The Psychological Thriller

Photo by Eugenio Hansen,
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A thriller is designed to keep readers on the edge of their seats through the use of action, intrigue, adventure, and suspense. What is especially important is the reader’s emotional involvement (Niebuhr 2003, xiii). Indeed, “the single-minded drive to deliver a starkly intense literary effect” characterizes the thriller (Glover 2003, 135). These are the books you can’t put down. They include “legal thrillers, spy thrillers, racing thrillers, psychological thrillers, futuristic thrillers, political thrillers, cyberpunk thrillers, gangster thrillers, serial killer thrillers, heist thrillers, and more” (Scaggs 2005, 108). As most readers will attest, the psychological thriller is one of the most engaging and intriguing types of mysteries.

Detectives play a diminished or absent role in these novels. The focus instead is on protagonists whose lives are threatened or endangered by dangerous individuals. Mary Higgins Clark’s novels, for example, typically depict psychopaths who stalk innocent women (see for example, Where Are the Children? or Nighttime Is My Time). The emphasis on present danger rather than investigation of past action is key to this type of narrative (Priestman 1998, 43). What distinguishes the thriller is the way it “persistently raises the stakes of the narrative, heightening or exaggerating the experience of events by transforming them into a rising curve of danger, violence or shock” (Glover 2003, 137).

The psychological thriller explores the mind of the criminal, focussing on aberrant and deviant individuals. Novels such as Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs and Patricia Cornwell’s Predator (see my post) portray deranged characters whose lives haunt the reader. Serial killers, sociopaths, lunatics, psychopaths, and murderers populate the psychological thriller. Ruth Rendell /Barbara Vine’s psychopaths resemble ordinary individuals and, as a result, are particularly disquieting (see my posts on The Rottweiler and The Minotaur).

The Gothic novel is the forerunner to the psychological thriller. Classic Gothic novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udopho and The Italian present heroines persecuted by villains and trapped in nightmarish situations, a narrative structure adopted by thriller novelists. And the same claustrophobic, menacing atmosphere that characterizes Gothic novels dominates psychological thrillers like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, and Minette Walters’s The Ice House (see my post).

Part of the psychological thriller’s fascination is the strangeness of the criminal’s perverse motives, abnormal thoughts, and twisted logic (Rzepka 2005, 65). (See, for example, my posts on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Patricia Cornwell’s Predator.) Although these novels are not always fast-paced, they appear so because the subject matter is compelling and the plot, gripping.

The sense of impending disaster in psychological thriller’s like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (see my post) and Ruth Rendell’s Sight for Sore Eyes keeps readers in a state of high suspense. The effect of such books on the reader is profound:
These are novels that produce a chill. They play with our minds in very disturbing ways and leave us wondering. . . . In many ways they are closer to Horror and to that genre’s effect on readers, rather than to Suspense or Thrillers. (Saricks 2001, 187)
Psychological thrillers are the novels that keep you up all night, haunting you long after you've finished them.

Glover, David. “The Thriller.” In The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 135-53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Niebuhr, Gary Warren. Make Mine a Mystery: A Reader’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.

Priestman, Martin. Crime Fiction: From Poe to the Present. Plymouth: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 1998.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Saricks, Joyce G. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.