Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Makes a Psychological Thriller Psychological? A guest post from Holly Brown

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, 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.

Follow Holly on Facebook at 
or her website

Holly will be giving away an advance copy to one lucky commenter today. So do share your favorite psychological suspense novels with us.


  1. Such an interesting piece, Holly . . . I’m looking forward to reading "This Is Not Over."

    My pet peeve? The “evil twin” sprung on the reader at the last moment. I don’t like the whole “good twin/bad twin” thing in the first place . . . and it’s always so predictable.

    The stories I enjoy most are the ones that surprise me, the ones I haven’t figured out long before the author’s reveal. “Those Girls” [Chevy Stevens] and “The Couple Next Door” [Shari Lapena] are a couple I’ve enjoyed recently. I always enjoy Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware stories and Lisa Unger always manages to surprise me . . . . .

  2. Holly, I cannot tell you how muchI love your book! And I have thought about it--and talked about it--so much since I read the arc. Congratulations!

    I just read The Couple Next Door too, Joan! AndI thought it was terrific.

    And is it a challenge to write such books--since so much is internal?

  3. I wrote a mystery series with a neuropsychologist as the sleuth... first book was about memory, second one about addiction... and my pet peeve is when the psychologist is a sleeze, sleeps w/his patients. It's such a cliche (sadly because it's all too common).

    Holly, I'm going to have to read your books because they sound right up my alley. Megan Abbott's books are right up there for me as psychologically astute. And I loved Lucy's advice column series (writing as Roberta Isleib). Also Peter Abrahams OBLIVION written from the viewpoint of a man who has a brain tumor.Also Shannon Kirk's METHOD 15/33.

  4. I love all three of the book Holly mentions and two of them have been reviewed on my blog - the LaPlante is old enough that BOLO Books was not around at the time or I surely would have reviewed that at well.

    Some recent(ish) ones I really enjoyed were All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker and Elizabeth Little's Dear Daughter. Over the holiday weekend, I read as ARC of Erin Kelly's 2017 book (not out until June here in the States) called He Said/She Said. I expect big things from this one - it was simply excellent!

  5. Holly, it looks like I can safely return to the thriller genre--I was so tired of the psychopath/sociopath/serial killer books.

    I know they aren't normally thought of as 'psychological thrillers'--but one of the things I enjoyed most about Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books was the fact that the characters--including the killer/s-- were ordinary people. A few years ago in my small town, there was a murder/suicide. In a seemingly ordinary couple, the wife had filed for divorce, which the husband desperately did not want. An argument (one of many, probably, in hindsight)escalated and the husband strangled his wife, then shot her and barricaded himself in the garage for four hours before shooting himself. Everyone was saying--papers--etc--that he killed himself because the police had him cornered and he couldn't escape. While we'll never know, I think the poor man--in those four hours--calmed down--from his rage--and realized what he had done--that he had killed this woman whom he loved--and that no matter what--he couldn't undo that act. And he couldn't live with that knowledge.

  6. Joan Emerson, I've got your suggestions on my list!
    And Hank Phillippi Ryan, you're the best! So great to have your support. And no, I don't find it hard to write so much that's internal. That comes naturally to me. But sometimes I have to think, very consciously, about how to make it more external--as in, where the action is coming from.
    Hallie Ephron, I love the idea of a neuropsychologist sleuth, because it is the kind of job where you're searching for answers that are non-obvious. The therapist (or doctor) sleeping with their patients is one of my all-time most hated tropes, too!
    Kristopher, I really liked "Dear Daughter", too, and "All is Not Forgotten" is on my list.
    FChurch, I love the idea of revisiting some Agatha Christie. I was obsessed with them as a teenager.

  7. OH, oh, wait wait. Before I Go To Sleep! By SJ Watson. It is amazing. Amazing!

    And I always talk about I Let You Go. By Clare Macintosh.

    It's such a juggle to figure out what's fair to the reader.

  8. And that's exactly what I mean, Holly--so much of what makes it cool is internal and a twisted or hidden motivation. But you can't have a book where someone is just ..thinking and planning..

  9. I have enjoyed M.J. Rose's Butterfield Institute series. Now I have many more books to put on my list thanks to this blog.

  10. I think most of Louise Penny's books, which I love, could be called psychological suspense novels.

    There's an author I've stopped reading because in about the first half dozen books, the killer was always someone with a mental illness diagnosis.

    Deb Romano

  11. Welcome Holly. I very much look forward to exploring your books.

    The psychological thriller is my favorite genre, and Ruth Rendell was the maestro. Oh how I miss her. Whether writing as Barbara Vine or under her own name, she never disappointed me.

    One device I enjoy when the author tells us the killer from the start, with the story being about the psychology of a disturbed mind. Two come to mind, A DARK ADAPTED EYE and ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME.

    I'm not much interested in the love interest of the psychologist/psychiatrist unless it is germane. I'm not at all interested in a series that is all about the same psychopath, the revolving doors of the prison or hospital for the criminally insane, and the sick fascination of the lead detective with said psychopath. Boring. (If you know who I'm referring to, hush.)

    So, Holly, I am very pleased to meet you and have already ordered DON'T TRY TO FIND ME. Thanks for writing.

  12. This gives me encouragement to try more "thrillers." I tend to avoid them because I find them too unsettling.

    I, unfortunately, don't remember the name of the book or author, but the story was about an investigator (?) who was injured and had cognitive challenges as she recovered. How much that she thought was happening was real and how much was her muzzy thinking? Could she trust her own skills, compromised as they were? Nicely done.
    Anyone know the book?

  13. A note to the Reds:

    Thoughts on rapidly approaching 76:

    Thanks to ALL of you for writing.

    Daily I consider writing. And then I read something, am into one of your books, Deb, at the moment. Every page I find my self marveling on how you do it. How do you think of these twists and turns. How do you conjure up a house, a village, an overcoat, or a muddy road out of your imagination? I say imagination because I know all of this can't be from life experience. Or is it? Whoa, that makes the air here even more rarefied.

    Like sex, the worst book I ever read was so good I could hardly stand it. Ok, that's an exaggeration. Bad books I throw across the room.

    If I could be one thing when I grow up, it would be to have even a modicum of your skill, discipline, and creativity.

    But I don't. And I won't. So consider me a dutiful, merciful, thoughtful, faithful, grateful reader. And devotee of the Oxford comma.

  14. Holly, count me in as over the "psychopath is the killer" trope. And the sleezy doctor who sleeps with his patients. Ugh.

    I've read a lot of the books mentioned here, but there are a few new ones for the TBR pile.

  15. I love the suspense novels by Jusi Adler-Olsen; they're suspenseful, twisted, and just plain well-written!

  16. To Libby:
    I think the book you're trying to remember is Marcia Muller's "Coming Back." It's a Sharon McCone mystery and follows up on one called "Locked In" -- which I haven't read. But "Coming Back" sounds a lot like the one you describe.

    Mary Grover

  17. Thanks, everyone, for the warm welcome, and for such great recommendations! I'm going to get to fill my Goodreads queue after this!
    Ann in Rochester, you're making me smile!

  18. Any of Catriona MacPherson's books that are not her Dandy Gilver series. That's good, too, but the rest of her books, all standalones, are suspenseful, and amazing.

  19. I totally agree on the serial killer/psychopath thing, and hate books where the therapist sleeps with the patient (of either sex.)

    I've loved S.J. Bolton's books--she's brilliant. And Catriona MacPherson's non-series books are way up on my must read list.

    Holly, your books sound terrific, and I also want to read the book set in London that you mentioned. Too many books, not enough time.... as always.

  20. Ann: I totally agree with you about Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell).

    Another vintage author who wrote great psychological thrillers was Patricia Highsmith. Strangers on a Train. And her Tom Ripley character was one of the first sociopaths (or psychopath?) that I remember looking forward to read.

  21. To me, a big part of the pleasure of the psychological thriller is the deep dive into characters and their relationships. In contrast to action thrillers, where the characterizations are sometimes demoted to one defining trait (He saw his partner killed before his eyes! She lost both her parents in a car crash!), in a psychological thriller, the inner lives of the characters are crucial to creating the story.

    One of my favorites is an older book: BEFORE AND AFTER by Rosellen Brown. You may have seen the movie adaptation with Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep. A Massachusetts couple wakes up to discover their son is missing and his girlfriend has been killed. Did he murder her? Has he been the victim of a kidnapping? And the most important question of all - what will his father do to protect him?

    It's a great example of what Holly is talking about: ordinary people driven to extremes.

  22. Hi Holly, How do you find the time to be a therapist and a published author? I'm putting "This Is Not Over" on my TBR list!

    I loved "I Let You Go" by Clare Mackintosh, and I just finished "The Couple Next Door" which was a real page turner. I'm really enjoying the novels of Gilly Macmillan, starting with "What She Knew." This may fall closer to the mystery category, but I also thought "Missing, Presumed" by Susie Steiner was excellent. I always love reading Chevy Stevens for darker suspense, and Carla Buckley writes terrific domestic suspense, generally centered around family dynamics and relationships.

    Here's a question: do more women write psychological thrillers than men? When I look at my stack, that genre seems more weighted toward women writers, but maybe that's just coincidence?

  23. Women definitely read a lot more psychological thrillers than men. Well, women read a lot more of everything than men. Even when men write, they're really writing for women, in terms of the buying public/audience. Maybe now there are just more women writers than there used to be, perhaps even more than men? Just musing here!

  24. I love the mix of authors represented/recommended: From Agatha Christine, Patricia Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell, to those with books out just this past year, like Shari Lapena with "The Couple Next Door." Please, keep 'em coming!

  25. Yes, I agree with Rhys opening question, and Holly's opening thought, that the solution is a killer who is "sick" is copout. It's one of the reasons I dislike serial killer stories. Mysterious twisted genes or brains? Oh, please. Far more interesting is the what and why that turns a somewhat ordinary human to such an extreme act. Looking forward to getting to know Holly's work!

  26. Fascinating! Sent me right to Amazon. As for the pet peeve. YES, I agree. In any genre, not only thrillers.

  27. I hate when the murderer is finally brought to justice. or even killed only to return in the sequel. Especially when they are resurrected. Thrillers should not be not cheap cliched horror.

    I think having every day people pushed beyond their limits is far more scary than sociopaths. In real life sociopaths or psychopaths are fairly rare, but everyone has a breaking point. Looking forward to reading Holly's books.

  28. Rhys, I so agree about meeting new-to-me authors here on Jungle Reds. My reading life has been so enriched with the authors I've met here. Holly, I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, as I love psychological thrillers, and This Is Not Over is now on my TBR list. I, too, think that it's much more interesting for the killer to be an ordinary person who succumbs to extraordinary circumstances and does what would be the unthinkable for that person.

    One of my favorite psychological suspense novels has been mentioned several times, I Let You Go. And, I agree with the stand-alone books of Catriona McPherson and the Inspector Gamache books from Louise Penny. Oh, and, Debs, I am a huge fan of S.J. Bolton, too, and I just finished her latest, Daisy in Chains. I enjoyed the 2014 Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, in which an elderly woman who is dealing with dementia must sort through what is real and not in her mind as she tries to discover what has happened to a friend of hers who has disappeared. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye was a great read and fascinating to me because of the main character's mind and her ability to reason out her murders.

  29. Kathy, how is Daisy in Chains?

    And its SJ Watson for Before I go to SLeep, though, isn't it?

  30. Hank: Yes, S.J. Watson wrote Before I Go To Sleep, and I agree it was great. I have not read her second book called Second Life...has anyone?

    I see that several people have listed Louise Penny's Gamache books under this category. While I do enjoy reading the Gamache books, I frankly do not consider them as psychological suspense stories but that's me.

  31. Kathy, is "Daisy in Chains" a Lacey Flint book?

  32. Holly,

    Welcome to JRW! If it is ok to ask, how do you separate the stories you write from the stories you hear from your clients? I was going to say that I am too chicken to read psychological thrillers. Then I remembered that I loved Louise Penny's Inspector Gamanche series.

    One of the comments mentioned a series where the killer always had a mental disorder and I remember reading a series like that. In that series, all of the books with one exception had the killer with a mental disorder.

    I added your books to my TBR list.

    So wonderful to meet many new authors on this blog!


  33. No, Ingrid, it's not a Lacey Flint.

  34. Sorry, Hank, I should have answered your questions in the comment I just posted. First, let me reiterate that I love S.J. (or Sharon, as she now goes by) Bolton's books. How was Daisy in Chains? I honestly am still trying to decide. For the most part, I would say it's a great read, and I tell you what it was that bothered me without telling you the ending. And, it is S.J. Watson for Before I Go to Sleep.

  35. For Grace and others. Here is a review of S.J. Watson's Second Life. It was not nearly as original as Before I Go to Sleep, but does still have some excellent storytelling.

    (And I agree, as much as I love Louise Penny and Three Pines, I would never call them psychological suspense. The can be suspenseful and Louise's understanding of human psychology is unparalleled in the crime fiction world, I just don't think the meet that criteria for the sub-genre)

  36. How could I not have mentioned Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale! Talk about a psychological page turner. And from such an unlikely source. Sowie!

  37. I got hooked on psychological thrillers earlier this year when I read 'Behind Closed Doors'. A very good book that I didn't want to put down - wanted to know what happened next.

  38. There are a wide range of sorts of thriller stories running from activity experience, puzzle, wrongdoing, court, and even paranormal. In any case, there is one class of this sort is not quite the same as the rest since it concentrates more on the enthusiastic parts of the story, as opposed to the activity. What's more, that sort of story is the psychological thriller. Read more