5 top psychological thrillers, as picked by Emma Curtis
Picking my top five thrillers is an impossible task – I wouldn’t know where to start – so I am going to share the books that would be on my ‘highly recommended’ reading list if I ran a workshop on writing psychological suspense. I have learned to write mainly through reading and every one of these has been an inspiration. While I was writing One Little Mistake I read them all again, not because they are similar stories – they aren’t – but because they are all absolutely gripping. It is easy enough to write a novel, but to get someone to pick it up and not want to put it down – that’s where the magic lies.
1. Tell No One by Harlan Coben
Coben is a master of twists and turns and this is one of his best. Eight years have passed since Dr David Beck’s wife Elizabeth was murdered and he is far from over the shock of her loss. She is definitely dead and her killer is behind bars, so why has Beck started getting emails from her? Coben is an addictive writer; drawing you in to his world immediately, and not letting go until the final page. This is a fantastic example of how a clever and unpredictable plot keeps propelling the reader forward.
2. Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson
When this book first came out, I was unpublished and read it for pleasure. I reread it recently to try and analyse what I liked so much about it, and what made it stand out from the crowd. Good writing and a strong plot combined with originality, perfect pacing and memorable characters make Before I Go To Sleep a must for anyone who is interested in writing in this genre. Christine wakes up every single morning with no memory of the last twenty or so years and has to relearn who the man next to her in the bed is and what has happened to her. What feels initially repetitive becomes a metronome marking the pace and racking up the tension. It is an excellent thriller and well worth a read.
3. Misery by Stephen King
If you only read one of the books on this list, read this one. The story focuses on two characters: ex-nurse Annie Wilkes and Paul Sheldon, an embittered writer who has recently killed off his most successful character, Misery. ‘Rescued’ with the manuscript from his crashed car by Annie, who is dangerously mad and – most famously – his ‘number one fan’, Paul is incapacitated and forced to write Misery back to life, all the while knowing that his chances of getting out of there alive, even once he has fulfilled Annie’s wishes, are slim. I chose this because of the restrictions King places on himself. There are bits and pieces that happen outside, but basically it’s one room and two characters. This is a tough trick to pull off, and the novel isn’t short at over three hundred and fifty pages, but pull it off he does. King never once allows the reader to relax, never once loosens the pace or slips into bagginess, and it’s well worth trying to analyse how he does it.
4. The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine
Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, was penning psychological suspense long before books like Gone Girl made the genre such a huge deal in publishing. She wrote several, including A Dark-Adapted Eye, and I would recommend them for the author’s skill at conjuring up the darkness in our souls. First published in 1988, The House of Stairs is a whydunit, unpacking the crime through flashbacks. The use of the first-person narrator, Elizabeth, means it still feels current. The writing is superb and, as ever with Ruth Rendell, atmosphere and a sense of place are woven into every scene. It’s a masterclass.
5. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
It’s impossible to avoid talking about this book, and I doubt many psychological suspense authors haven’t read it and tried to work out what it is that has touched readers on so many levels. This is tricky because phenomena by their very nature are as intangible as fairy dust. For me, this is an extremely well-written and readable book with the human condition at its heart. We are driven by our personalities and cannot avoid following the groove carved for us early on, no matter how hard we try to escape it. Rachel is wounded, angry and addicted to alcohol. Anna is self-centred and unable to see much further than that which directly affects her. Megan is a lost soul who uses men to make her feel whole. We’ve all known women like this and some of us have experienced what they’re experiencing. A story driven by both plot and personality, it deserves to be read and re-read.