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The conservative streak of the psychological thriller

imageI’m not having a pop at psychological thrillers. I’ve written one myself and it remains one of my favourite genres. But as such, I’ve noticed a certain moral streak that runs through many of their narratives.

Last night I re-watched the 1990 film based on Scott Turow’s legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. It’s years since I first watched it, or read the book, which can arguably be described as a classic of the genre. So revisiting the story, I was struck by its parallel with modern psychological and crime novels in it’s central theme.

All great fiction has a moral message, the better stuff is just more subtle about it’s preoccupations. It occurred to me last night, that the moral message of many psychological thrillers is essentially a conservative one. We live in a modern society, where divorce is no longer shunned by polite society. Many children now grow up in  extended family units, with parents and step parents playing equal roles.

But in the psychological thriller genre, deciding to leave your family, or worse, setting out on an extra-marital affaIr, will inevitably result in cataclysmic consequences for both the perpetrator and their family. Call to mind the eighties film, Fatal Attraction, and you will get the general idea.

I suppose the subject matter is inevitable, given that psychological thrillers are often grounded in the domestic setting. Yet, it surprises me that in the last thirty years, when our society has evolved in so many ways, the suspense novel remains resolutely unchanged in its message. The family unit must be preserved, and preferably the first marriage, or chaos and violence will ensue.

Despite the shifts in modern lifestyles, I believe this essentially conservative warning still appeals. It must do, because the genre is more popular than ever. I can understand the allure of the message, we feel a sense of schadenfreude if we ourselves are safe in our own family unit, and are warned of the terrible danger which would befall us in succumbing to temptation. The readership are often women, perhaps reassured by the tales of disaster which exist outside of the ‘safe’, domestic sphere. If their husband were to stray, punishment would be harsh and complete, to him and his lover.

In saying this, a new strand of the psychological thriller has taken the morality of the domestic novel in a different direction. Recent releases, such as BA Paris’s Behind Closed Doors, have taken the issue of domestic abuse as their central theme. In these circumstances, a family unit can be broken, without the usual dire consequences.

Yet, the moral message remains a stark one. You can leave your spouse – but only if physical or emotional abuse is involved. If you’ve simply grown apart, or become attracted to someone else,  if you leave, you must pay a terrible price.

I’m sure that not every book in the genre follows this pattern, mine does not. But I’ve read enough in the last couple of years to indicate this moral message is as strong as it was thirty, or even a hundred years ago. Modern detective novels, particularly those that focus on police procedure, tend to reflect social change more effectively.

The psychological thriller seems slower to change its central message. Whether, as readers, we still require these moral tales to help maintain the family unit is the subject of a whole other debate.


In a culture that exalts achievements, we need to recognise the hidden power of not-doing.

imageReading an article by comedian Lee Mack this afternoon, about his writing methods, proved to be a revelation to me. It wasn’t his habit of retreating to his shed each day, in order to pen his BBC sitcom that surprised me, it was his attitude to alcohol.

The child of publican parents, Lee Mack gave up alcohol himself a couple of years ago. His reason was not directly health related, he simply claimed to be tired of how our culture ‘shoves alcohol down people’s throats’. He feels so strongly about the issue that he fought against the sale of his show, Not Going Out, to the freeview channel, Dave, because of their alleged links to funding from beer companies.

This deadly serious stand made by Mack seemed unusual for a comic. If anyone has ever been to a comedy club, they will know they are drink-fuelled environments. One must assumes it takes a confident stand-up to perform to a stone-cold sober audience.

This makes Mack’s stance all the more impressive. He is an established name these days, no doubt having amassed a significant wealth from his tv appearances. However, to propound a view that could result in him being labelled a kill-joy or a preachy, Puritan type, is risky for someone in his profession.

His words struck a chord with me. I’ve not drunk alcohol myself since Christmas, and often give up for long periods. Like Mack, I don’t do this because I believe I drink too much, but because I’m uncomfortable with the relationship we have with alcohol in this country.

Since turning forty three years ago, I’ve become more aware of my mortality, I suppose. I drank socially in my twenties (when I was extremely sociable!) and my philosophy is that one shouldn’t push their luck. It can’t be a lifestyle that can be carried on indefinitely. It has also become all too apparent that my metabolism is on a downward  trajectory as I approach middle-age. The truth is that I’d rather give up the empty calories of a glass of wine of a night than have to diet!

But there are other considerations too. My parents were never big drinkers when I was young and I’d rather my children didn’t see me with a drink in my hand every evening. Despite what we know to be the damaging effects of  heavy drinking, it is still glamorised as an activity by popular culture. In novels and tv dramas, our most popular heroes and heroines often enjoy a drink, especially the female cops.

i am a crime writer myself and I have tried to buck the trend slightly with my lead detective, DCI Dani Bevan. She is uncomfortable with alcohol-culture in the police because of what happened to her mother (you’ll have to read the series to find out what!) I know that my fellow writers will claim that they are simply reflecting reality with their character’s actions. This is understandable in many respects, but perhaps as writers of popular fiction, music and television, we should see ourselves as part of creating the prevailing culture, not just reflecting it.

The older I get, the less I feel I’m missing out on a ‘big’ drinking night. To be honest, I find a night out with drunk people boring. Twenty years ago, a London bar or pub with my friends would have been the place I most wanted to be, but times change. I can’t handle hangovers, for a start.

So I found Mack’s view refreshing. In our social-media centred-culture, much of what we gain kudos for is related to what we do – holidays, theatre-trips, sporting achievements, and also what we consume – the food and drink. Perhaps we’ve lost touch with the value of not-doing. Of how our UK based holidays reduce our carbon footprint, and our avoidance of alcohol or caffeine might be of benefit to the perceptions of our children, in addition to reducing our impact on NHS services.

Like Mack, I run the risk of being boring and preachy with this view. I’m not a fitness fanatic and I think people should eat what they like, but I don’t think tobacco, drugs or alcohol should be glorified in our culture. Mack remains a very witty man and his writing is excellent. I’m sure he doesn’t mind how he is viewed personally, as long as his work speaks for itself.

And I believe there is a role for taking an ethical position in the creative arts, as there is in any other profession.


A day devoted entirely to pampering Mum. But which one are we referring to?

The RetroReview

In the UK we will are celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend. The cards and gift suggestions have been on display in the shops for several weeks already. I have always believed Mother’s Day to be the only genuine article, viewing other related festivals such as Father’s Day and even Sibling’s Day to be simply constructs of the greetings card industry. So I was surprised to discover that Mother’s Day itself is actually a fairly recent construct.
I always assumed that in Britain we celebrated ‘Mothering Sunday’, which is a Christian festival dating back to the 1600s and involves saying prayers in church to honour the Virgin Mary. But according to my research, this festival died out in the 19th Century. The custom of adhering to Mother’s Day was only taken up again when American servicemen re-introduced the concept during World War Two. So, although in the UK we tend to…

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Is it time to re-examine our attitude to the weather?

imageLike the vast majority of the U.K. this week, my schedule has been disrupted by the unusually cold weather and resultant snow. My daughter is still at home with me, as her secondary school is closed for the third day, whilst my son has returned to his local primary (in the same town).

I know that the headmaster of the secondary school will be subjected to criticism for his decision. But in my opinion, his judgment has been correct. The school has a largely rural catchment area, covering tens of miles. Country roads are impassable to the school buses and the large site itself covered in ice and snow.

Despite the severe and unpredictable nature of the weather this week, I feel there is a strong majority opinion in the country that we must be able to carry on exactly as normal. This means that schools and clubs should continue and the roads made passable by the local council and landowners.

But with public sector budgets cut to the bone and the nature of the weather system unprecedented in its longevity and persistence, I’m not sure we have the right to make this assumption any longer. I work from home as an independent novelist, so you may argue that I am immune to the worst effects of the deterioration of the climate and therefore don’t have a right to judge.

But if these freak weather phenomenon keep happening, we are all set to suffer. Power and food supplies will be disrupted if transport grinds to a halt. So, is it time for a re-think to our approach? I work in the digital world and it feels to me as if some of the answers must lie in a better use of new technology.

Schools (who are not required to provide childcare for parents) could easily devise an online curriculum to be accessed on ‘snow days’. Teachers can be available to answer questions during allotted ‘lessons’. Many businesses could adopt a similar practice with their administrative staff. Meetings could be conducted through Skype.

This would remove a huge pressure from the road systems. Emergency services and police could focus on getting essential goods around the country, rather than digging lone drivers out of drifts. It would also be safer for the workforce and their children.

I can sense that many folk would be uncomfortable with this solution. Perhaps imagining that they would be left entertaining their children at home for weeks on end. But this is not how these bad weather snaps tend to work out. We would be looking at a week, max. In some parts of the USA, these lost days are added onto the end of the summer term or in September, which could be another option for us.

It has to be better than the uncertainty and risk-taking which currently accompanies bad weather. I have seen much being made on social media about how overcoming the awful conditions is a sign of ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’, yet too often this undefinable concept gets confused with irresponsibility and inflicting unnecessary hardship on yourself and others.

Five years ago, I suffered a nervous and physical illness brought on by overwork and stress. I’ve always been a healthy, ‘resilient’ person who turns up for every appointment and never took a sick day off work in ten years. Until I collapsed with an exhaustion I didn’t even fully know I was suffering from! So when I hear about staff being required to undergo an ordeal to overcome the bad conditions and getting praised for their resilience, it makes me sad.

Everyday life is often already tough enough for most people. It is a misplaced idea of strength to try and battle against a weather event. We need to encourage a shift in perspective that reflects a more respectful appreciation of our environment. If we step off the conveyor belt for a few days, our world will not collapse in on us. In fact, we may be buying ourselves an extra few years of productivity down the line.

I am much better now and still work hard (as I did throughout my illness) But a legacy of tiredness remains. I know my limits and have to stick to them. I will be setting out into the cold wind and snow later to pick up my son. The effort will exhaust me for the remainder of the day. I am certainly not the only person who will have had this experience. It doesn’t make us weak or without value to society.

In fact, I always think there is an old-fashioned machismo to the claims I see on social media from headteachers who proudly announce their school is the only one staying open in the area. That they’ve  been out since dawn scraping the paths. These managers need to put aside their desire to meet and complete a personal challenge to consider the wider picture. Should they be encouraging their staff and parents to take to the roads? Is it of benefit to the local area? To the students?

It will undoubtedly take a long time for attitudes to change and it will have to come from employers and headteachers. They need to look beyond their individual institution or company, viewing themselves as part of a wider network. Perhaps the only way to ‘overcome’ these weather events is to accept their power over us and recognise that we will need to adapt to accommodate them as part of our lives.



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