Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Domestic Noir: From the Notting Hill Mystery to The Girl on a Train

I have learned about a new genre category.
"Domestic Noir takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants." http://juliacrouch.co.uk/blog/genre-bender
An article in The Guardian  on The Girl on the Train refers to "domestic noir" novels.
Literature can be entertaining, but it can also be informative, and these books work in some small part towards dissecting the shame and powerlessness, the psychological and often violent manipulation that abused women experience to keep them trapped in this most toxic of relationships, away from prying eyes, and in the environment we expect to be the most loving and nurturing. The Independent "Domestic Noir is Bigger than Ever
The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Warren Adams is purportedly the first full-length modern English-language Detective Novel, serialized in 1862-3 and published in 1865. It predates Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone, which was serialized in 1868. Poison Pen Press's new edition of The Notting Hill Mystery includes an introduction tracing the history of the Detective genre, establishing the novel's place in the genre.

Adams wrote under the name of Charles Felix and had published an earlier crime novel Velvet Lawns in 1864. Adams was the proprietor of the book's publisher, Saunders, Otley, and wrote the novels to help his foundering business; it couldn't save the publishing house and it closed in 1869.

Modern readers may find Notting Hill archaic and tedious. This is the age of lightning quick plot lines and "page turner" best sellers. I just finished The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins for my book club--it's twice the length of Notting Hill and yet both took me two days to read. I enjoyed Notting Hill as much as Girl.

Girl features first person narratives, including a diary, to tell the story through three points of view. It is a suspense novel, a thriller, and a mystery. Rachel may be considered a 'detective' so it is also a detective novel. As an 'unreliable witness' due to alcoholic blackouts, the police have discounted what Rachel has seen. So she conducts her own 'investigation' and finds herself in deep water.

Notting Hill tells the story through depositions, diary entries, chemical reports, and letters collected by a Life Assurance Association employee who is investigating the death of a woman with 5000lb in insurance taken out by her husband. The story is told in pieces according to each person's knowledge of the persons and events in question.
"I submit for your consideration the facts of the case as they appear in the depositions of the several parties from whom my information has been obtained." The Notting Hill Mystery
The contemporary novel Girl wraps up the mystery with a suspenseful climatic scene. Notting Hill leaves us hanging, asking the reader to decide.
"My tasks is done. In possession of the evidence thus placed before you, your judgment of its result will be as good as mine. Link by link you have now been put in possession of the entire chain." The Notting Hill Mystery
A definition of mystery from Writer's Digest reads, Mystery: a form of narrative in which one or more elements remain unknown or unexplained until the end of the story. But...wait...Adams never solves the mystery for us! We are told to decide for ourselves! Another definition states that in a mystery the plot is geared towards solving a problem, usually murder, but problem must be resolved.

Notting Hill incorporates themes that in its time thrilled readers. Illustrations by George du Maruier highlight the Gothic elements of the story. Twin girl orphans are separated in childhood when Gypsies steal one and sell her off. The other twin, Gertrude, grows up, marries, and with her husband becomes involved with mesmerism. Mesmerism involved controversial techniques considered unsuitable between a man and a woman. Their mesemerist Baron R** brings in Charlotte who undergoes the treatment and transfers it to Gertrude. The women have a special bond. Gertrude begins to experience biweekly illnesses that eventually claim her life. Her husband in his grief does himself in. Meantime, Baron R** has married Charlotte who also suffers a similar illness and death.

Girl on the Train also has its melodrama. Rachel turned to alcohol after she failed to conceive; her husband Tom preferred to go to Vegas with buddies rather than to spend more money on IVT. Tom dumps Rachel for his lover Anna, who has given birth. Rachel daily rides the train past her old home now occupied by Anna. A few doors down she has seen a young couple (Megan and Scott) and has imagined a perfect marriage for them--the one she still longs for with Tom. What Rachel imagines is far from the truth: the girl Meagan disappears and her husband is the prime suspect in her murder. Rachel had seen another man with Meagan, and also has flashbacks of a confrontation that may be related. Readers are given a few red herrings along the way, and although some may have suspicions the mystery is not revealed until the crisis.

The horrible implication in Notting Hill will be understood by today's readers rather early. I expect that the first readers, having never encountered the genre, would have had  a later "ah-ha" moment.

Both novels revolve around women who are manipulated by men. Notting Hill's Mesmerist Baron R** is consistently described as a wonderful husband by the women who have observed his behavior towards his wife. The wife is severely judged for her coldness and bad temper. Wouldn't every woman want such a tender helpmate?

Mesmerism was believed to give complete power over the patient. And yet these witnesses never concluded that the Baron was manipulating his resistant wife. The women in Girl on a Train are all involved with a man who is charming and handsome. They all love him to the point of being blind to his faults and lies. They are all victims of Tom's manipulative and self-centered personality.

Victimization by men in the 19th c was a common theme. Women had little power, and the meek and loving soft-hearted woman was idealized. The women in Girl are harder to identify with. Is Tom really worth it? Why does Rachel hold a torch for the man who couldn't support her desperate desire for a child, who couldn't love and support her when she was in deepest need? His second wife Anna found herself mirroring Rachel: drinking a lonely glass of wine while waiting for Tom to come home. And why did Meagan put up with Scott when he monitored her Internet activity and email?  I frankly was not given enough information about Tom to understand why these women continued to care about him. Or why Megan put up with Scott.

My book club was very divided about Girl. It was a huge turn out with 27 members in attendance. One hated it, several gave it two stars, a number three stars. Most readers gave it five stars.

The biggest complaints about Girl concerned unlikeable female characters who readers could not relate to. They thought  Rachel "weak", that Anna was a manipulative bitch, and that Megan had no redeeming qualities. One complained of clichéd and predictable plot lines. Some didn't like the melodramatic ending. And quite a few found the non-linear plot line confusing; one even gave up reading it. Those who loved the book found it hard to put down. These readers found the characters very human and real. One woman understood Rachel and related to her very well. Many readers compared it to Gone Girl but were divided about which was the better novel.

My reaction was in the middle. The book was an 'easy read', it moved along quite well, and I had no problems following the time line and characters. I liked the device of alcoholic black outs creating an unreliable character. I liked how the first person narratives slowly gave the reader glimpses of the story that built on each other. I was not a fan of the ending. I wish I had learned more about Tom and his relationships with the three women; I was not convinced he could keep their "love" after his selfish abandonment. But this is not a book that will stick with me over time.

Several ladies liked the idea of Domestic Noir when I shared it; they said that was exactly what they wanted to read. I believe that writers will continue to crank such books out. There is a huge market.

I expect the market for The Notting Hill Mystery is far smaller. It was fascinating to read considering its historical place in the genre and as Victorian era literature. Each witness had a distinct voice and character coming through. Pretty amazing considering one book club reader of Girl complained that Rachel and Megan had voices so similar she couldn't remember which character she was reading about! The conclusion was unexpected. But we know who was behind the murders, even if the Life Assurance agent doesn't have enough concrete evidence to decide.

Notting Hill is not an 'easy beach read' and won't keep you up past your bed time. But if you are interested in the history of genre fiction, curious about mesmerism and the Victorian Age, it is an interesting read. And I really believe it was an early example of Domestic Noir.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Notting Hill Mystery
Charles Adams
Poison Pen Press
Publication August 4, 2015

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