Hate thy neighbour: why crime fiction is obsessed with suburbia

HBO's TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies
HBO's TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies - HBO

At the beginning of Hot Springs Drive, the new novel by the acclaimed American author Lindsay Hunter, an ordinary suburban mother is found bludgeoned to death in the garage attached to her pleasant home. What follows is an unflinching examination of the infidelities, mental illnesses and eating disorders that lie behind the pristine picket fences and herbaceous borders of her neighbours.

Moving to the suburbs is often regarded as a trade-off: away from inner-city turmoil, life may be rather less colourful, but at least you and your family are safer. One lesson crime fiction teaches us, however, is that tedium can be as powerful a motor of murder as urban deprivation.

“Something was going on in that house, quite possibly the entire street,” observes a journalist attending the crime scene in Hunter’s novel. “These people with their bed hopping and bloodshed. It screamed of boredom, [of] something that raged to be set free.”

Suburbia is a magnet for murder in suspense fiction at the moment. Novels such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) have opened the floodgates for a deluge of thrillers concerned less with the gritty reality of everyday crime than with sowing the idea that the fellow members of your neighbourhood WhatsApp group are secretly living lives that are maelstroms of passion and violence.

Relatability is one of the keys to these books’ success: authors have realised that a large proportion of their readers live in suburbs. Many crime novels are set in cities – Morse’s Oxford, Rebus’s Edinburgh, Roy Grace’s Brighton – and many readers work in them, but there is a special appeal in those novels that follow them on the commute home, back to quiet streets where everybody knows everybody else – on the surface, at least.

Ben Affleck in the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
Ben Affleck in the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl - Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

Moreover, readers seem to be able to identify with a suburban thriller whatever country it is set in. Cities may have their distinctive flavours, but the suburban tang of quiet desperation seems to smell much the same the world over.

Witness how easily Big Little Lies was transplanted from the Northern Beaches suburbs of Sydney to California for the HBO adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Meanwhile, the New Jersey-set novels of the so-called “king of the suburban thriller”, Harlan Coben – including The Stranger, Stay Close and Fool Me Once – have been successfully replanted in British soil in a procession of Netflix miniseries.

The Coben adaptations, along with Channel 4’s recent swingers-’n’-stalkers thriller serial The Couple Next Door, have shown that there is a real appetite for British-based Suburban Noir, and plenty of books are coming out this year to satisfy it. Anthony Horowitz depicts the deadly rage induced in his neighbours by a vulgar new resident of a quiet close in Richmond upon Thames, in the punningly titled Close to Death (April); and wife-swapping in Wimbledon has dire consequences in Lily Samson’s The Switch (June).

Channel 4’s recent swingers-’n’-stalkers thriller serial The Couple Next Door
Channel 4’s recent swingers-’n’-stalkers thriller serial The Couple Next Door - Guillaume Van Laethem

Susan Allott has just published The House on Rye Lane, a terrific chiller about a couple who buy one of the Georgian houses that overlook Peckham Rye as a fixer-upper, only to encounter sinister problems that not even Kirstie and Phil could have foreseen.

“I think there’s something really chilling about danger in a domestic setting, the place where you think you’re safe – it’s an extension of the idea that the killer might be under the bed, the most primal fear of all,” Allott tells me. “I do wonder if a lot of the books being published at the moment were written in lockdown or in the aftermath of it, when we all went through the claustrophobia of being confined to our own streets.”

Allott’s previous novel, The Silence, was partly set in the suburbs of Sydney. “They have these bungalows which are identical and just go on for miles, and are silent and almost clinically clean and respectable. With that strong sun overhead, there’s this strong sense that we’ve built suburbia over something that should be wild.”

Hot Springs Drive, by acclaimed American author Lindsay Hunter; The House on Rye Lane by Susan Allott, a terrific spine-chiller
Hot Springs Drive, by acclaimed American author Lindsay Hunter; The House on Rye Lane by Susan Allott, a terrific spine-chiller

From its beginnings, the genre of crime fiction has stressed this note of the suburbs being unnatural and sinister. Here is Dr Watson passing through the recent suburban developments in Brixton, in the 1890 Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of the Four: “We ... reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings – the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country.”

The Victorian explosion in suburban development that came with the advent of effective public transport coincided with the birth of crime fiction. Wilkie Collins’s 1852 novel Basil, often cited as the first example of “Suburban Gothic”, features a wealthy city-dwelling gentleman who likes to slum it in the suburbs, “riding in omnibuses to amuse myself by observing the passengers”.

One day he falls instantly in love with a girl he sees on the bus, and follows her to her home in a place called Hollyoake Square – “its newness and desolateness of appearance revolted me … [It] was desolately silent, as only a suburban square can be.” A melodramatic tale of lust and crime follows, along with a sub-plot in which the hero’s gambling addict brother is set straight by the love of a good woman and removed from inner-city temptations to Brompton. “Only think of my … paying rent and taxes in a suburban villa! How are the fast men fallen!”

Illustration from The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle
Illustration from The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle - The Print Collector/Getty Images

But whereas 20th-century American crime writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ross Macdonald delved into the broiling passions beneath the creepily calm surface of the suburbs, the genre went into abeyance for a while in Britain. Agatha Christie favoured country houses, picturesque villages or exotic foreign locales, and most of her generation followed suit. Christie’s contemporary Gladys Mitchell did produce notable suburban thrillers such as The Rising of the Moon, but, as one of her reviewers noted sadly in 1955, “Suburbia is out of fashion except as an object of Mr John Betjeman’s satire”.

Gradually, however, more British writers began to explore the ways in which suburbia might drive its residents to homicidal mania. Julian Symons wrote suburban crime comedies such as The Man Who Killed Himself (1967) to explore his preoccupation with what he called “the violence that lies behind bland faces”.

And nobody wrote better than Ruth Rendell about the ways in which the claustrophobic relationship between neighbours living cheek by jowl in the suburbs can lead to violence. She also brilliantly evokes the cultural poverty of her fictional suburb “Kenbourne Vale” in A Demon in My View (1976), underlined by the irony that “someone had christened the squalid groves and terraces after Oxford colleges” (a similar point to the one made around that time by Reginald Perrin’s daily trudge through the “Poets Estate” in the TV sitcom).

These days the suburbs are firmly in fashion, with a recent stream of excellent British suburban thrillers that includes Nicole Trope’s The Family Across the Street (2021) and Kia Abdullah’s Those People Next Door (2023). For suburb-dwellers, the message is clear: get killing your neighbours before they kill you.

Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter is out now

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