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

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