Tuesday, 28 January 2014

What makes a Psychological Thriller? (plus 3 book reviews...)

When is a novel a Psychological Thriller? This is a BIG and very appealing question for me, given that I write books in this Genre!

Off the top of my head, I’d say the recipe for a Psychological Thriller involves the following:

  •  Detail about the interior world of one or more of the characters involved; a voyage into their mind set, often displaying instability, unreliability and moral ambiguity
  • Motives in the story that stem from a rare psychological disorder or an unusual/disturbed psychological view of the world. 
  • Psychological content, such as behind the scenes experience of psychiatry, psychotherapy or some other ‘mind’ specialism. (Optional)

What are your views? I'm sure I'll come back to this topic from time to time as more new novels hitting the shelves seem to have a psychological edge to them.

In the meantime, here are three examples of recent Psychological Thrillers I’d recommend:

When Nights were Cold – Susanna Jones
My rating: 4/5 stars

This isn't a straight-forward psychological thriller - in fact, I was slightly disappointed to get to page 100 and find it was largely an account of strain within a family, in the early 1900's, where the female protagonist wants nothing more than to join an Arctic Expedition and prove that women can climb mountains, too! There didn’t seem to be anything to ‘disturb’ me at this point or any hint of instability brewing in the background. The style, however, is compelling - I don't normally read 'historical' novels, but I liked the atmospheric imagery and the troubled and unreliable landscape that did emerge eventually inside Grace's mind. The reader starts to doubt her version of events and the extent to which she is rooted in the real versus fantasy world.

As a writer, it's demanding to tell an entire story from a different point in history without slipping into 'modern' speak and faltering in the detail, but Susanna Jones maintains the authenticity extremely well. Hand on heart, I don't think I can call it a 'thriller' - but the interest was generated, for me, in wanting to know more about Grace's own 'journey' on and off the peaks. A beautifully written book, although I'm not convinced it's a 'gripping psychological thriller' as the cover promises.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison
My rating: 4/5 stars

There is some beautiful, evocative prose here, although I did prefer the second half of the book to the first - due to the swifter pacing. With both narrative voices ('his' and 'hers') in the 3rd person and the lyrical, at times, dry and cynical style - I felt largely detached from it - never fully involved. The novel read at times like an 'anatomy of a relationship', which is fine, if that's your interest. (Significant to note that A.S.A Harrison wrote non-fiction books before this, her first novel). I also felt I was seeing what the characters wanted me to see rather than really getting under their skin.

The narrative is never warm, but there's an assurance about the writing that carries it through. It's a rather sad, depressing tale about the human tendency to believe that the 'grass is always greener', especially from Todd's side of the story, which then shows how Jodi deals with it.

The real tragedy is that the author never got to see the launch and was only part way through her next psychological thriller before she died.

Until You’re Mine – Samantha Hayes
My rating  5/5 stars

This novel is superb. I read the first hundred pages in a blink of an eye. It is extremely cleverly plotted and a true example of a Psychological thriller in my view. A stressed, vulnerable woman, who is finally pregnant after so many dashed hopes, invites someone into her home to care for her children who isn't who she seems. What is psycho-nanny up to?! The writing style is very fresh with immediate, deep connection to the characters and fabulous internal dialogue. It is remarkably free from clich├ęs - great thought has gone into the detail. Some lovely gentle touches of language ('I tilt my head...trying to make the tears go back in.')

It's complex without being cluttered and has so many GENIUS twists, even the last line. HIGHLY recommended.

For a full list of my recent favourite reads go to Goodreads.

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AJ Waines is author of Psychological Thrillers: The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Fascination with Nordic Noir

Nordic Noir Book Club
Nordic Noir and Scandi Crime have already taken over a number of our TV channels and bookshops. I’m all for it, personally – but as a Psychotherapist, I’m interested to know what the fascination is. Why are we so enthralled by it?

 Nordic Noir is poles apart from the ‘cosy crime’ we’re so familiar with in Britain. Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple, Morse, Lewis, Murder she Wrote (US import),  Midsommer Murders, Rosemary and Thyme and so on - all depend on their sun-blushed, upper-crust settings. Integral to these stories are the elegant spires of Oxford or the idyllic scenes of chocolate-box villages, with pristine cricket pitches, tea-rooms and 'village green murders' shocking the elite classes. Maybe the British public were ready for something a bit grittier.

In Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland – the climate is harsher; there are prolonged periods of deep snow, heavier winters, relentless nighttime (parts of Sweden spend January in 24 hour darkness). There’s a brooding quality about the stark light and atmosphere. The resulting settings are sufficiently familiar for us to imagine, but are just off our radar in terms of actual experience. As a nation preoccupied with complaining about the weather, it’s a vicarious pleasure for us to visit a more demanding landscape in our minds, but to keep it at a distance in reality.
         The Nordic nations are successful, smart and efficient. We want to know how they solve crimes. How they deal with murder. Are they better at it than we are? Our cultures are sufficiently similar for us to identify with them (we wholeheartedly embraced ABBA!), but with discrepancies to make us intrigued about them. Their lifestyles and day to day details involving food, drink, transport, home interiors and managing the climate are new and fresh to the British reader.

The leading characters in many Nordic/Scandi novels are brooding males (Wallander) or flawed sexually active, highly intelligent females (not exactly the words you’d use to describe Miss Marple!). Lisbeth Salander (created by Steig Larsson) is a sociopath (probably as a result of her brutal abusive past). She’s super-intelligent, especially when it comes to the Internet and she’s a Goth. 

     Sarah Lund in The Killing is unsmiling and ruthless in her pursuit of the killer. Saga Noren, in The Bridge, appears to have Aspergers (although this is never explicit) and is unable to lie - she can’t even tell the odd ‘white’ lie - causing awkwardness at every turn. With her ‘socially backward’ nature comes an erotic ‘sexually forward’ trait – another fascination for us Brits. Swedes and their liberated attitude to sex and sexuality have always been an envied eye-opener for us, in a schoolboy ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ kind of way.
Swedish mentality also seems unconventional and therefore intriguing to us. Swedes describe their own collective temperament as ‘detached, private and unemotional’. It is regarded as undignified to get angry in public, strangers don’t say ‘Hi’ or make eye-contact on the bus, they don’t interrupt each other in conversations and avoid confrontation. (I believe that Americans, in particular, find them very hard to understand…) It’s exotic for members of one culture to see how another fully-functioning culture operates - another reason why we find Nordic Noir captivating.

My ruminations have led me to want to read more crime fiction from this source. Apart from the sheer enjoyment factor, I have an intuitive sense that absorbing it will help my own writing improve and develop. As a result, I have a number of writers I’ve not read yet lined up on my wish list -Yrsa Sigurodardottir, Jorn Lier Horst, Jorgen Brekke and Carin Gerhardsen – for starters. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and enjoy the latest episode of The Bridge.

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AJ Waines is author of Psychological Thrillers: The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

New evidence that the Werewolf is no Myth


I'm not a fan of horror novels, but this is rather interesting! Horror fiction fans are familiar, like the rest of us, with folk tales of  Werewolves emerging with the full moon. The myth dates as far back as the ancient Greeks and still exists worldwide today. It supposes that a cursed human shape-shifts into a wolf at the dawning of a full moon.

Pure fantasy, you might say. Yet police and hospital workers have put forward statistics to show an increase in emergency patients with violent, acute disturbances in the hours following a full moon. Some of these patients reportedly attacked staff like crazed animals; biting, spitting and scratching. So people are wilder after a full moon?

New research in 2013 from sleep centres in Switzerland claim there’s something in it. They carried out extensive tests on volunteers unaware of the lunar cycle and found extraordinary results. It is already documented that a number of marine species have lunar rhythms underpinning their molecular and genetic functioning. But humans? The researchers found the following:

  • Around full moon, electroencephalogram (EEG) delta activity during NREM sleep, an indicator of deep sleep, decreased overall by 30%
  • Time to fall asleep increased on average, by 5 minutes
  • EEG-assessed total sleep duration was reduced by 20 minutes

These changes were associated with a decrease in perceived sleep quality by the volunteers and diminished endogenous melatonin levels. Apparently, this is the first reliable evidence that a lunar rhythm can modulate sleep structure in humans when measured under the highly controlled conditions of a laboratory study.

So all those patients turning up at A&E in an aggressive state after a full moon could be for real - they're suffering sleep deprivation! And this might be the source of the idea that humans turn into ‘monsters’ during the full moon. Writers of all genres might find something useful in these new discoveries...

The next UK full moon falls on 16th January – see if you notice the difference…

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