Back in 1816, Jane Austen (yes, I always try to bring her into anything if I can) commiserated with her nephew when he reported that he had lost two whole chapters of his own tentative novel. She hadn’t stolen them, she promised. “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”
Being Jane Austen, she was, of course, being ironic, suggesting that her own writing was on such a slight and insignificant scale. Sir Walter Scott recognised that her work was fair more powerful than a little bit of ivory would allow. “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”
And yet critics have dared to complain that Austen’s novels are too limited, confined to “three or four families in a country village,” when all around her, the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, the French Terror, the Napoleonic wars were playing out. She knew well enough what great dramas were happening out there. A cousin’s husband was guillotined, an aunt was hauled off to prison, two brothers were serving in the navy, and yet she chose to concentrate on a small group of people interacting on a tiny stage as if the outside world didn’t exist. But what Jane Austen appreciated was that there is just as much emotional and psychological drama to be found in closed families as on wide battlefields.
I write about crime. My genre has been defined as Domestic Noir and it always focuses on the dark dynamics at work within a family, a neighbourhood, a close circle of friends. Does that mean it lacks the drama of a big bow-wow crime novel set, say, among Columbian drug barons, or the Mafia, or human traffickers or crooked financiers in the city? It probably lacks the extreme gore of a hard-boiled thriller. I work on the assumption that lashing out wildly and causing a loved one’s death with a misplaced blow is just as tragic and dramatic as a gruesome plot involving a victim’s head being chewed off by a bear.
When it comes to shock, horror, fear – not of elaborate gore but of the mere fact of killing – domestic drama, I would say, is miles ahead of thrillers set on a wider field. An unknown stranger out there in the dark, murdering people, armed with a knife and lying in wait for strangers or threatening to destroy the world with a nuclear bomb, is of course terrifying, in a delightfully thrilling sort of way. Even more so if you suspect you are trapped in a house with him or some similar scenario. It’s an easy terror because there is no conflict in it. You don’t have to think twice about labelling the perpetrator a villain. See him, suspect him and you go straight to the police. But I would suggest that there is a far deeper terror in knowing or suspecting that someone close to you is the threat – someone you love as well as fear, someone whom you long to protect. Or someone who has a paralysing hold on your sense of self, who is a foundation stone on which you have built your life. That is a terror that pulls in more than one direction, through fear, shame, loyalty, disbelief, grief and stunned impotence. If you deal with the threat, will you destroy your whole world? That’s the real drama.
Domestic drama might lack the fast pace of mainstream crime fiction too. It tends to be a matter of a slow burn, rising gradually to a rolling boil, scalding oil and an all-consuming blaze. That’s what I like, because it is what goes on in families – and with isolating lock-down, probably even more so. You don’t have to look to the scheming world of international crime or the grimy nastiness of the underworld to discover every facet of human emotion – thundering passion, consuming rage, seething jealousy, love, hope, joy, disappointment – and sheer bloody terror.