My Year of Thrillers

category_star80MY YEAR OF THRILLERS – The expression on his face was more confusing to Tom than if he had focused a gun on him. The face was friendly, smiling and hopeful.

Thriller cover 4The Talented My Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

I’m writing a psychological thriller at the moment and, to get to grips with a genre quite different from my own (literary, historical), I’ve spent the last two years reading thrillers.

Thriller cover 3So what is a psychological thriller?  To paraphrase Wikipedia, it’s:

a sub-genre of the the thriller category, which emphasizes the psychology of its characters and their emotional states. It shares similarities to Gothic and detective fiction and incorporates elements of mystery, drama and horror, particularly psychological horror. 

Apparently I’m in the ‘domestic-noir’ sub-genre: a story firmly set in the, ‘domestic, suburban middle class.’

Psychological thrillers are currently enjoying a fiction fashion moment, overlapping as this genre often does with crime and featuring a frisson of police business. Although it’s sometimes seen as the sophisticated daughter of chick-lit (it tends to be written by, for and about women), it has male literary antecedents such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw; Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, numerous works by Edgar Allen Poe and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley.

Thriller cover 5Frequently, psychological thrillers are told in the first person, or sometimes a third person narrative deeply focused on one character so that we have an unique insight into the protagonist(s) mental processes. My initial observation when I started reading this genre was, ‘Gosh, there’s so much chat!’ (I know, I know, I worked hard for that Ph.D!). Usually the plot points hinge on what the character thinks, knows or believes and then they change their mind – not necessarily due to new information or action but rather down to a new insight or train of thought, often about what other characters think, know or believe. There are plot twists, and the story generally relies on one large one at the end.

Recently I’ve noticed a trend for first person narratives, where the reader believes the Thriller covernarrator is reliable and feels close to her (it’s often a ‘her’); the plot twist  relies on the central character having ‘done it’ and thus has concealed the truth from the reader throughout the course of the book. Clearly, for this to work, the writer has to be skilled enough for the reader not to guess, nor to feel too angry or cheated at the end. Sam Hayes’ Until You’re Mine, Sabine Durrant Under Your Skin, and even Rosamund Lupton’s Sister would fall into this category.

In the past psychological thrillers featured madness, mania and moral turpitude, but the waters are both muddier and closer to home – by which I mean the characters may have psychological disorders, but they’re either accepted (autistic spectrum) or hidden (sociopathy) and what is frightening is the idea that the fictional events could happen to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Because there is such an appetite for this genre, and since it depends on incredibly realistically portrayed characters, who we could imagine bumping into in our everyday lives and due to the sophisticated nature of the readership demanding every more unusual and yet believable plot twists, the boundaries of the genre (and perhaps what is believable) are being pushed / forced. For instance, Lottie Moggach’s intelligent debut novel, Kiss Me First, follows the genre structure exactly, yet features an Asperger’s like girl as the main protagonist and most of the thriller element happens in a virtual world.Thriller cover 2

Generally many of the books I’ve read in this genre have been well crafted and written; they are entertaining, gripping, page-turning, emotive, sometimes thoughtful and usually easy to read. Not all are going to be classed as great literary works – so though the majority may not be the Big Macs of the novel world, they are perhaps the equivalent of a felafel in pitta bread – healthy, hearty fast fictional fare.

Shortly I’ll post my round up of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read this year. What are your favourites? What are you planning on reading over summer?


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