Hazel McHaffie

psychological thriller

Missing …

I do love discovering a new author and devouring their books. It’s a bit like getting to know a new friend. One such recent discovery was Samantha Hayes. You might – or much more likely, might well not! – remember I posted a review of a psychological thriller by her at the beginning of August. It rang lots of bells with me, which sent me off in search of more of her books. I bought four – enough to give me a feel for the kind of writer she is, I thought.

Until You’re Mine which came out in 2013, was her first published thriller, so it was appropriate that this was the first one I read. Had her style changed over the years? Is she a predictable author? Would I find her later novels as exciting? I’m very aware that there are downsides to immersing oneself in the writings of a single author – even the best can pall somewhat with over-exposure.

Well, Hayes specialises in scary, skin-crawling tension, that’s for sure … and missing persons … and last minute unpredictable twists. I’ll give you a brief summary of each novel in chronological order of publication.

You Belong to Me (2015)
Three women have been terrified by stalkers. Two of them – Alexandra Stanford and Melanie Carter – are now dead. Both had red hair, both had infinity tattoos surgically removed from their bodies. The third one, Isabel Moore, also red haired with the same tattoo on her neck, vanished without trace.

DI Lorraine Fisher is haunted by the memory of Alexandra’s dead body. She feels responsible; Alex had reported her terror but there had been insufficient evidence for the police to do anything about her stalker, Jimmy Hardwick. Melanie’s case was different, but some time after her death, Lorraine is told about a man having hassled her too. Could this be the same stalker? Is there a serial killer on her patch?

Isabel Moore, the third woman, has hidden herself away in India, but she comes out of hiding when she receives word that both of her parents are dead; killed in a car crash. And to her horror, she learns that the driver of the car was Felix Darwin, the same controlling man who had made her life a living hell.

Three first person voices tell the story, all with serious issues. One of those voices is that of the seriously disturbed man who terrorises women. It’s scary stuff and certainly gets inside the experience of abusive control. I didn’t guess the final twist but I did find some of the action rather stretched my credulity.

In Too Deep (2016)
Gina Forrester is struggling – first her son Jacob dies; then her husband Rick disappears. Now someone is taunting her. Is she going mad? Who was watching her from inside that house in Evalina Street? Who really booked a week’s holiday in a luxury hotel for her? And what exactly is her daughter Hannah hiding from her? Everywhere she goes Gina sees ‘bits of Rick, as if he’s been blown into a million pieces‘, and she’s determined to gather them all up, piece him back together again.

Some of the clues are rather too clunky/unsubtle for my liking and I did guess the main twists well before they were revealed, but the question of how it would all resolve itself remained, and that tension kept me reading. Nothing, however, prepared me for the last few lines. (It was the final page of Until you’re Mine that blew me away too.)

The Reunion (2018)
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. The Reunion conjures up the cold horror felt by a family when a thirteen year old girl, Lenni, vanishes. It’s 21 years ago now … and the family are in trouble once again. Her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; family rifts are unresolved; someone is sending creepy messages saying the caller knows where Lenni is. It’s time to sell the property which gave such joy and security to the children and their friends. Lenni’s sister Claire decides they’ll have one last hurrah at the house and arranges a reunion of everyone from those halcyon days – which means all those who were present when Lenni actually went missing. But the week intended for reminiscence therapy for her father and healing for them all, turns into a nightmare. Another teenager goes missing. Crimes are committed. Trust is shaken.

This one ticks lots of boxes. It covers my kind of territory: eating disorders, dementia, family dynamics and secrets. Again the ending was a surprise, but for me, the writing isn’t as good as the first one of Hayes’ books I read, and that took the edge off my enjoyment.

So, overall, Samantha Hayes gets a big tick from me for her devious plotting, and for her breathless ‘well-I-didn’t-see-that-coming’ endings. And I’ve learned something more about how to tingle spines in a domestic psychological thriller. But comparisons show me that the component that grabs my interest most is the topic under review and its ethical dimensions. Part of my mind is sorting, seething, delving beneath the surface, wondering What would I do?

 

 

 

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Publication at last!

Wahey! It’s finally finally between covers and published and available. Phew! My eleventh novel.

As you know Killing Me Gently is something of a departure for me – a psychological thriller, and I have no idea if my regular readers will be pleased or nonplussed by the change. Several people have got in touch to say they’ve immediately ordered a copy because they ‘love thrillers’ … hmmm, but do they include this kind of thriller, I wonder? I’m hoping for lots of feedback – the honest variety, no holds barred, of course.

The story centres around a young career woman, Anya Morgan, who has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband. And now to complete the picture, a new baby, Gypsy Lysette  … except Gypsy hasn’t read the textbooks; she doesn’t conform to Anya’s standards of perfection.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising his marriage and his relationship with his brother.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon …

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? The social workers and the protection team are caught on the horns of a dilemma, damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t. Will they act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ve already had some lovely comments on Tom Bee’s super-special cover. That’s always a good start.

 

 

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Criminally insane

Ahhhah, now this one is right on the knuckle for my ongoing research. Relationships, mental health, the law, professional boundaries … it’s all there. Settle down for the long haul … glass of wine, top notch chocolate, notebook at the ready …

Plea of InsanityIt’s a psychological thriller: Plea of Insanity by Jilliane Hoffman. Full of fascinating medical and legal information. At once spine chilling and yet sympathetic to those suffering serious mental illness. Cliff hangers at the end of each chapter. Brilliant. Hoffman was an Assistant State Attorney herself and has advised special agents on complex investigations. She also had a friend caught up in a similar situation to the protagonist in Plea of Insanity. She writes with real authority.

First then, the storyline. Dr David Marquette is a successful surgeon with a dream house, pretty wife and three gorgeous kids. Then one day, emergency services take a tremulous call from their house: a child’s voice pleading for help. The police race to the scene. What do they find? A shocking bloodbath. Scenes so horrific that veteran officers are reduced to sobbing wrecks. All three kiddies and their mother brutally butchered; the doctor seriously wounded.

And now Dr Marquette himself stands accused. Is he guilty? Could a man who has dedicated his life to caring for patients be capable of such brutality? Could any sane man kill his entire family in cold blood? But is he sane? If so, he must be a monster. Or is he suffering from schizophrenia? I changed my mind several times as to his guilt or innocence – all part of the mesmerizing experience.

State prosecutor, Julia Valenciano, is hand-picked to unravel the truth and bring this man to justice, but as she delves into the mind of the criminally insane, personal baggage emerges from her own past, dark secrets from her family history that will destroy her present peace and haunt her whole future. ‘Too many lies told to too many people, too many secrets kept for too many years …’ If I’m being really nitpicky, I found the parallels a bit too contrived, but that doesn’t stop it being a cracking good read.

And it’s set my mind racing along several productive tracks for my own next book. As so often I’m hugely grateful to all these authors whose work inspires and influences me. Thanks, guys.

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Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl is one of those much-hyped books that hit the headlines big time. OK, OK, I know, I know!  I’m way behind the curve here; it did indeed come out in 2012 and I did buy my hardback copy ages ago, but I’ve only just got around to reading it this week. It’s attracted thousands of reviews (with its fair share of negative ones it must be admitted), won prestigious awards, and was dubbed ‘thriller of the year’. In my case I selected it now to serve a dual purpose: to psych myself gradually back into work mode after a couple of weeks of family priorities; and to hopefully counteract a recent run of disappointing reads.

So what did I make of it? Well, I can quite see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but my agenda as a writer is probably atypical, and I found it gripping.

The book is divided into three parts, each one combining all the ingredients of a psychological thriller with the intense dissection of a marriage, each one taking us deeper and further into the conundrum of a relationship and the dark capabilities of the human mind. It’s ingeniously constructed, smoothly paced, with unreliable narrators providing contradictions and plot twists to keep the reader guessing right to the end. Nothing is as it seems.

It begins well with two very distinctive narrator voices – Nick Dunne (American magazine writer until computers took over the world and the economy went down the plughole) and his wife Amy (writer of personality quizzes and reluctant model for a series of books about Amazing Amy). One paragraph in each voice to give a flavour:

Nick: My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shuffling and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward a finale, a cakepan drum rolling along the floor, hitting the wall with a cymballic crash. Something impressive was being created, probably a crepe, because crepes are special, and today Amy would want to cook something special.
It was our five-year anniversary.

 Amy: Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!
But I did. This is a technical, empirical truth. I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.

She is the woman that every American girl (allegedly) aspires to be – beautiful, brilliant, inspiring, and very wealthy. He is the guy that all American men (allegedly) admire – handsome, funny, bright and charming. But on 5 July, their seemingly perfect world comes crashing down when Amy Elliott Dunne disappears, leaving behind a scene of overturned furniture and hastily mopped up blood, the iron still switched on, a half-pressed dress still on the board. It’s their fifth wedding anniversary.

They’ve had their problems: redundancy, ill parents, financial reversals, but Nick is appalled and bewildered (allegedly) when evidence mounts against him, clear motives are identified, and he becomes chief suspect in Amy’s supposed murder. Every year on their anniversary Amy has prepared a treasure hunt reflecting their in-jokes and secret knowledge of each other; this year the clues seem weighted in a sinister and damning way. The police, the press, friends, family, neighbours watch mesmerized as the Dunne’s seemingly charmed lives unravel to reveal a very different reality.

Any author skilled enough to hold all those timelines and lies and plot twists together and unpack a story as deviously compelling as this, deserves enormous admiration. I was constantly checking and double checking and worrying about links far less complicated than this in my own books, so it was no surprise to read that Gillian Flynn had pieces of paper and index cards taped all over the walls of her office as she wrote Gone Girl, and by the time she’d finished the room ‘looked like the lair of a serial killer‘ with ‘crazy words and questions fluttering from every surface‘. The end result is so tight and assured and beautifully dovetailed because of this meticulous attention to detail and thorough cross-checking. Top marks there.

Gone Girl DVDI rarely watch films of books I’ve read – they never match with my imagined characters and places, and usually miss out vital components, but in this case I made an exception. Given the complexity of the story, surely no film could do justice to the printed version, all the unreliable elements, all the deceptions. But it can and it does*. Perhaps that’s in no small measure a tribute to the author who herself contributed to the screenplay. Her parents were both community-college professors – her mother teaching reading; her father, film, and according to her website Gillian ‘spent an inordinate amount of her youth nosing through books and watching movies‘. That could explain a lot. Whatever, Gillian Flynn certainly has an amazing talent; she’s indisputably a master of ‘dark and nasty‘!

I am now absorbed in the tactic of unreliable narrator …

*NB. The filmmakers need to take lessons in the properties of blood! The scenes involving copious amounts of it are entirely unconvincing.

 

 

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