Mysteries get divided into sub-genres, and the borders between them can be tougher to cross than the Rio Grande. Fans of police procedurals tend to stay away from cozies, and the distinction between mystery and suspense gets batted around like a cat in a Dixie Hemingway novel attacks a puffball.
Lately, there seems to be a new category rising.
Syndicated reviewer Oline Cogdill coined the term family thriller. The Book Bitch, a.k.a. reviewer Stacy Alesi, uses the designation domestic suspense. Both strike me as perfect descriptions for a book whose characters are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
When an idea for a novel occurs to me, it’s usually because I’ve caught sight of the thin gray line. You know the one: it stands as a horizon between Before and After. And all sorts of story possibilities reside there.
Last year, I was on the road for the world’s longest book tour—7 months and 35,000 miles—and one of the pleasures we experienced was being upgraded to a suite. (Life gets crowded when you’re confined to a car). One night we arrived, and I went about tucking the kids into the sleeper sofa bed. It was late, and I was jittery with travel. Disoriented from being on the road. Suddenly, the fact that the children would be sleeping by the exit door, while the adults would be a whole room away, struck me as replete with terrifying potential.
There was the line, and there was my new novel, Ruin Falls. What if a woman sets out on a long-awaited family vacation? And what if the next morning, she sleep-stumbles into the outer room of the suite to find her children missing from the sleeper sofa bed?
Because of the kind of writer I am—and probably the kind of person I am—I knew that the children in my book would have to be safe. Both the reader and the mother in the story would know that, so the suspense in the story would derive not from a potential for peril, but from whether the mother would get her children back.
Thin gray lines. The ones you step over without even realizing anything is there. A knob is turned, and suddenly events go from life-as-you-know-it to a life nobody wants to know at all.
Rosellen Brown’s Before and After casts this line into sharp relief when a car accident occurs, and Lisa Scottoline’s latest, Keep Quiet, makes use of a similar premise. In Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret, the car accident scenario is given even greater legs. The character who is driving looks away from the road to do something every one of us has probably done at least once. Only this time, the unthinkable happens. What elevates this novel is the far-reaching impact of the tragedy. A young boy waits back home for the driver. And if she doesn’t return, his life will be the one that really crashes.
Other authors of the family thriller abound, suggesting the possibility that this sub-genre stands to become one of the most popular yet. Nancy Pickard. Laura Lippman. Gregg Hurwitz. Harlan Coben. Linwood Barclay. I could go on and on. Wherein lies our fascination with tales of domestic suspense?
One answer is that these stories could happen to any of us. If a unique pleasure of fiction reading is identification—the empathic connection that takes place between reader and protagonist—then reading a family thriller heightens that potential. The fictive leap is not all that great when we are reading about a mom, a dad, or a teenager caught up in circumstances way beyond his or her control.
But I think there’s another reason we love these novels, one that’s unique to the mystery genre. Mysteries, thrillers, and novels of suspense have an arc imposed on them that real life often lacks. It’s not, as critics of our genre would sometimes have it, that events are all wrapped up with a neat and tidy bow. And it’s certainly not that there’s always a happy ending.
But events in a mystery or suspense novel make sense. Scenes aren’t thrown in willy nilly, and plots unfold like a row of falling dominoes. If a writer spends enough time on a sequence, then the reader can count on there being a payoff to reading it. Our eyes are directed to a point, and if we look there, it will be for a reason. I think that that kind of understanding—and the ability to understand if we know the conventions—reassures at a very deep level.
When this process takes place while reading a family thriller or novel of domestic suspense, then the things that make sense happen in a life that resembles one the reader can imagine living.
As we all know, life doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. Bad things happen, and we struggle to understand why. The thin gray line is crossed and all we can do is wish we could turn back the clock.
The family thriller doesn’t allow us that impossible reality. No, it does something better. It offers the reader the chance to connect with a character who will enter a world nobody wishes to inhabit—and make it back, battered, bruised, but frequently stronger than ever.
Who wouldn’t want to read a book like that?
See you on the other side of the line.