5 books, Book lists

5 of the best psychological thrillers

5-books-200pixI’ve always loved psychological thrillers or suspense novels. I read the first one when I was just 10 years old — Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown — and loved the fear and sense of foreboding it created so much that I must have read it a dozen times without ever getting tired of the high-stakes adventure story of a girl on the run from wicked men wearing dark hoods. I think my exploration of this genre as an adult is largely about me trying to recapture those feelings I first felt as a kid.

Of course, there’s a lot of mediocre books out there, so when Naomi from Consumed by Ink left a comment asking me to recommend some titles for those who don’t usually read the genre, it got me thinking: what are the best psychological thrillers I’ve read, the ones that are a cut above the rest?

And this is what I’ve come up with.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married American couple on holiday in Puerto Rico. When the wife loans a woman $10 they find they can’t shake her off.  But that’s the least of their concerns, because no sooner have they got rid of her, than the husband falls ill and his wife has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans for them all. The couple’s exotic holiday quickly descends into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

The-memory-game‘The Memory Game’ by Nicci French (1997)

This is the first book by husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French, but I could easily have chosen almost any from their extensive back catalogue, many of which are reviewed on this site. I read this one not long after it first came out (and before I began blogging, so can’t provide a link to a review) and was swept away by its tale of Jane Martello, who discovers a body buried in her garden. The remains are 25 years old and they belong to her childhood friend, Natalie. How did they get there? And how did Natalie meet her end? Jane starts seeing a therapist to try to recover her lost memories — and what she finds out will have you furiously turning the pages…

Talented-Mr-RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

A European adventure told from the perspective of a young American conman and murderer, this is a precisely plotted suspense novel of the finest order. But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders while on the run in Italy. It’s deftly written, features a cast of terrific characters and is full of hold-your-breath moments.

TenderwireTenderwire’ by Claire Kilroy (2007)

This is the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance. Eva, who narrates the story in a menacing kind of voice, is fragile and mentally unstable, so perhaps it’s no surprise she gets caught up in the collision of two worlds — the criminal underworld and the refined world of classical music. But when she buys the 17th century violin from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar, she’s naive to think that there will be no repercussions or payback. Does she get away with it? You’ll need to read this novel to find out.

Eight-months-on-ghazzah-streetEight months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)

Frances, a British expat living in Jeddah with her husband, suspects something strange is going on upstairs in the flat above hers, but cannot convince anyone else that anything is wrong. This is the premise behind Mantel’s brilliant and deeply disturbing psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of insidiously creepy read that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you. Is Frances just paranoid, or are her fears well founded?

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another good psychological thriller?

5 books, Book lists

5 books starring amoral protagonists

5-books-200pixContemporary fiction is filled with bad guys, but how many stories put you firmly in the head of the nasty perpetrator and present their side of the story as a fait accompli?

Here are five novels that come to mind, all of which feature characters with skewed moral compasses.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):



‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville (1989)

The wicked protagonist in this 1989 Booker shortlisted novel is Freddie Montgomery, a scientist, who steals a painting from a neighbour and accidentally kills a servant girl in the process. He then goes on the run to avoid detection. This dark and disturbing tale, which is told from Freddie’s point of view, recounts events leading up to his arrest — and it soon becomes clear he does not believe he has done anything wrong. The story is all the more disturbing given it is based on a real-life case, about a nurse murdered in Dublin, from 1982. (Note I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

The-ginger-man‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1955)

The Ginger Man recounts the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. The book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, and while you don’t exactly cheer on Dangerfield’s exploits, you do keep reading in order to see what amoral thing he will do next!


‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Tom Ripley, the talented one of the title, is a truly wonderful creation. A 23-year-old loner, he wants the finest things in life but cannot afford them — well, not until he bumps off a rich friend and acquires access to his monthly trust fund cheque first. While Tom’s actions are far from moral, or legal, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he moves from one Italian city to another in order to avoid the law which is breathing down his neck. The fast-paced narrative means you keep turning the pages to see whether our anti-hero gets away with his dastardly crimes! The ending may just surprise you.

The-butcher-boy‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe (1992)

Francis ‘Francie’ Brady is the meanest and most deranged schoolboy you’re ever likely to meet in modern fiction. He comes from a dysfunctional family — his mother is beaten up by her husband, his father is an alcoholic — and when a neighbour calls his family “pigs” he takes it to heart and wages a campaign of abuse and retaliation that does not end well. The story, which is told stream of consciousness style with no punctuation, follows Francie’s exploits, which include running away from home, going to a special school for boys where he is sexually abused and later committing a quite atrocious murder of his own. This incredibly dark and hard-hitting novel earned McCabe a place on the Booker shortlist in 1992 and still remains one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. (Again, I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)


‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Matt, the 30-something narrator of this novel, seems harmless enough to begin with. He’s a brand-obsessed businessman with a penchant for shopping, and while it’s clear that he’s obnoxious and self-centred, the further you get into the story the more you realise he is losing his grip on reality and is quite a dangerous and manipulative character. As he becomes more and more troubled, he begins committing more and more offences which will land him in serious trouble should he ever get caught. But because he is delusional, Matt cannot see that he is doing anything wrong, which makes for some incredibly funny set pieces. While I can’t say I cheered Matt on while I read this book — I felt far too worried for his sanity — I did get some good laughs out of his exploits and just hoped he’d get the medical help he so clearly needed!

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend some other reads that place the bad guy (or girl) at the heart of the story?

1001 books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Italy, New York, Patricia Highsmith, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 2009.

I seem to be going through a minor, and completely unplanned, phase of reading suspense novels right now, so what better book to continue the theme than Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, a classic of the genre?

This is where I also stick up my hand and confess that I’ve never seen the film, so I came to the book with no preconceptions whatsoever. I had no idea of the plot, nor the wickedness of the central character Mr Ripley either.

A suspense novel of the finest order

First published in 1955, the book is a suspense novel of the finest order — precisely plotted, written in concise but stylish prose, and filled with brilliant characters.

But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case, it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders.

From the outset, we learn that Tom, who lives in New York, isn’t the most honest of characters. He hates his circle of friends, lies about his job and commits tax fraud under a false name. Raised by an aunt, whom he detests, he continues to accept the cheques she sends him because he’s desperate for the money.

But when he is offered the chance to go to Europe on an all-expenses paid trip, Tom sees it as an opportunity to start his life afresh.

A trip to Italy

The trip, however, is not without its strings, for Tom has been “hired” by a wealthy industrialist, Herbert Greenleaf, to go to Italy to convince his wayward son, Dickie, to return home. It seems that Tom once met Dickie at a party, but for some reason, Mr Greenleaf thinks they are close friends. Tom, knowing a good deal when he sees one, does nothing to disabuse him of the idea.

In the seaside Italian village of Mongibello, Tom befriends Dickie, an artist, and his American girlfriend, Marge, a writer. He is greeted with contempt at first, but soon worms his way into Dickie’s affections and the pair become inseparable. (There are hints of unrequited homosexual love, on Tom’s part, but they remain just that: hints.)

Of course, it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the plot, but Tom’s hunger for money gets the better of him and he decides to bump off Dickie. Later, when one of Dickie’s friends suspects that Tom is hiding something, he, too, is done away with.

Two murders down and with the police on his trail, the book’s suspense element goes into overdrive as Tom tries to keep two steps ahead in order not to be caught.

The story moves from Mongibello to Rome, Sicily to Venice, and all the while he covers his tracks so superbly that you begin to wonder if he will ever make a false move. Surely Marge can see through his lies? Doesn’t Mr Greenleaf suspect him of evil-doing? Can’t the police tell he is making things up? And won’t the private investigator, brought in at the last minute, find him out?

Cheering on a killer

Funnily enough, even though Tom is a killer and a wicked, manipulative little man, you can’t help but cheer him on. Yes, he’s probably a psychopath — he certainly doesn’t show empathy for any of his so-called friends or victims — but it’s hard to dismiss him as evil. He is so lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem, and so desperate to be liked and accepted by his peers, that you end up empathising with his conniving ways and become enamoured of his quick wit and ability to think on his feet. Essentially, you appreciate his talent as a con man and killer.

And that, I think, is the real success of this novel, because Highsmith really gets inside the heads of her characters and so expertly depicts the complicated tangle of human relationships — people’s loyalties, their weaknesses, the things that make them tick — that the characters and their predicaments seem entirely plausible.

You can appreciate why Tom is jealous of Marge, can see that Marge is foolish to pin all her hopes on a man who doesn’t truly love her and that Dickie is self-centred and spoilt. And you understand completely their motivations, which probably explains why you can never truly condemn Tom for his actions. He wants money, freedom and success — don’t we all? — he’s just gone about achieving it the wrong way.

I read The Talented Mr Ripley in two longish sittings because I just had to know whether Tom would get away with his crimes. If you want to know if he gets his just desserts, beg, borrow or buy a copy…

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, by Patricia Highsmith, first published in 1955, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes Tom Ripley as “one of the greatest creations of twentieth-century pulp writing, a schizophrenic figure at once charming, ambitious, unknowable, utterly devoid of morality, and prone to outbursts of violence”.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Patricia Highsmith, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2010.

Most of us know the late Patricia Highsmith as a writer of psychological thrillers, such as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley. But the second novel that Ms Highsmith wrote was a romance.

Sadly, because it focused on a lesbian relationship, her then publisher, Harper, did not want it, but it was picked up by a smaller press and published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Titled The Price of Salt (later to be changed to Carol on subsequent reprintings), it became hugely popular for a short period of time (it sold nearly 1 million paperback copies in 1953), and then fell out of print. It was reprinted again in 1991 by Naiad Press, and just this year, with a very nice introduction by Val McDermid, by Bloomsbury. I picked it up by chance while book browsing in The Riverside Bookshop, attracted by the gorgeous cover design with its striking use of bold orange.

The story is set in Manhattan in the early 1950s, a locale and time period that I find particularly attractive and interesting. The Second World War is still very much a recent memory, and all the mod-cons we take for granted today simply do not exist. The characters that populate this novel work long hours, they smoke, they drink beer (even the women), they dine out in cheap restaurants, buy meals to make at home from street corner delicatessens, worry about paying the rent and alleviate boredom by going to movie theatres, musical performances, hockey games or take long strolls through the park.

The central figure in the novel is Therese, a 19-year-old “orphan”, who has taken a Christmas sales job working on the doll counter of Frankenberg’s department store. The job is just a temporary arrangement in order to pay the bills while she looks for something in her real line of work, which is a stage designer.

One day she serves an attractive woman in her early 30s, and finds herself completely smitten by her.

She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by these, Therese could not look away.

Under normal circumstances you would expect Therese, who already has a steady boyfriend — the ever-dependable if somewhat dull Richard — to forget this customer. But Therese is determined to befriend her and armed with her address (garnered by arranging to have her purchases home delivered), she sends her a Christmas card. What follows is a burgeoning friendship in which Therese slowly manages to ingratiate herself into Carol’s life.

And while Therese is clearly obsessed by Carol, the feelings are not reciprocated because Carol is too caught up in her own problems: a bitter divorce and a potential custody battle over her young daughter. But the dynamic between them soon changes when the pair disappear on a road trip across the United States…

For a novel that is billed as a “lesbian romance” there isn’t really much romance in this book. Nor is there any sex. This is more a novel about a young woman’s coming of age, of her finding her place in the world and of broadening her horizons beyond her closeted life in Manhattan. On another level it also focuses on the power plays between people — who has more to lose, who has more to gain — and of the ways in which our “lifestyle choices”, particularly in 1950s America, determine our fate.

It’s an incredibly atmospheric story, because Highsmith is able to build a sense of impending doom and menace without really spelling anything out. There’s not much detail here, though, and there are frustrating moments when you realise you have to do a lot of reading “between the lines” to understand what is fully going on. I found Therese particularly annoying at times, but perhaps that’s because Highsmith has painted such a faithful portrait of someone incredibly naive and unexperienced about affairs of the heart that she feels all too real.

Highsmith is also excellent at maintaining momentum. With its clipped prose and choppy sentences, it feels like a suspense novel, because everything moves so quickly, including the conversations between characters. I found it difficult to put down, if only because I wanted to know how the relationship between Therese and Carol panned out.

On that note, I should point out that if you are considering reading this book, it’s best not to read other reviews online, including the wikipedia entry, because they all make a big point of revealing the ending. And if you buy this Bloomsbury edition, leave the introduction by McDermid until last, because it too features a major spoiler. The blurb, I’m happy to report, gives nothing away.