In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, the guilt fills an entire house. Thornfield, like its master, is keeping a terrible secret from our plucky heroine, who may be forgiven for having imagined the Red Room at her aunt’s house was beatable in the terror stakes. But when Bertha Rochester like a ‘clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind-feet’ we realise that imagined horrors can’t hold a wavering candle to real ones.
Robert Bloch’s Psycho plays a similar trick as the murderous Mrs Bates pops up at inconvenient junctures with gory consequences. But Bloch’s stroke of genius was to make us imagine we were reading a series of shock-horror moments. It’s the dark secret of Mrs Bates’s true identity that turns the whole story on its head.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov introduces us to another kind of monster, one who begs us not only to keep his guilty secret but to sympathise with it. Since this secret involves his destructive lust for a young girl, we experience a peculier guilt of our own as we embark on Humbert Humbert’s road trip across an America transfigured by beauty and corruption.
In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier takes us deep inside the head of the tremulous and confused narrator who is so frantically in love with Max de Winter she cannot see the terrible secret that explains at least some of his strange behaviour. The unwitting gatekeeper of the secret, Mrs Danvers, is one of the most marvellously terrifying monsters in modern literature.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is another story where the secret is kept with the reader rather than from us. There is a perverse satisfaction in knowing rather more than the bumbling police about the cunning Jekyll who has so helpfully provided a huge clue in the naming of his alter ego (you’ve spelt ‘Hide’ wrong, doctor).
Helen Dunmore is far subtler in Talking to the Dead where she leads us, so voluptuously, to a place where we believe we know as much as her narrator about the secrets that have first torn a family apart and are now holding it in an uneasy thrall. The ground doesn’t stop shifting under our feet until the final page with its last chilling truth.
Secrets are the lifeblood of psychological thrillers and two of the best recent ones know precisely how to keep them. Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant has a hapless hero who thinks he’s adroitly fooling the larger cast into parting with their largesse only to discover, too late, that he is their dupe. That it all unfolds in sultry foreign climes simply adds to the delicious twists in this tale.
Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land is a debut novel of extraordinary power where the fugitive, fretful secrets of a girls’ school are amplified by the arrival of a fifteen-year-old heroine who has a serial killer for a mother. The keeping and sharing of secrets is so integral to this story that you start to doubt even yourself as reader.
John le Carré in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy deals in secrets as only a former spy can—layer upon layer of them, aided and abetted by smoke and mirrors and masterful misdirection. The best are those being kept by the characters rather than the Secret Service, although you might argue the two go hand in glove.
Speaking of spies, my favourites can be found in Spook Street by Mick Herron. Headed up by the abrasively flatulent Jackson Lamb, for whom subtlety is a concept only slightly more arcane than personal hygiene, these sidelined spooks spend their days rifling through rubbish and scouring CCTV for clues which may have evaded their more able compatriots. Each is obsessed with the keeping of his and her own secret: the reason they’ve ended up at the fat end of a highly classified wedge. Our chief delight as readers comes from our desire to protect Herron’s cast of burnt-out, washed-up secret-keepers.
Sarah Hilary’s debut, SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, won Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer’s Book of the Month (“superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the US. Her DI Marnie Rome series continued with TASTES LIKE FEAR and a fourth book, QUIETER THAN KILLING, is out in paperback now.