Go Home, Girl—Well, Maybe Not

Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”

It’s come to the point that Twitter pundits have suggested a moratorium on books with the word “Girl” in the title. They might have extended the ban to dark covers with open type and a mysterious photograph suggesting rapid movement. The Stieg Larsson books started “The Girl” craze, and Vulture.com compiled a list of some 91 “The Girl Who/With . . .” copykitties, 2010-2014. That list doesn’t even include Gone Girl, The Girl on The Train (not to be confused with Girl on a Train), and Luckiest Girl Alive.

Those last books have become so popular a new literary subgenre has been created for them, variously titled: “chick noir” (ick) and “domestic thriller.” The “chick noir” label is justly reviled for implying “a lesser sort of noir, marginalized away from the ‘real’ noir,” and might have the unfortunate effect of turning away readers, says Kelly Anderson in BookRiot.

It’s probably not a coincidence that there’s also a resurgent use of the term “gaslighting.” (Gaslighting, of course, refers to the 1944 film Gaslight, in which husband Charles Boyer tries to rid himself of wife Ingrid Bergman by convincing her she’s insane. Once again proving there’s no accounting for taste.)

Domestic thrillers—and Gaslight was definitely a leading example—focus on everyday domestic life and relations with intimate partners. Through this ordinariness, they produce “their own brand of suspense—the disturbing feeling that it could happen to me,” says Dawn Ius in The Big Thrill magazine. Knowing whom to trust is a fundamental dilemma in people’s lives—especially women’s lives. Domestic thrillers play to that uncertainty, building an atmosphere in which “something’s-a-little-bit-off,” Anderson says.

Like other thrillers, domestic thrillers are about The End of the World as We Know It, but written in small letters, and one person in the “we” is usually the female narrator. Those narrators are deeply engaging and honest—at least readers must think so—and, Anderson says, they “do and say things that women know are against the code to say out loud.” As a result, many of these books are not just mysteries but also interesting character studies.

What’s notable is that many domestic thrillers are written by women. In New York Magazine, in a review of a great new boxed set of classic crime, writer Megan Abbott says crime fiction by women “has always been about more than solving a mystery.” By exploring the most compelling fears and pervasive anxieties of the times, domestic thrillers can show that “the darkest and most resonant tales are the ones that hit closest to home.”