I love a good psychological thriller, and will crawl over broken glass to get to one. However, I have noticed lately that the use of the term is often quite loosely brandished around. Whilst I have read some excellent psychological thrillers in 2017, a few titles I have picked up lately have been very disappointing, and I have felt let down, cheated, deflated. It has prompted some reflection on my part: As a reader, am I too picky & hard to please? Too spoiled by a few exceptionally good books that I can no longer enjoy their lesser counterparts?
What IS a psychological thriller?
According to director John Madden, good psychological thrillers have a story to tell, there’s character development, choice and moral conflict, and narratives keep that situation revolving, developing and evolving in ways that you don’t expect right to the end. Whilst thrillers place emphasis on action, psychological thrillers focus on the mind games people play with each other or themselves. He may have been talking about films, but the same goes for books.
What am I looking for in a psychological thriller?
Seeing the rising popularity of domestic noir novels, readers obviously like settings that are familiar to them: the home or the workplace; the daily commute, a holiday, a journey, picking the kids up from school, arguing with neighbours. I agree that as a reader, I like to be able to relate to the situations the characters find themselves in (i.e. real people in crazy circumstances), and to ask myself: what would I do? How would I react? Whether you’re a fan of The Girl on the Train or not, for me it struck a chord: how many times had I glanced out of the window on my daily commute and wondered what goes on in the apartments and houses of people we passed? Which was probably the number one reason the story sucked me in so deeply in the first place.
Characters who are flawed and yet rounded & believable:
As a reader, I need to be able to get into the characters’ heads and relate to them, engage with them, “bond” with them if you like. Characters can be unlikeable, but I need something that gels with me in order to be able to root for them. Take, for example, Paul Morris in Sabine Durrant’s Lie with Me. He is your typical anti-hero, and yet I could relate to him, feel for him, want things to get better for him. Personally, I don’t do well with a cast full of characters I dislike – if I don’t care at all what happens to them, there is really no point in reading on.
An engaging, original voice:
This goes for any book, really. If the book speaks to me, I will want to read on. Personally, I love a bit of humour in a book, and it will go a long way towards making me like the story. One of the most original voices I have come across this year is Simon Lelic’s The House. Yes, the book had its flaws, but the two main characters’ voices were so original, humorous and engaging that they drew me in instantly.
Personally, I like to be shown, not told. I hate long internal monologues or narratives that are overly descriptive, dwelling on boring everyday stuff that is not relevant. That does not mean that the author should not set a scene – sometimes the everyday mundane things can really add to the atmosphere if used the right way. For example, I love the way Nicci French use simple, everyday scenes or objects to set a dark & sinister scene in their Frieda Klein series. I guess the secret here is balance and the use of language. But generally, I love vivid dialogue, which is a great way to present the story a certain way only to twist it around later.
An original twist:
A good psychological thriller needs a good twist. A twist that messes with your mind, like Clare Mackintosh I Let You Go, or Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, which both floored me. A twist is not simply a series of red herrings tossed in willy-nilly like a bucket of fish guts into a broiling sea, floating off to the horizon. A good twist will leave the reader dumb-struck, but not screwing up their mouth in a sarcastic “yeah, right” sneer and flinging the book against the wall in disgust. In fact, the more a thriller messes with my mind, the better – I like to have at least one moment in the book where I ask myself: WTF is going on????? Most importantly, all loose ends should tie up by the time the novel finishes. There is nothing worse than finishing the last page but realising that things don’t add up or a vital part of the mystery hasn’t been solved or explained.
And last – but definitely not least –
Tension, suspense & a thrill factor:
It is, after all, called a “thriller”. I want moments so scary that I burrow deeply under my doona, too afraid to step outside the circle of my reading light.
What I don’t like:
- Comparing a book to “Gone Girl” or “Girl on the Train” on the cover does not automatically make it a good read.
- Putting “Girl” in the title does not automatically make it a good read.
- Announcing a “killer twist you won’t see coming” on the cover doesn’t automatically make it a good read – it may actually work against it as the reader is constantly anticipating lies and deception from every character.
- Characters simply telling lies all through the book to later “fess up” with the truth is not a psychological thriller. That’s not messing with your mind – a two year old can do that, and sometimes more convincingly. Some authors confuse this with an “unreliable narrator” – it is NOT the same thing! An unreliable narrator can hide essential truths through evasion, omission or concealment, but cannot be overtly lying.
- Amnesia as the only plot device: no, no, no! That is just cheating. Amnesia can work, BUT ONLY if used correctly, i.e. to mess with the reader’s mind. Take, for example, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, which was simply brilliant! If amnesia is used as a plot device it must go a bit deeper than simply forgetting, e.g. confusing flashbacks, differing witness accounts, self-doubt, discovering small cryptic clues etc.
- Giving away too much too early. If I know from the start what will happen, and the whole story is simply an explanation of what I already know, I will lose interest – very quickly!
- Trying to manipulate the reader into believing a premise which turns out to be wrong – in a way the reader knows they are being blindsided. For example, making a person appear “bad” to disguise the actions of another character, to an extent where the “bad” character reads like a caricature of a typical villain (whilst I know that I am being tricked). A bit of subtlety goes a long way! This is where messing with my mind come in.
- Throwing in graphic violence for shock value to make up for a lack of suspense. This may work for some readers but not for me. It’s cheating, and it’s not enjoyable.
Phew, I feel better now that I’ve got that off my chest!
Disclaimer: these are my personal opinions only, and other readers may disagree – and that’s ok, since we are all different and what works for one may not work for others.