What, exactly, is Suburban Noir?
Writers whose work evokes a flavor of Suburban Noir have influenced me the most — Joyce Carol Oates, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Laura Kasischke, Tom Perotta, and others. I also love the work of John Updike, whose novels portray suburbia as the femme fatale, offering the allure of having it all, whispering, I’ll comfort you in any way I can. But she won’t.
The success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl rocketed suburban noir to center stage. After Gone Girl was released as a film, the genre invited further analysis: Why we are all in the grip of Suburban Noir. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal called Tom Perotta “the master of Suburban Noir” and I’d add John Updike to that category. (I love what Tom Perotta says about why he sets his fiction in suburbia — “It’s just laziness. This is what’s right in front of me. I’ve chosen to live there.” My thoughts exactly.)
The popular novel, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, was also put into this category. With an unreliable narrator and a neighborhood of disturbing characters, it gives the same dark thrill I’ve grown addicted to.
The first time I saw Suburban Noir called out was in The New York Times pre-review of the short story collection, Long Island Noir. And The Wall Street Journal [page no longer available], in its overview of Megan Abbott’s novel, Dare Me, quoted Ms. Abbott as saying, “The suburbs are very noir places—everything is hidden.” One of the authors of a story in Long Island Noir, Tim McLoughlin, had this to say:
“This is about the dark side of aspirational culture in America,” he said.
In fact, he said, suburbia may be even meaner than the big city. People involved in nefarious doings in an urban environment often don’t know one another. In the suburbs, it can be more personal.
“It’s a different world for all the players involved,” Mr. McLoughlin said. “Here, they live in each others’ pockets, and you’re more likely to have people on the lower rung working for people on the upper rung.”
My fiction isn’t strictly Noir in the conventional sense. It doesn’t have the “emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot”. This isn’t to say my work is “sex-less”, all of my novels include at least one character with femme fatale qualities, but sex is not the driving force of the plot. Often, it’s more of a sinister undertone. Like Noir, I explore “the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters”. Noir reflects the type of stories that haunt me.
Noir is considered (according to our collective expertise recorded at Wikipedia) a sub-genre of Hardboiled Crime. The protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. She is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called in to solve or fix the situation.
A few months before I published my first novel, The Demise of the Soccer Moms, I started playing with the notion of Suburban Noir to describe my fiction because it was frustrating to mention psychological suspense and have that interpreted as “mystery” or “high stakes thriller”. Readers looking for those conventions will be disappointed with my stories. I couldn’t understand why people interpreted psychological suspense as “thriller”. A writer on the now-defunct blog, Two Blowhards, cleared it up for me:
“Ever run across discussions of this genre [psychological suspense]? I can’t imagine why; it’s not very well known in America. England and France have much more developed traditions of psych-suspense fiction.”
Poor me, born and living in the US of A where the genre I love is not very well known, or understood. Michael Blowhard goes on to describe the genre, pointing to the novels of Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith as examples, as well as films such as “Lantana”, “Alias Betty”, “Unfaithful” and some of the quieter Hitchcock movies:
“What characterizes the genre? I find it helpful to keep in mind that it isn’t a mystery-fiction subgenre; it’s really best thought of as a crime-fiction subgenre. That helps take some weight off the idea of “mystery.” Its main characteristic, though, is it generally uses a crime as a pretext for opportunities to look into personality and sociology. There’s a murder or a kidnapping, sure — but often in psychological suspense you know from the outset who did it. ie., from a mystery point of view, there’s pointedly no mystery. And often the central character, if there is one, isn’t the investigator but the criminal.
Suspense? Well, kinda-sorta. But seldom of the rushing-to-a-breathless-climax sort. There’s often a tone of dread or malignity — you’re watching or reading about curious, fated, peculiar things, people and actions.”
If you like a mood of suspense or dread, if the worlds you want to explore exist inside the infinite intricacies of the human mind, you’ll enjoy my Suburban Noir fiction. Thanks for stopping by.
Here’s a bit of visual Suburban Noir I discovered recently — very seductive.
How film noir, with a pessimistic and oppressive worldview, came to rule the roost.