RHYS BOWEN: One of the fun aspects of being a Jungle Red is meeting new-to-me writers. And when I was introduced to Holly Brown I found out that she lives in San Francisco, so we're almost neighbors! So I'm welcoming her today to share her insights into psychological thrillers. And it turns out that her pet peeve is mine too! Is it yours as well?
HOLLY BROWN: I’m a therapist who writes psychological thrillers (or domestic suspense, if you prefer.) And I have to confess to one of my pet peeves in the genre: When after a novel full of fascinating twists and turns, the final answer turns out to be, “The sociopath did it” (or “the psychopath,” if you prefer.)
It’s just such a cop-out. I mean, humans are inherently fascinating, full of complicated and contradictory motivations. Good people do bad things all the time. Why? The simple answer is: the unique psychology of the characters, plus enormous stress. That intersection is where a truly great writer of the genre can work magic.
I’m lucky in that I hear all sorts of stories all the time in my therapy office. So I’m constantly reminded of people’s vulnerabilities, struggles, and resilience. The struggles might start with the external circumstance, but then become internal, with the stereotypical angel versus devil on their shoulder. They might know what they should do, but they have all sorts of rationalizations that lead them to do something else. Or sometimes, people are just presented with exceedingly hard choices, and what’s right is not nearly as clear. In times of extreme emotional or physical pain, or intense fear, or rage, people can become capable of what they never thought possible.
That’s where some phenomenal fiction is born—with real people in crazy-making circumstances. My favorite suspense books make me believe that this particular person, when under these particular stresses, with that particular history would have taken a particular action that makes all hell break loose, credibly.
That’s the kind of novel I tried to write with THIS IS NOT OVER, my next release in January. And below are three of my favorite examples of psychological thrillers made psychological (or psychology made thrilling, if you prefer):
1) Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante –
Dr. Jennifer White, once an accomplished surgeon, is now afflicted with Alzheimer’s. When her neighbor and friend is found dead with four fingers severed at the joints, Dr. White is the logical suspect. But did she commit the crime, or is she being framed? And how can she piece it together with a crumbling memory?
It’s as good as it sounds. Alice LaPlante works in enough medical data and information about how memory operates (and how it begins to fail) to ground the story without diluting the suspense. I was totally caught up, and I believed it all.
2) Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry
Nora goes to visit her sister Rachel in the countryside outside London, and discovers that Rachel has been murdered. It’s a mystery because we want to know who did it; it’s also a thriller as Nora is in danger herself and harboring various secrets, her own and her sister’s. It’s a short book and a fast read, but a powerful one. The sisters’ relationship and Nora’s grief packs an emotional and psychological punch.
3) A Line of Blood, by Ben McPherson
Alex Mercer loves his 11-year-old son Max and his wife Millicent. They’re his whole world. But after a neighbor is found dead, Alex faces a reckoning in the most important relationships in his life. How far would you go to protect those you love?
Max is precocious, as children often are in thrillers, but not beyond the pale. The marital and the parental relationships are expertly drawn, and the tensions ratchet beautifully. These are flawed and difficult personalities, and no, they’re not always likable, but they’re intriguing.
So that’s my short list! What’s on yours?
Holly Brown lives with her husband and daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s a practicing marriage and family therapist. Her blog, “Bonding Time”, is featured on Psychcentral.com, a mental health website with 1.5 million visitors per month. Her novels from HarperCollins/Morrow are: DON’T TRY TO FIND ME, A NECESSARY END, and the forthcoming (in January) THIS IS NOT OVER. She also has an e-book only novella called STAY GONE available now from Harper Impulse.
RHYS: If you are dying to find out about Holly's upcoming novel, here is the scoop on it: THIS IS NOT OVER:
A chance encounter through a vacation home rental site leads to an escalating game of cat-and-mouse between two very different women. Two very different women, that is, with one thing in common: Each knows they're right, and they're determined to win this battle of words and wills and (eventually) worse. No one can yield, not before they’ve dredged up hidden secrets, old hurts, and painful truths that threaten to shatter the foundation of their lives.