The recent popularity of suburban thrillers in crime fiction begs the question: what exactly is a suburban thriller? More often than not it involves a crime that in some way touches upon a fragile relationship, usually a troubled marriage. The setting is typically the home or possibly the office, and the main character feels somehow trapped in a situation where there seems to be no escape. Oh yes, and a crime is always involved.
Once I discovered the joys of reading a good domestic thriller I was hooked on the genre. When reading one I feel like I’m a fly on the wall watching from behind the scenes, understanding the true dynamics of a couple’s relationship. In fact I liked reading domestic thrillers so much that I decided to write one. This after five horror novels, a book of short stories, a kidnapping mystery and a hardbitten crime novel set in Portland.
My first exposure to a real life domestic thriller happened almost twenty-eight years ago. On October 23rd, 1989, an unusual crime happened in Boston. Reports came in that a black man had forced his way into a couple’s car, robbed them, and then shot the two of them before fleeing on foot. This brutal, senseless crime caused racial tensions to escalate in the city, especially since Charles Stuart’s wife and unborn child ended up dying in the attack. As he lay in the hospital with a gunshot wound to his abdomen, Charles recounted to the police his version of events.
But as police began to dig deeper, Stuart’s lies began to unravel. His brother, Matthew, went to the police and admitted his role in helping Charles pull of this despicable crime. Matthew admitted that the two of them conspired to use the race card in order to hide the true motive for killing Carol Stuart: money!
I remember obsessively following the case in the news, each day learning new information about the murder. It was as if I was reading a riveting mystery or watching a great suspense movie. I wasn’t the only one mesmerized. The entire region seemed eager to find out who had attacked this seemingly happy couple as they returned home from child birthing classes. They made a handsome pair, too. Charles was tall and good looking, and a successful manager of a fur shop on Newbury Street. Carol was a tax attorney who had graduated from BC and was expecting her first child. This couple seemed to have everything going for them. I remember thinking: why do bad things happen to good people.
Back to Charles’ brother. After Matthews admitted his role in the commission of the crime, confirming the police’s suspicions, Charles’s story began to unravel. Of course, like in any good mystery, it was discovered that he had a whole other side to his personality. He’d tried to convince his wife to abort the child so she could keep earning her high salary. But she refused to give up the child. Because of her pregnancy, she’d gotten the upper hand in their marriage, which shifted the balance of power in her favor. Charles was planning to open his own restaurant after he killed her, using the life insurance money as a downpayment. Oh, and like most cases of domestic intrigue, he had a girlfriend on the side.
Unfortunately, Charles Stuart never got the justice he deserved. As soon as he found out his brother had confessed to the police, he drove to the Tobin Bridge, parked his car alongside the rail, and jumped to his death.
The Stuart case has always fascinated me as both a husband, father and a crime writer. I’d recently graduated from Northeastern when the crime happened, majoring in Criminology and Political Science. The idea that a successful husband would even think to kill his beautiful wife and unborn child seemed completely senseless to me. I wanted to understand the warped psychology of an individual who could commit such a heinous crime. I was intrigued by both the crime itself and the use of racial profiling to deceive the police. The crime itself was deeply flawed in execution, and far from complete, and yet it was brilliantly devious in the most psychopathic way. By playing on white Bostonians racial fears, Stuart sought to create the perfect murder.
The Stuart case was my first real introduction to marital bliss gone wrong, and I often still think about it. What is it about marriage that causes spouses to want to kill each, even in jest? Do you ever wonder how certain couples act in the privacy of their home, away from family and friends? Often, but not always, marital disagreements are about money. Or a secret affair. Almost everyone in a relationship experiences these problems at some time in their life. But only a few twisted individuals resort to criminal behavior to resolve the issue in their favor.
Charles Stuart happened to be one of them.
GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn was the first domestic thriller that truly captured my imagination. Flynn is a brilliant writer with amazing insights on marriage and the roles husbands and wives play in their relationships. Her character, Amy, is a wonderful literary creation and one of the most cunning and despicable villains in the genre. I couldn’t read the book fast enough. And I loved her alternating husband/wife first person POVs. GONE GIRL went on to reinvent the domestic thriller and bring it to the forefront as a new kind of mystery. The clever twists and turns astounded me, and made me realize how ripe this genre was to be explored.
Since GONE GIRL, I’ve gone on to read dozens of books in the domestic thriller genre. Many of them good, others not so. None of them, in my opinion, matched Flynn’s cleverness, razor sharp insight and plot machinations. But they’ve all piqued my interest in one way or another, and got me thinking about the institution of marriage and the complex dynamics that define it.
So I sat down one day to write my own domestic thriller. Oh, I had wild ideas and intriguing plot points kicking around in my head. The words came our fast and furious. Many plot points changed in the editing process. The result? My agent loved it. He told me it was the kind of book he’d been looking for for quite some time. And the best part is that he sold it in a two book deal to an editor who was equally enthusiastic about the manuscript—and the genre.
Not only are domestic thrillers growing in popularity, but many agents on Twitter (#MSWL-more about this in another blog posts for those seeking agents) are actively seeking manuscripts in this genre. It seems that the reading public has an insatiable need for such fiction, and will for the foreseeable future. It’s why I took a career risk and wrote a domestic thriller, and in the process reinvented myself yet again as a writer.
I’ve been happily married for over twenty years and have two kids. The only domestic thrills I encounter these days are mundane at best, such as who will take out the trash, do the laundry or dishes. They say the best advice is write what you know, but I’ll leave that to my imagination.
Joseph Souza is the author of eight works of fiction. He won the Andre Dubus Award, received Honorable Mention for The Al Blanchard Award, in 2013 won the Maine Literary Award and was nominated for the Maine Literary Award. He grew up in Boston and worked as a teacher, cabbie, social worker, truck driver, editor, bouncer, barber, wrestling coach, paralegal and Intelligence Analyst in the DEA (Organized Crime Unit), to name just a few.