Psycho Killer, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Murder Room Top Ten writer Deborah Valentine gets into the heads of some of the finest exponents of the psychological thriller, and finds out what makes these nerve-stretching reads so compelling . . .

Dangerous territory, the human mind: there’s nothing more devious, no more lethal weapon. This enclosed inner world is the meat and drink of the psychological thriller.

Some of the very best of the genre are written in the first person, turning on the notion that if we’re inside a character’s head, we’ll accept their thoughts as gospel. But the head is where the monstrous is presented as reasonable – or at any rate, justifiable – by the standards of a dodgy narrator. There’s both horror and – dare I say it? – a vicarious thrill in throwing yourself into a completely self-centred, perhaps self-deceiving, point of view.

It’s never been done better than John Fowles’s classic novel The Collector. When my thirteen-year-old self read it, it defined my idea of crime fiction. Narrated initially by a butterfly collector, we see him make, to his mind, a logical progression into collecting something rather more unacceptable – a girl – and locking her in a cellar. (Can anything parallel a human mind more than the dark recesses of a cellar, however tidily it’s arranged?) He wants her to love him, but his approach is, to say the very least, flawed. From her diary we experience her gamut of emotions. This ‘his ’n’ hers’ tangle of conflicting viewpoints leads to a devastating conclusion.

The same, yet so different, ‘his ’n’ hers’ snarl is used to great effect in the anti-Valentine’s Day favourite, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with its deliciously evil marital machinations. Thinking of getting married? Think again.

But if Flynn’s girl is gone, then Margaret Murphy’s female hacker in Now You See Me is ever present, mentally torturing the murderous head of a criminal enterprise via internet exploits. Her viral manipulations catch the police in the middle as she plays both to her own ends.

Patricia Highsmith was a master of twisted psychology, and if you’ve only read or seen the film versions of her amoral conman Ripley, then you’re missing something. There’s more darkness in her tales than in a Welsh mine.

And Barbara Vine is renowned for a chilly, unstinting look at obsession and deceit.

But there can be compassion, too. Rarely, it has to be said. But the portrayal of an OCD cleaner with an unfortunate predilection to envy her clients’ houses to excess in Hilary Norman’s Compulsionis tenderly wrought. That is Norman’s indisputable talent. Her prose is warm, not icy, and makes it possible to sympathise even as the character tips ever further into criminality, making it all the more poignant.

There is something of this in Honour Thy Father by Lesley Glaister, as well. This story of four sisters, spanning the twentieth century, is a highly internalised saga, and from this comes its mesmerising power. Told from the point of view of a perhaps not entirely reliable narrator, its scalpel-sharp dissection of a family’s descent into madness is harrowing. It all begins with the father, of course, and a mother driven to suicide. His control over every aspect of the girls’ lives, his determination to keep them ‘pure’ and isolated from society, is a manifestation of his own cruelly twisted psyche. In turn, the girls both honour and dishonour him. But the beauty of the writing itself, the delicate layering of information, the revelations subtly revealed let the reader decide for themselves what may or may not be true, what may or may not have actually happened. The grossly confined existence of these sisters keeps you screaming: get out, get out, get out! Yet the influence of their father looms large, even after his death. This is among the finest portrayals of incremental, irreversible psychological damage you’re ever likely to read.

While Helen McCloy’s Through A Glass, Darkly takes a less internalised approach, nevertheless it’s an engaging addition to the psychological canon. When a young teacher is dismissed from her post at a private girls’ school (another insular environment) without explanation, just sly hints and averted glances, psychiatrist Dr Basil Willing is enlisted to investigate, even though the teacher herself is uneasy about what might be discovered. Enter a case of doppelgänger, where the teacher keeps being seen in two places at once. As events turn ever more sinister, it posits some delightful questions about what may be natural, supernatural or psychosis, or whether science is as yet ignorant about what ‘natural’ might entail. Does it draw any conclusions? Yes. No. Maybe.

That’s the thing with the psychological thriller. It often throws up more questions than it answers. It is subversive and invasive. It can probe the most depraved logic, test our sense of compassion. Protagonists can be monsters, misguided or engagingly amoral. They do what we can’t – or shouldn’t.

And make us wonder what it says about us when we root for the ‘wrong’ side.


Do you enjoy reading psychological thrillers? If so, which is your favourite, and what was it that hooked you? Tell us, below . . .

Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methodsis the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.