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My Evolution into a Domestic Thriller Writer

Years ago, I was the proud author of a procedural series about a federal prosecutor in New York. I loved writing those books, and they came pretty naturally to me, given that I’d actually been a federal prosecutor in New York. Write what you know, the old adage goes, and I definitely knew about narcotics and gangs and murder investigations. But there were a lot of other things I knew that didn’t fit into the neat format of the procedural, which demanded so much space for –well, procedure. I hankered to write about those things, too.

When I think about the classics of crime fiction that I find most compelling as a reader, I have to confess they’re not of the Law and Order, Hercule Poirot, follow-the-clues-and-find-the-killer variety. Not to say I don’t enjoy the traditional sleuthing mystery. I do. I really do! Every lover of crime fiction does. But the books that I read and reread, that I watch over and over again when the film versions show up on t.v. late at night, are the great psychological thrillers. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, REBECCA. Or, for a psychological thriller with an added courtroom angle, PRESUMED INNOCENT. There is a simultaneously intimate and disturbing quality to those books that hooks me. They are character-driven but have great plots, too. They dissect twisted personal relationships and mine them for suspense and dread. Often there’s a twist at the end for added thrills, but the twist isn’t the point. These books get inside their protagonists’ heads, and therefore inside the crime, in a profound way. Maybe that’s because the protagonist is usually directly involved in the crime, not an outsider who shows up after the fact to solve it. These books can get to a dark place that procedurals rarely go, no matter how intuitive the detective, with some exceptions. (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, for example, is both a great procedural and a great psychological thriller. Be honest. What is it about that book that you truly remember? For me, it’s the sick relationship between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, not the crime she was investigating with his help.)

More recently, I fell hard for GONE GIRL. It was a fresh take on the classic psychological thriller, using shifting narrative and multiple viewpoints to keep the reader (me) guessing. But I also loved how an accessible topic that we can all relate to – a marriage that looks happy from the outside but is actually fraught and miserable, a cheating husband, a scorned wife – could form the basis for such a hurtling roller coaster of a read. Next came THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, a book that explored some of the same mental and emotional terrain as GONE GIRL, using some of the same techniques. These were very modern takes on the psychological thriller – tales of embittered friendship and broken marriages, deceit, betrayal, secrets. I wanted in.

There’s another genre that I’ve always loved, and read obsessively, and lately it goes by the name of women’s fiction. (I know – not usually covered in the hard-boiled pages of CrimeSpree, but hear me out). Among the books I’ve been reading and rereading basically my entire life are classics like MIDDLEARCH, LITTLE WOMEN, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, and of course anything by Jane Austen. And more recent classics by the likes of Judy Blume, Marge Piercy, Kristin Hannah – I could go on. So imagine my delight when women’s fiction started showing up merged with the psychological thriller, to create a hybrid genre that goes by the name of domestic thriller or domestic noir or domestic suspense. BIG LITTLE LIES is the perfect example. The story involves a battle between privileged moms at a tony California elementary school over such familiar domestic concerns as who’s invited to a birthday party. But the book (and the HBO miniseries of the same name) finds suspense and danger in the everyday lives of women, and in doing so, explores some harrowing truths about domestic violence. Each protagonist is hiding something: a troubled past, an explosive secret, a marriage that looks perfect to outsiders but is rife with violence. BIG LITTLE LIES was psychological thriller and women’s fiction both, and I loved it.

I realized I wanted to write a book that would meld what you might call a broken-marriage thriller with a tale of intense female friendship gone wrong. I wanted friends who shouldn’t be friends, and a marriage (or marriages) that looked happy, but weren’t. I asked myself, in what context might women who really shouldn’t be friends, become friends? I found the answer by looking back to my college days, when I was on my own for the first time, away from home, insecure, and in a pressure-cooker environment. I felt vulnerable, but also ready to throw myself into new relationships. This, I realized, was an ideal setting for my fictional friends to meet and form an intense bond, despite being quite obviously wrong for one another. This realization was nudged along by the fact that I was living in a college town. Write what you know, and I knew that setting. Anybody can drive through the town where I live and describe its physical setting. But having spent a decade there, I understand its life. The way the institution of the college influences the town. The fact that everybody knows each other. The concept that privacy is hard to come by and secrets are hard to keep. It was the perfect setting for my novel.

The first half of my book leans toward the women’s fiction genre. Three young women who could not be more different meet as college roommates and, in the pressure-cooker environment of their tony Ivy League school, become fast friends, then frenemies.  Maybe these three weren’t meant to be friends. Maybe they’re even bad influences on each other. Maybe, when they’re together, terrible things are sure to happen. Bottom line: a terrible tragedy at the end of freshman year leaves them with a dangerous shared secret.

Then, psychological suspense takes over, with a dash of procedural thrown in because write-what-you-know. Twenty years later, older but perhaps no wiser, the three frenemies return to the scene of the crime. When one of them winds up dead, it could be suicide, or it could be murder. If it was murder, was it the husband – like the cops think – or was it the best friend? It’s a genre bender – an exploration of a twisted friendship and a broken marriage, melded with a psychological suspense novel, with a murder investigation and a big twist at the end, for your summer reading pleasure.

by Michele Campbell