My Kind of Thriller

by James Scott Bell

I’m currently working on a new thriller titled The Girl in the Window Who Saw the Woman on the Train Before She Was Gone. I don’t believe in chasing trends, unless it’s this one.

Actually, I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

Another example: Cary Grant as the ad executive in North by Northwest (1959). Because of a terrible coincidence, he’s taken to be a master spy by two thugs who kidnap him outside of the Plaza Hotel. Cary is going to spend the next two hours on the run. His only consolation is that he gets to meet Eva Marie Saint.

One more, and this one is chilling because it was based on a true story. In Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Henry Fonda, a happily married musician, resembles a gun-toting holdup man. He’s arrested and put through the wringer. Will the real culprit be nabbed before they lock the prison doors on Hank?

So why does the “ordinary man/woman” or the “domestic” thriller resonate so well? Perhaps because 1) it’s easy to empathize with the main character; and 2) it helps us deal with one of our darkest fears—having evil show up at our doorstep.

We read these kinds of thrillers, in part, to reaffirm our hope that there’s a moral force in the universe, that justice will prevail, and that we can get through anything if we hang on with courage.

Plus, we all like getting lost in the fictive dream of a page-turner. Escapist entertainment, Dean Koontz once said, is a noble enterprise, considering what we have to put up with on this spinning orb.

So in that spirit, I offer you my latest thriller, Your Son Is Alive.

The idea for the book came from playing the first-line game. That’s where you just make up first lines that grab, not knowing anything else. One day I wrote this: “Your son is alive.”

Who says it? And why? And to whom?

I had to write the novel to find out.

So I did. The ebook is available from Amazon this week at the special launch price of $2.99:



(The print version will be available soon.)

As always, I have tried to write according to Hitchock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” 

Do you have a favorite kind of thriller?

38 thoughts on “My Kind of Thriller

  1. Got the book on Friday and finished six chapters during dialisys
    . You definitely left out the dull parts. Let me plug your e-mail newsletter newsletter for you. I read about your books, download them from there and have never been disappointed. Thank you for providing the service – and for respecting our time and privacy by never sending frivolous and useless e-mails.

    • I ditto that, Dave. Really appreciate the lack of inbox bombardment. And likewise, thanks to the newsletter, “Your Son is Alive” is already in my hot little hands.

  2. I wondered how “domestic” fit into the thriller category. Thanks for the clarification, Jim. It seems a lot of thrillers could fall into this category, at least in part. Do you think it’s an important distinction in marketing? My favorite genre is what I write: psychological thrillers. Apparently, though, I also read/write domestic thrillers. Who knew?

    • I don’t see a “domestic thriller” category at Amazon. When you type that in it takes you to psychological thrillers. In bookstores the shelf usually says Thriller or Mystery/Thriller. I think it’s literary types who are slicing things up.

  3. I once asked Lee Child what the difference was between a thriller and a suspense. He said, “Another zero on your advance.”

    Any chance I can get your new book for my Nook? I don’t do Amazon.

    • Lee would know.

      Re: Nook. I’ve found that for my fiction, at least right now, the financial benefits of Amazon exclusivity outweigh the benefits of wide distribution. However, B & N will carry the print book.

      If you ever do reading on your phone or a tablet, you can download a free Kindle app.

      • I have the Kindle app on my Nook tablet, but the interface is not as “user friendly” as a Nook Book. I find books I put there (usually a free monthly Prime selection) never get read. I have the Kobo app, too, and use it even less.
        I understand people have to do what’s financially beneficial to them, so maybe someday, you’ll be able to afford to go wide.

    • Good choice, Cynthia. Rear Window is my favorite, too. I love how it slowly but relentlessly unfolds, taking you with it every step of the way. And it’s got Grace Kelly.

  4. Jim, this new thriller lives up to its name. Excellent work. And your movie expertise shows through in the writing of it, as well as to the readers.

  5. Hi, Jim

    Great article on the domestic thriller! I’m going to share this with a library colleague who is our branch “mystery maven.” I think she’ll really appreciate it.

    I need to read more of these, it definitely appeals to me for the reasons you mentioned. A favorite of mine is Koontz’s “The Good Guy.” And Hitchcock was such a master at the domestic thriller.

    Picked up your new book when your email arrived. Love the premise and can’t wait to read it!

  6. I’ve been researching my next thriller project by finding shockingly true crimes ripped from today’s headlines. I had isolated a few headlines that would be a parent’s worst nightmare & also had a personal friend willing to share a frightening story about her daughter.

    All these pieces intrigued me, but after reading your post today, I finally found the Gorilla Glue that makes everything stick. Huge thanks, Jim.

    If there isn’t a definitive Domestic Thriller genre, there should be.

    • The “glue” is really what’s going on inside the protagonists. I feel I’ve gone deeper than I ever have, in both the father’s and mother’s POV. It was a challenge, but the best fiction comes when we accept new challenges and step up, don’t you think?

      • Oh, absolutely. Empathy helps layer in the emotional motivation of the players, from parents to secondary folks & forces an author to open a vein to dig for truth. It can be haunting. But when it works, the reader is completely enthralled.

        Your story strikes at the heart of every parent or anyone with a compassionate heart. Kudos.

  7. Thanks for the continuing education. I guess I never really studied all the different types of thrillers. As I looked down the list of subcategories for thrillers, on Amazon, I realized my favorite thrillers have rural settings, ordinary or handicapped protagonists, and extraordinary circumstances. So, rather than a “domestic” thriller, is that a “rural” thriller?

    Anyway, I would second the compliments on your newsletters – not too hot, not too cold, just right. I picked up a copy of YOUR SON IS ALIVE, and look forward to reading it this week.


    • As always, Steve, thanks for the support. I do think a rural or small town setting is great grist for thrillers. Most of my books are set in L.A., but when I need a different kind of menace I find a way to get a character up in the mountains or out in the desert.

  8. Hi Jim,
    I was looking for a few good titles for my upcoming summer vacation and have added this one to the list. Loved your Romeo series. The challenge now is to resist the urge to read before settling into the chair on the beach!

  9. Recently read a post on Jane Friedman’s site by Eli Landes where he posited there are only two types of plots:

    1. An abnormal character in a normal situation;
    2. A normal character in an abnormal situation.

    I thought that was a simple yet profound explanation.

    Just downloaded your new book and eager to start!

    • Thanks, Debbie. I think I’d put it a little differently. A character-driven novel can be about ordinary people in ordinary situations (remember the novel Ordinary People?) With mysteries and thrillers, you have ordinary/extraordinary (as I’ve described in this post). Or you can have extraordinary dealing with something bad (crime) which is where I would place most PI stories and my Romeo series; or extraordinary dealing with extraordinary, e.g., Tom Clancy-ish, or James Bond.

  10. Jim, I’m following your lead and penning my next novel, THE GIRL IN THE WINDOW WHO SAW THE WOMAN ON THE TRAIN BEFORE SHE WAS GONE II: THE DRAGON TATTOO FROM UNDER THE SEA (A Gripping Psychological Heart-Stopping Addictive Unputdownable International Thriller That Will Have You Hooked And Turning Pages).

  11. I love psychological thrillers. Primal Fear by William Diehl was one that i couldn’t put down and the ending really shocked me. (Edward Norton in the movie version was great)
    The stories by Jim Thompson like The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters are fantastic reads with tension that never seems to stop. Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island is another story that took me to the end at high speed. Not sure if these form a category other than great twists at the end.
    Just downloaded your book.

    • I loved the movie Primal Fear. Norton is one of our great actors. And I’ve always liked Gere.

      Thompson is gripping, but a tad too dsrk for me.

      Love Lehane. I’m tempted to say Mystic River is the best crime novel ever written.

  12. My favorite film of Hitchcock’s is Shadow of a Doubt simply because it stars an ordinary protag. I like Stewart and Day’s version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I also like Hitch’s 1930s version — watching Peter Lorre is a bonus for me. I know Hitchcock had nothing to do with choosing my stories, but I’m proud to say I had two published in his magazine. I have the covers framed on my office wall — my 30 mins of fame. They kinda, sorta make me feel connected to his talent.

    • Well, if Doris was in it, she had to sing. Of course, the song is a key element in the climax.

      That said, Doris Day is one of the most talented performers we’ve ever had. Sing, dance, drama, comedy (esp. with Rock) and was the original choice for Mrs. Robinson. She would have killed that part. Oscar time.

      • Oh, I love Doris. Whenever she shows up to keep me company during sleepless nights, I am grateful. But no Ann Bancroft? 🙂

        • Oh, Anne was brilliant. Absolutely. But Doris Day would have been perfect. She was the right age and the right profile for that character. And she would have handled that role to the max. But she felt it was not fair to her fans.

          • The only question being would she have upstaged Simon and Garfunkel?

  13. Love your “first-line game.” That’s exactly how I write. Yesterday a story started with nothing but a name and the image of a guy standing on his front porch about to enter his house. The power of the subconscious mind as storyteller is nothing short of incredible.

  14. Congratulations on the new book, JSB!

    Great perspective on the genre. Definitely not a new one. We just rediscover the history we’ve forgotten. Again.

Comments are closed.