Psychological thrillers seem to be having their genre moment of late with seemingly every other book tagged with the “p-word” and all the authors cross-blurbing each other happily.
When done well, the shifting loyalties, paranoia and creeping sense of dread can make a plot sing with intensity. But it’s not easy. Done poorly, it can yank the reader out of the narrative and the plot can thud along unrealistically.
My recent summer reading included three new thrillers of the moment that ran the gamut from wonderful to very weird.
The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware
Since bursting onto the genre scene in 2015 with In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware has quickly proven to be a star in the psychological thriller genre, quickly following that hit with a book a year.
Previous books typically focused on a group of English women with dark pasts or secrets, Westaway does have past secrets in spades, a woman lead, but moves away from the almost cozy style to feature a broader cast.
Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money. Hal takes herself to the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.
The book is heavy on atmosphere and doles out its secrets slowly and bloodlessly. The opening hook feels a little contrived to get our character moving, but once she is in motion, the creepiness and dread build convincingly.
Ware does a good job of playing mostly fair and keep the reader unbalanced and guessing as to who is ultimately the villain. The writing is solid and this is a very good example of the psychological thriller firing on almost all cylinders.
Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman
For fans of Ruth Ware! Psychological thriller!
This book’s marketing knew it’s niche and went after it with both barrels.
I won’t spoil what’s in the water (you find out pretty early on), but I often wondered if it wasn’t the main characters brain. This book has a simple hook: couple on their honeymoon finds something in the water. What do they do? Simple, but effective set-up for a thriller.
The one thing you can’t do in a thriller is act unconvincingly, stupid or irrationally. That is the thing that kept pulling me out of this story. The main character, pretty well established as a smart, independent woman, kept making rash and really dumb decisions. And the author knew it! She kept having the lead debate the pro’s and very big con’s to many of her actions. This is a something I usually see in debuts. If you have to overly explain the action, than the character isn’t acting realistically.
The thing that ultimate saved this book for me was the final third. The ending pay-off, despite using those bad decisions to maneuver the characters down this path, was well-done, well-paced and had a nice, nasty hook. It wasn’t perfect, there were still some odd lingering questions and plot holes, but it managed to pull me through to the end.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
Strange book. One of those love it/hate it books that generates strong opinions. I almost stopped reading multiple times in the first 100 pages. Then sat and read the last half in one sitting. It might come down to how much you’ve heard about this book and what you’re expectations are going in. It’s a mash-up of a few genres and when it works, it really works, but when it doesn’t….ugh.
If you think it’s thriller or crime novel, you are likely going to be disappointed in the almost social satire of the young rich in NYC for the first half of the book. The writing sometimes includes odd flippant asides to the reader breaking the fourth wall and is heavy on literary allusions.
The middle build begins to feel very repetitive as it slowly adds a few character traits or some backstory. Felt like it could have been done just as well in 50 or so pages, not 120.
Now, once the body finally drops and all that party-going and opera-attending is done, when the complications start to develop from the character’s actions and decisions, things start to kick into gear on the thriller side enough to carry the story through to the end (believable or not is another story).
I will say, other than Cordy, I don’t think any character is sympathetic. They are all narcissistic sociopaths and it made it hard to root for any of them actually getting out of the mess they mostly self-created. Also made it hard to pick up the book sometimes, too. Reminded me of my feelings for all the characters in Girl on a Train. I hate-read it to the end and I remember it well today, but did I enjoy it?