English detective fiction and noir. I also suspect I’m not the only English domestic thriller writer to owe much to books that we might not immediately think of as falling into the genre, such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The Gothic notes in these novels, the extraordinary, chilling atmosphere created, and the terrifying portrayals of domestic life, politics and desire are inspiring.
The list below contains a selection of titles, most new, some a little older, some well-known, others perhaps not so much, of excellent English domestic thrillers that represent some of my personal favourites. Although, quite honestly, there is so much exceptional writing in this genre that I could have included many more.
A JUDGEMENT IN STONE by Ruth Rendell
‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write,’ is the first line of this 1977 novel and the story walks you through the events that precede the gruesome murders of a family of four by their housekeeper with chilling patience. It’s a masterclass in building tension out of mundanity as the Eunice’s dreary psyche takes a turn for the murderous. It’s also an insight into the mind of a murderer and it’s perhaps this that is only part of the book to feel a little old-fashioned in its simplicity. But nevertheless, it’s a masterclass in domestic crime fiction.
A DARK-ADAPTED EYE by Barbara Vine
It’s no secret that Ruth Rendell also wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, and this is one of my favourite Vine novels. Written with less clinical efficiency than the Rendell novels, A DARK-ADAPTED EYE (which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel when it was published in 1986) is a slower and more detailed examination of the psychology of murder, how it impacts the innocent and what happens when a long-buried family secret begins to see the light. My edition has a foreword by Val McDermid in which she makes the point that, ‘No other crime writer was producing anything so emotionally and psychologically complex at the time.’ It’s this quality, for me, that makes the book so memorable and so important in the history of domestic suspense fiction.
THE GHOST WALL by Sarah Moss
The setting for THE GHOST WALL is far from domestic but that’s the point. When seventeen-year-old Silvie and her mother are volunteered by her fanatical father to take part in an experiment to live as Iron Age people for one week in rural Northumberland, they join a group of students and their professor. It doesn’t take long for Silvie’s father’s violent proclivities (which have so far been hidden inside their home) to be thrown into sharp relief by the presence of others. The tension in this novel builds relentlessly until its shocking, shattering conclusion.
OUR KIND OF CRUELTY by Araminta Hall
Domestic harmony implodes and an erotic relationship game takes an obsessional turn in OUR KIND OF CRUELTY when Verity leaves her lover, Mike, to marry another man. The problem is, Mike can’t let go and his solution to getting Verity back is to escalate the game. Privileged fun turns into horribly dangerous infatuation. Beginning in a jail cell, where Mike tells us that he has killed somebody, though we don’t know who at first, the novel culminates in a tense courtroom drama.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
There are three first-person narrators in this blockbusting novel, Anna, Megan and Rachel, and Rachel is the standout. Stunningly unreliable and vulnerable due to her alcoholism, which causes her to black out frequently, she is one of the most horribly self-destructive and messy characters I’ve read, but I couldn’t look away from her. Rachel has a problem with stalking her former lover, Tom, his new partner, Anna, and their neighbours, Megan and Scott, whose houses she can see into if she rides her local train line. Rachel starts to harass Tom and Anna. She’s jealous of Megan, whose life looks perfect from the outside. When Rachel wakes up one morning, bloodied and bruised, but with no memory of what happened the night before, and discovers that Megan has disappeared, things hot up.
THEN SHE WAS GONE by Lisa Jewell
A novel about a missing teenager that manages to be both heartfelt, suspenseful and deeply chilling. Ten years after the disappearance of her daughter, Ellie, and amidst the recent wreckage of her marriage, Laurel Mack is still broken and trying to put her life back together. An apparently chance meeting with a stranger, Lloyd, offers her hope of romance and stability, of a future. But when Laurel meets Lloyd’s children, she is stunned by how much his youngest daughter resembles Ellie. Police told her that Ellie most likely ran away from home, but now Laurel’s not so sure.
APPLE TREE YARD by Louise Doughty
This novel is part courtroom drama and part psychological thriller and absolutely gripping. When Yvonne Carmichael, an extremely successful scientist with a good marriage and two grown-up children acts impulsively and starts an affair, she has no idea how far things will spiral out of control. The violent outcome is shocking.
NOTES ON A SCANDAL by Zoe Heller
Short-listed for the 2003 Man-Booker prize, this is a dark and disturbing story about a married female teacher, Sheba Hart, who begins an affair with an underage pupil. A taboo subject, for sure, and compellingly well written, but what makes this novel so exceptionally good is the additional layer of tension introduced by Sheba’s toxic friendship with an older, female colleague, a bitter, obsessional, lovestruck woman and the only person to offer Sheba support after the affair is uncovered. A tour de force.
Gilly Macmillan is the internationally bestselling author of six novels including WHAT SHE KNEW, THE PERFECT GIRL, ODD CHILD OUT, I KNOW YOU KNOW and THE NANNY. TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH is coming in 2020.
She was nine years old when her brother vanished in the woods near home. As the only witness, Lucy’s story of that night became crucial to the police investigation. Thirty years on, her brother’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Now Lucy is a bestselling thriller writer. Her talent for invention has given her fame, fortune, and an army of adoring fans. But her husband, Dan, has started keeping secrets of his own, and a sudden change of scene forces Lucy to confront some dark, unwelcome memories. Then Dan goes missing and Lucy’s past and present begin to collide. Did she kill her husband? Would she remember if she did?