One of my favourite books, and one that I’ve recommended to many people, is Kate Summerscale’s non-fiction work The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I absolutely love this book. It’s a riveting true-crime story about the shocking, brutal murder of a toddler at an English country home in 1860. The child’s throat is slit and he is pushed down the privy. Everyone in the large family is a suspect. This is Victorian murder mystery at its best – and I love Victorian murder mysteries. At the same time, it’s also a fascinating account of the beginnings of Scotland Yard and how early detectives worked before having the benefit of all the science we have available today.
It is said that Detective Whicher, who leads the investigation, was the inspiration for Sergeant Cuff, the detective in Wilkie Collins’ famous novel The Moonstone. It’s absolutely fascinating to read this true-crime account and wonder who did it. All you can think is: whoever did it, it was someone in that house, and it was completely coldblooded. It makes you think about what people are truly capable of – even those who appear to be absolutely normal.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, is one of my favourite psychological thrillers. It tells the engrossing story of Tom Ripley – a young man who comes from nothing but would like to do well for himself – and the lengths he’s ultimately prepared to go to in order to get what he wants.
In New York, he’s asked by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf to go find his son Dickie in Italy and bring him home to the family fold, where the family business is waiting for him. Ripley travels to Italy and ingratiates himself with Dickie, and insinuates himself into his charmed life, living off Herbert Greenleaf’s money on the Italian coast while the feckless Dickie dabbles in painting. Marge, Dickie’s girlfriend, doesn’t like Ripley, and the situation becomes uncomfortable. The tension mounts as we realize that something is not quite right with Tom Ripley. There are lots of undertones here, and it’s a gripping, intimate study of a mind in distress – of someone who is most probably a psychopath, and plagued by paranoia.
We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, is an utterly brilliant novel. It’s a very difficult story to read because of its subject matter – it’s about a school massacre committed by a disturbed teenaged boy, Kevin. The story is told through a series of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her estranged husband, Franklin, after the massacre has occurred, as she attempts to come to terms with what has happened. This is chilling material and so sensitively handled that it took my breath away. Eva details her life before Kevin was born, and then what he was like growing up. She focusses especially on the relationship between the two of them. She is afraid that her own ambivalence toward him – he was a challenging, difficult child to love, even disturbed – might have contributed to what he has become.
In fact, that is one of the major themes or concerns of the novel. Was Kevin born this way? Or did his environment, in particular, his troubled relationship with his mother, make him what he is? Is it possible that Eva’s ambivalence toward becoming a mother (and giving up her fulfilling career) may have contributed to Kevin’s character? As the story unfolds, a series of increasingly disturbing events occur, including awful things that happen to Kevin’s younger sister, all leading up to the massacre. The suspense becomes almost unbearable. And the twist at the end – I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by an ending, or read one that felt so right. This is a book I thought about for a long time after I’d finished reading it. It asks the question, what goes into the making of a monster? It gives no easy answers. And it’s a brilliant look into one mother’s very complex relationship with her son. Can she still love him after what he’s done?
Another novel that I loved is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I think that Nick and Amy Dunne are one of the most intriguing couples in recent fiction. I was transfixed by their dark and twisted relationship. Gone Girl is a story about a relationship gone horribly wrong. Nick returns home one day to find that his wife Amy is missing. There are signs of a struggle and police find evidence of some blood stains having been cleaned up. They think Amy has been murdered and that Nick is the culprit. His behaviour – he appears rather unconcerned – is interpreted negatively by the police and the public alike. They wonder if he is a psychopath.
Police find evidence of financial problems, domestic disputes, and a diary written by Amy which reveals her fear that Nick will kill her. However, nothing is as it seems. The story is full of twists and turns, with an ending that packs a serious wallop. This is one of my favourite thrillers for its account of a complex and troubled relationship – Amy and Nick bring out the worst in each other. You feel like they deserve one another, and you’re desperate to know where it’s all going to end up. You can’t help but wonder – if they hadn’t met, would they have managed, separately, to stay on the right side of acceptable behaviour?
Rage Against The Dying, by Becky Masterman, is a superb serial-killer story. Ex-FBI agent, Brigid Quinn, now a woman of a certain age (59), has tried to put a dark past behind her to focus on a sunny retirement with her new husband, who doesn’t know the details of her past. Brigid has the all-too-human fear that he couldn’t possibly love her if he knew the real her – what she’s done, and what she’s seen.
In her former career she hunted down serial killers, but there’s one she never caught: the Route 66 killer. Even worse, in a desperate attempt to catch him, she put a young, not-quite-experienced-enough agent in the field as bait. It all went horribly wrong, and Brigid has the woman’s death on her troubled conscience. Many years later, Brigid is reluctantly drawn back into the case. A man has confessed to the Route 66 murders but she isn’t convinced he really did it. What makes this such a great book is the protagonist, Brigid Quinn. She’s absolutely authentic and sings off the page as she pursues a horribly twisted killer. This is the first of a series, followed by Fear the Darkness and A Twist of the Knife; each book just gets better.
I realize now that the common thread running through all of these books is that they are all, in some way or another, about psychopaths, or various outliers of human nature. And they all do a brilliant job of exploring this territory. There’s something terrifying and unknowable about the perpetrators of the crimes at the centres of these stories. As a writer, I love to put characters in situations that will test them and bring out their true natures. One of the things I love about writing a thriller is that it allows me to explore the darkest aspects of human nature. The writer of a crime thriller can follow those who step outside the norms of society, outside the boundaries of what is acceptable, and take the reader with her. Perhaps this is the enduring appeal of the crime thriller.