Meet Elizabeth Kay, the new face of domestic noir

Author, Elizabeth Kay: Charlie Hopkinson

You might have thought that the market for domestic noir was coming to an end, given that the original of the genre, Gone Girl, came out almost eight years ago. But you’d be wrong. Gillian Flynn’s now classic tale of marital revenge spawned an entire industry of grit-lit that has been subtly and not so subtly evolving over the years.

Evil spouses and gaslighting partners remain popular, although treacherous employees, jealous nannies and murderous siblings now feature alongside untrustworthy mothers and daughters, dodgy neighbours and sinister houses. The narrators of these sometimes

gripping, sometimes preposterous potboilers tend to be unreliable too, either because they’re amnesiac, alcoholics, or in a coma, or because they’re actually dead. Sometimes they’re simply out-and-out fibbers. One publishing publicist proudly boasted recently that she had dubbed a new acquisition “school gate noir”. Absolutely terrifying!

The latest thriller to attract attention from the publishing industry is Seven Lies, a fresh take on “best friend noir” by Elizabeth Kay, a 29-year-old commissioning editor at Transworld. Kay originally submitted her novel to literary agents anonymously, because she didn’t want them “to think it was rubbish”, but it was immediately picked up by literary agent Madeleine Milburn, who then sold it to publisher Little Brown for a reported £250,000 in a two-book deal, and for a further seven-figure-sum deal to 25 territories, in less than two months — with Drama Republic snapping up TV rights. Not bad for a debut.

Currently in lockdown in her parents’ house in London, where she is recovering not just from the “overwhelming” shock of her huge advance, but also from giving birth to her first child six weeks ago, Kay describes the current situation as “incredibly strange and unsettling. I’ve moved straight from the ‘newborn bubble’ that began when my son was born into social distancing”.

At its heart, Seven Lies is a story about toxic female friendship and jealousy, and the feeling of being left behind when your best friend moves on to bigger, better things. Jane and Marnie have been bezzies since childhood and now, in their late twenties, things turn sour when Jane decides she doesn’t like Charles, the man Marnie is going to marry. Charles then does something that compromises all three of them, but when Jane calls him out on it, who will Marnie believe? And who is telling the truth? Jane also has a complicated back story. Her husband was killed by a drunk taxi driver, her younger sister is anorexic and her mother has dementia.

Kay says that while she added these themes into the book to enhance her protagonist’s sense of loss and vulnerability, it was really about how two friends navigate their way from childhood through changing circumstances and priorities into adulthood. It’s certainly a fertile subject, well done by Harriet Lane in her 2014 novel, Her, among others. Who, after all, has never had the occasional twinge about their best friend’s success?

“I definitely find it hard not to compare myself with my peers. My closest friends are all brilliant, independent, successful women and I do find myself looking at their lives sometimes and feeling a little envious about some aspect of it, their figure or an exciting holiday, for example,” Kay concedes. But surely, given her phenomenal success, not to mention her newborn baby, the shoe must be well and truly on the other foot now.

Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay (Sphere, £12.99) is out now, buy it here.

Noir every which way: Five of the best

Gripping twists and turns of tales from the dark side​

The Original: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Still by far the best and twistiest, this pioneering thriller about a wife who goes missing and a husband whom the police suspect of murdering her, though no body has been found, was the first to nail the idea that you can never truly know the person you are closest to and what terrible things they might be capable of…

Trauma Noir: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

Imagine waking up every morning to find you have no memory of what’s happened the day before because of a traumatic head injury from years earlier that has destroyed your memory. Your apparently devoted husband has to go through the facts of your life with you again and again — but what if you start to remember things differently?

Sick House Noir: The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

When a thirty-something yuppie family move into a rundown Victorian house in Hackney, they plan to turn it into the home of their dreams. But when the wife begins to get headaches, her husband starts to behave erratically, and their daughter begins to throw tantrums, is it bad luck or could there be an evil spirit in the house?

Booze Noir: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Subsequently turned into a play as well as a film, this delighted its fans with Hawkins’s devastating portrayal of a heroine who could be drunk, abusive, jealous and violent, while also being sympathetic. Rachel is drawn into a murder mystery after spotting what she thinks is a crime being committed from the window of her commuter train.

Gaslight Noir: Platform Seven by Louise Doughty

A ghost who at first can’t remember who she used to be and is floating about helplessly at Peterborough railway station, Lisa, the narrator, has become “invisible and silent, nothing but consciousness”. One morning, she watches a man committing suicide on Platform Seven, which jogs her memory and she begins to recall the past, not least her abusive boyfriend…

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