In Jane Robins's novel, White Bodies, Callie Farrow, who works in a London bookstore, becomes obsessed with every aspect of the life of her glamorous twin sister, Tilda, a well-known actress, after Tilda marries the controlling Felix Nordberg, a wealthy financier. Callie believes that Tilda is in danger. The plot forcefully builds to a shocking finale as Robins skillfully explores the dynamics between sisters, mental health issues, and manipulative behavior. Robins picks 10 of her favorite psychological thrillers.
My favorite psychological thrillers are those that truly get under your skin; the sort that make you tell your friends "you must read this, it’s just so creepy!" I love those authors who create an original, compelling tone that sticks with you long after you’ve finished reading. Of course, in thriller-writing, impeccable plotting and captivating characters are essential. But it’s the atmosphere that gives richness to a thriller, that makes you feel that you are totally inhabiting another person’s world. And there’s nothing more exciting than that!
A small boy dies in a car accident. Grieving Jenna Gray, in the aftermath of his death, moves to a remote, ramshackle cottage on a cliff by the sea. The creepiness is in the detail. The Spartan terrain, the dark ocean, the cold wind, an empty caravan park, a door that won’t lock… This is an excellent, well-crafted psychological thriller, cleverly interspersed with a satisfying police procedural. A remarkable first novel from an author with 12 years’ experience in the British Police.
I adore Gillian Flynn’s whip-smart, witty prose. She makes psychological thrillers sexy and intelligent, and for me, her debut novel, Sharp Objects is her most creepy work. It doesn’t have the panache of Gone Girl or the all-out grimness of Dark Places–but it excels in creating engaging but damaged characters, not least in the protagonist, Camille Preaker, who in her darkest moments carves words onto her own body. Camille is a news reporter who’s sent to her home town of Wind Gap to investigate the deaths of two pre-teen girls whose bodies have been found, strangled and with their teeth extracted.
3. Sin by Josephine Hart
This short literary classic is as absorbing and disturbing as many a commercial thriller--it's a tale of dark obsession, resentment, destruction, and revenge. The main character, Ruth, is deeply envious of her perfect half-sister Elizabeth, and she sets out to ruin Elizabeth’s life. Josephine Hart, who died in 2011, wrote beautifully and was a poet as well as a novelist. I have read Sin twice, and know I will return to it before long.
4. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is a fantastically creepy character, brilliantly played by Matt Damon in the 1999 movie. But, for me, Patricia Highsmith’s spare, atmospheric prose makes this classic novel a richer experience than the film. I love the way she lures us into feeling the pain of the small humiliations that Tom suffers–and we see through his eyes the inadequacies of those who have everything that he craves and doesn’t have. It’s so clever. When Tom becomes a cold and heartless killer, we fear for him nonetheless, and the reader is–in part–on Tom’s side as the tension builds, and he’s in danger of being brought to justice.
5. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Oh, how I love Sarah Waters! Her writing is so self-assured and clever. And in Fingersmith she engages with the psychological thriller genre, transporting it to Victorian England. The creepiness here is multi-dimensional–coming from the evil intent of characters such as Mrs. Sucksby, ‘Gentleman,’ and Mrs Stiles, the gothic tone, the dramatic twists that shake the reader’s trust. This novel has everything--orphans betrayed, lesbian lovers deceived, a terrifying mad house, and a totally weird Uncle Christopher in a dark, secluded country mansion.
This 1991 novel has one of the most atmospheric opening scenes that I’ve ever read in a thriller. Jane Whittaker finds herself on the streets of Boston with no understanding of who she is, what life she has led, who her family and friends are and why it is that her dress is stained with blood, and she has $10,000 in the pocket of her frumpy coat. Jane’s situation is mesmerizing, and we soon realize that there’s something extremely unsettling about the glamorous man who says he’s her husband, but seems determined to drug her up to the eyeballs and prevent her from revealing a hidden truth. Magnificent.
Sometimes I like to read a psychological thriller in which the creepiness seeps into the kind of middle-class home that I (now) live in myself. This enjoyable novel is set in a well-off residential area of London–the sort of neighborhood with an artisan bakery on every corner serving five-star espressos and lattes along with the sourdough loaves and designer granola. Gaby Mortimer is a daytime TV chat show host, with a nanny at home and a financier husband in the city. Early one morning, she’s running on the local common, when she comes upon the body of a young woman. Before we know it, Gaby becomes a prime suspect for murder, and her seemingly-blessed life is falling apart.
In her debut, Haynes creates an outstanding malevolent character in Lee Brightman–the handsome, charismatic boyfriend who turns out to be obsessive, manipulative and dangerous. What makes this thriller stand out in a crowded field is the chilling atmosphere that pervades each page as the narrator, Catherine Bailey, realizes that Lee is messing with her mind, "gaslighting" her, by moving small items in her apartment when she is out; making it clear that he’s getting closer all the time. In addition, the pacing is brilliant, and the plotting superb.
9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Queen of Crime excelled in concocting complex mysteries–but this, one of the best-selling books of all time–is a superlative read not just because of Christie’s intricate plotting, but also because of the profound sense of menace on every page. Eight people are invited to a house on a remote island off the Devon coast, and two servants are already present. In each bed room an old rhyme is hanging–Ten Little Indians, or in later editions, Ten Little Soldiers. The rhyme describes ten deaths. Then–one by one–the characters are murdered. Given that there are no hiding places on the island, the murderer is evidently one of the ten characters. A masterpiece.
I read this book many years ago, and can still easily recall its unnerving atmosphere. Astrid Bell is a fabulous character–a bicycle messenger who is knocked off her bike by a woman who turns up dead the next day. Then Astrid is linked to a second murder. The first part of the story focuses on Astrid’s house-mates in a ramshackle old London villa, and their potential links with the killings. I love the claustrophobic sense you get from the disparate characters living in a closed environment. Then the novel switches, and the final section is eerily told from the point of view of the murderer.