What should readers expect from a psychological thriller?
I’ve always been a fan of the psychological thriller genre. These are the titles I am drawn to when scanning through the shelves of bookshops or searching for books on Amazon. My favourite authors include Nicci French and Minette Walters, with current writers like Alex Marwood and Paula Hawkins providing my more recent reads.
So what makes a thriller ‘psychological’ in nature? I write mystery novels and police procedurals, but earlier this year, I added a psychological standalone thriller to my back catalogue. My sense of what placed ‘I Trust You’ apart from my other books was firstly, that the book had a predominantly domestic setting. Like Linwood Barclay’s early novels, the psychological thriller should explore events and scenarios that are immediately recognisable to the reader.
Many psychological thrillers begin with a missing person or a disintegrating relationship. The interplay between the characters is often slowly revealed, the body count and blood and guts left to a minimum. The tension is built instead through gradually unfolded secrets from the past – clues deeply woven into the development of character and situation.
Families are often the focal point of the psychological thriller. This is certainly the case in my latest novel. Dark secrets that span generations or suppressed domestic abuse are the archetypal fodder of the genre. But these seasoned topics are never hackneyed when explored by an author who can observe them from fresh angles and weave their domestic themes into original plot lines. Paradoxically for the crime/thriller genre, children tend to play a disproportionate role in the psychological thriller. Perhaps more than any other topic, as readers, we appear to have a fascination with the psychology of the child.
Psychological thrillers need to be character driven. The action may be sparing, so the lead players must be realistically drawn and their fate something we deeply care about. For me, the very best psychological mysteries reveal incisive observations of human nature. In many ways, Agatha Christie was one of the very best authors in this genre, particularly in her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series. What the amateur sleuth lacks in specialist knowledge, they more than make up for through their razor sharp psychological insight into what makes people tick.
Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, was another master of the genre. Her characters seemed eerily like real people, leaping off the page and taking form in the imagination. I know that some readers avoid the genre of the psychological thriller because they feel these books are full of doom and gloom; the darker side of human nature always seems to prevail. I have some sympathy for this view. However, the best novels in this genre will certainly introduce the reader to the depths of the human condition, but will ultimately offer hope and resolution.
I believe that readers – and writers – of the mystery genre are first and foremost, interested in people. Psychological thrillers fulfill this remit perhaps most comprehensively, which I suspect is why they remain so popular.