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Unreliable Narrators and Unlikeable People: 8 Killer Examples of Psychological Suspense

What’s hot in fiction right now? Psychological suspense! Thanks to the phenomenal success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, readers are clamoring for novels that take us inside the heads of unlikable characters in twisted stories of obsession and nightmarish situations. In my At Leisure column for October 1 Booklist (“Psychological Suspense, Horror’s Disturbing Sibling“), I wrote about the genre and a handful of authors to know. Classic authors Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith have multiple novels and short stories that fit here, but don’t miss standalone titles by Ruth Rendell (and her pseudonym Barbara Vine), Thomas H. Cook, Laura Lippman, and the novels by Nicci French.  That’s enough to get readers started, but here are some newer titles by authors who dabble in the genre and by others just catching the wave of popularity.

The Girl on the Train by Paula HawkinsThe Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

We all know this debut novel by Hawkins, who has rivaled Flynn’s popularity this year. Conflicting reports of events from a trio of unreliable narrators make for mesmerizing reading, as tension and suspense build throughout. Alcoholic and unemployed Rachel commutes to London daily, and the train always stops for a signal right across from the street where her ex-husband and his new wife, Anna, live. Rachel has become fascinated—obsessed, really—with the lives of a couple living a few houses down. When the wife, Megan, disappears, Rachel awkwardly inserts herself into the investigation, with near-tragic results. Readers (and listeners—this is a great audio with three narrators) are transported inside each narrator’s head (Rachel’s, Anna’s, and Megan’s), and all we can do is sit back and watch the disaster unfold.

A Pleasure and a CallingA Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan, by Phil Hogan

Realtor William Heming keeps the keys for every house he sells. That might not be an issue, except that in 17 year he’s sold hundreds of houses—and he likes to revisit them and breathe the air redolent of others’ lives and possessions. That’s creepy enough, but then a young woman catches his eye, and when he “protects” her from a philanderer, things get out of hand. Heming makes a great protagonist: unmemorable physically, invisible in his small English community, and a complete sociopath! Mood is so important in this genre, and Hogan ladles it on—creepy, disturbing, sinister, chilling.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter SwansonThe Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson takes Patricia Highsmith’s premise from Strangers on a Train and builds on it, creating an even more complicated and nastier tale of hatred and revenge. Long-buried secrets and slights are at the heart of this novel, in which Ted plots with Lily to kill Ted’s cheating wife. Told through multiple points of view (Ted, Lily, wife Miranda, her lover/builder Brad, and detective Kimball), it’s a busy tale, exploring the characters and adding details that complicate the cinematic plot. A disturbing story filled with totally unlikable characters who get what they deserve, eventually.

All the Old KnivesAll the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer, by Olen Steinhauer

Technically, this one fits in the thriller genre. It’s set in the world of espionage, but at its heart it’s a compelling novel of psychological suspense as well, with a pair of unlikable spies, both unreliable narrators, spinning their versions of a past event. Former lovers Celia and Henry meet over dinner to rehash an event nine years earlier, when terrorists took over a passenger plane in Vienna and killed everyone on board, including an agent. Was the agent betrayed? As their conversation becomes more and more heated, their dueling “he said, she said” narratives revealed in alternating chapters make for chilling reading, and there’s a wonderful twist at the end. In psychological suspense it’s not really about what happened but about what each says happened—and how each plans to take revenge.

In the Blood by Lisa UngerIn the Blood, by Lisa Unger

Unger has written several chilling novels for fans of the genre, and this is a good example of her style. College-student Lana Granger’s life is built on lies about her past and her true nature, and Luke, the child she cares for after school, matches her smart, amoral, and manipulative character. Secrets and plot twists drive the nonlinear story line, which includes excerpts from a mother’s diary recounting her child’s dysfunctional behavior. Whose journal is it? And what role did Lana play in the disappearance of her two roommates? The story is related from Lana’s unreliable perspective, which raises questions of how trustworthy she is as narrator. Unger cleverly builds tension and suspense in this darkly dramatic exploration of prickly characters.

The Other Typist by Suzanne RindellThe Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell

Psychological suspense novels need not be set only in the present; the past works equally well as is evident in Rindell’s pleasantly quirky story of obsession and murder. Rose Baker works in the NYPD typing pool in the 1920s, and her life is changed dramatically when Odalie, the other typist of the title, joins the pool, and takes Rose under her wing. It’s Rose’s story, and she pulls readers in, relating the tale from some point in the future when things aren’t going well. The novel is full of prohibition-era details of New York City and of the styles and social mores of the period. Smart dialog, the edgy and unsettling tone, and the wonderful twist at the end will remind readers Hitchcock movies and of Highsmith’s Ripley novels, playful at first and then much more ominous in tone.

Before I go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson

Watson’s  novel tells the chilling story of a woman who goes to sleep each night and wakes in the morning with no memory of the past. Each day her husband orients her, but the next morning her mind is a blank. When a doctor suggests she keep a journal, her life goes from blank to terrifying, as she discovers inconsistencies in her husband’s stories and begins to question what has actually happened. Watson focuses on that disturbing tone and menacing atmosphere. He sets up the story slowly, day by day, and then it explodes. Intriguing characters and situations and a matter-of-fact-prose style make her situation all the more terrifying.

Jack of spadesJack of Spades, by Joyce Carol Oates

Award-winning and prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates has long dabbled in this genre, creating disturbing novels with satisfying twists. In this recent title, she follows a successful crime writer’s descent into madness. When mild-mannered author Andrew J. Rich, the “gentleman’s Stephen King,” is accused of plagiarism by the town crackpot, he goes off the deep end. He becomes just like the violent characters from the pulp novels of his alter-ego, Jack of Spades, and wreaks a terrible revenge. The first person narration places readers clearly in Rich’s head, a very uncomfortable place to be. And while we see disaster looming, we can do nothing but watch as Rich’s paranoia grows and he is caught up in the nightmare of his own making. A satisfyingly creepy character study.

About the Author:

Joyce Saricks is Booklist's Audio Editor. In addition to overseeing audiobook coverage, she writes the column "At Leisure with Joyce Saricks." While listening to audiobooks, she enjoys her hobbies—cooking, walking, and traveling. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Joyce.

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