Hazel McHaffie

psychological thrillers

Disclaimer

We’re deep in a situation of lockdown still and the stark reality of our world-wide war against Covid-19 has made most of our everyday preoccupations seem trivial. But it behoves us all to find strategies for keeping our mental as well as our physical heath as robust as we can. My first go-to respite activity is reading (no surprises there, huh?); getting lost in a whole other world, so I’m going to share my thoughts on a psychological thriller bought back in the (g)olden days when life was busy, and books accumulated waiting for time to read them. Those far off days when I was immersing myself in thrillers in order to learn the mechanics of writing in this genre. Before real life took over the role of sending shivers down our spines.

It’s Renée Knight‘s debut novel, Disclaimer.

How many people bother to read the small-print information at the beginning of a novel about publication, rights, cataloguing, typesetting and copyright? Very few, I’d guess. And those few, other writers and publishers probably. But in amongst all that boring detail you’ll find a disclaimer to the effect that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

What if, though, that disclaimer had a red line drawn through it? THAT would make you sit up and take notice, wouldn’t it? And so it is when award-winning documentary maker, Catherine Ravenscroft, finds a book on her bedside table with the disclaimer crossed out. With a chill of horror coursing through her veins, as she reads, she becomes increasingly aware that she herself is not only the foundation of the story, but the key player. The words ricochet around her brain, slam into her chest, one after another. The names may have been changed, but the details are unmistakable. And this story will reveal a secret she thought no one else knew; a secret she has carried unshared for two decades.

Who has written it? Who has delivered it? Who has sent a second copy to her only son, Nicholas? Who has spelled out her death – under the wheels of a train – the price she must pay for pretending that everything was absolutely fine. Her dread increases exponentially as the stalker closes in.

We, the readers, know the sender is an elderly English teacher, Stephen Brigstocke, who himself has something rather unsavoury in his history. After the death of his wife Nancy, he stumbles across a stash of erotic photographs, and a secret manuscript written by her – clues she left for him to find. Clues relating to the tragic death of their only son, Jonathan, who drowned in Spain trying to rescue a five year old boy, and to a terrible truth Nancy had concealed from her husband during her lifetime.

Desire for revenge consumes him. He publishes Nancy’s story, The Perfect Stranger, and hand delivers his grenade.

‘… the  book was like a terrier, my Jack Russell of a novel which would sniff her from her hiding place and chase her out into the open. Its sharp, pointed teeth would expose her, strip away the counterfeit selves she’d assembled.’

But the wait for revenge is slow and protracted. Alternating chapters give us the feel for the cat and mouse game being played out by these two. Extracts from The Perfect Stranger paint a picture of what happened in that Spanish holiday resort all those years ago. But gradually, chillingly, we are made aware that nothing is what it seems; a far more terrible reality underpins the tale told by those incriminating photographs.

As expected the story twists and turns and we’re exposed to the worst aspects of the characters’ inner selves, none of whom are very likeable. But it’s cleverly designed, and I was intrigued by the author’s ability to slowly but inexorably turn the entire story on its head. Tightening the screw one more time right at the very end.

An unpredictable but intriguing diversion in these weirdly nightmarish days when the real world is spinning into an uncertain and unknowable future.

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A Room Swept White

When I was working on my latest novel, Killing Me Gently, I was affected quite profoundly by the emotions of two of my characters who were struggling mentally in different ways. The closer I got to knowing and understanding them, the more tense and edgy I felt.

Imagine that situation in a time of a pandemic such as now! Real and justified anxiety. Widespread uncertainty. Close confinement. A reduction in social contact and support. Distorted perspectives. Suspicion. Less resources for support services. It’s a tinderbox.

And thinking along these lines took me to a psychological thriller I read some weeks ago:  A Room Swept White by best-selling writer of crime fiction Sophie Hannah. A psychological thriller set in ‘my’ world, so it ticked all my boxes.

From the outset we’re plunged into a hugely disturbing story, set brilliantly by means of two scenarios: a police briefing in a murder case; and an interview between an investigative journalist cum documentary maker and a middle-class physiotherapist recently released from prison.

We know from the blurb on the back cover that three women have been wrongly accused of murdering children, that all three are subsequently freed, and that Dr Judith Duffy, a paediatric pathologist and prime expert witness in their cases, is under investigation for misconduct. Then one of the three women is found shot dead in her own home.

TV producer, Fliss Benson, is suddenly and unexpectedly promoted to work on a documentary about miscarriages of justice, and on the same day receives an anonymous card with sixteen numbers arranged in four rows of four figures. But she has her own private and personal reasons for not wanting to work in this area. The card has to be significant; of that she’s sure, even though her boss dismisses it out of hand. The murder victim had a card with sixteen numbers on it arranged in four rows of four, in her pocket. And one by one other significant women are singled out for similar cards all penned by the same hand, all on expensive paper.

Then CID strongly advises Fliss to cease all work on the cot-death murders documentary. She knows it’s what she ought to do; she also knows she can’t do it. It’s nothing to do with justice, it’s her only way of  fixing whatever it is that’s eating away at her and her self-identity.

So many factors in this story rang bells and gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. The pathological details in the cases of the babies who died – suffocation, smothering, shaking, salt poisoning … Professionals damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t …  One social worker driven to suicide because of his failure to safeguard a vulnerable child .. Munchausens-by-proxy … Witnesses changing their minds, swayed by so-called experts. Jurors confused by the conflicting convictions and arguments … Court testimony distorted, coloured, changing … everywhere doubt, suspicion. And it’s so skillfully written, I was kept in confusion and suspense to the very end.

So why did it ring so many bells? Not just because it explores similar ground to my Killing me Gently … ahhhh, yes, … of course … it’s there in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Hannah took her inspiration from three real-life cases of women wrongly convicted, whose stories I followed closely at the time, and indeed mentioned in a post on this very blog – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel. Three human there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tragedies.

So, an excellent read, but perhaps not for vulnerable new mothers at this time of global tension and fear for the future.

Stay safe out there, everyone, and I hope you can find the space for reading those books you never normally seem to get round to!

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Behind Closed Doors

‘Behind closed doors’ … a familiar slogan, isn’t it? Instantly conjures up the horrors of domestic violence, abuse, and pathological relationships. And too often it’s women who are caught behind those doors, unable or unwilling to seek help, putting on a brave front for the outside world. So it seems like a fitting subject for a week that began with International Women’s Day on March 8th. The flags have already been raised: the Duchess of Cornwall calling for the topic of domestic violence and coercive control to be openly discussed, warning of the corrosive effect of silence; then the Duchess of Sussex using her last solo public platform before she retires from royal life to urge people to respect and value women. So let’s capitalise on that foundation.

Put the same term – ‘behind closed doors – into an Amazon book search, and instantly six titles of novels come up. Hmmm. Odd. My first check when I create a new title for my own books is to make sure it’s unique. But maybe ‘behind closed doors’ is irresistible. It’s so instantly evocative, speaking so powerfully, it can bear repetition without losing impact.

Hey ho. I’ve been sucked in, anyway. I already have two of those six ‘behind closed doors’ books on my shelves. The first one chosen because I’ve enjoyed Susan Lewis‘ writing before, and the second because I was – and still am – devouring anything claiming to be a psychological thriller.

Behind Closed Doors by Susan Lewis isn’t, I have to confess, as compelling as others she’s written. Fourteen-year-old Sophie Monroe has vanished along with her computer, mobile phone and a bag of clothes. The Detective Sergeant who’s investigating the disappearance is painfully reminded of a tragedy that tore her own family apart twenty years ago: her teenage sister vanished and has never been found. She struggles to separate the two stories and maintain perspective and judgement, as a tale of jealousy and fear and secrecy unravels. This one, to my mind, is overly generous with adjectives in places; all the characters seem to have secrets or tragedy in their past; and an improbable number of them have lost children or young parents. So I don’t plan to dwell on that one in this post.

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris on the other hand, promised a lot. A debut novel billed as ‘makes your blood run cold … fast and frantic …heart-pounding … utterly compelling …’ it fits the basic requirements for a psychological thriller which I can analyse without previous baggage.

‘Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.’ So why are there steel shutters on their windows, high walls round their perfect garden, and one window barred? Yep, we’re wary already, aren’t we?

In his professional life, handsome, debonair Jack is the champion of battered wives. Grace has given up her career to be a stay-at-home wife so he doesn’t have to come home to an empty house or an exhausted partner. Losing is not a word in his vocabulary. And ‘everything he does and everything he says is calculated down to the last full stop. He prides himself on uttering only the truth … He is so clever, so very clever.’

Enter new neighbours, Esther and Rufus. Esther is a woman who’s suspicious of perfection. What is it with this completely joined-at-the-hip couple? Why doesn’t Grace have a mobile phone, or have her own email address, or go out to lunch without him, or honour arrangements …?

What really is going on does indeed make the blood run cold. Here is a dark mind, an amoral compass, depravity wrapped up in immaculate manners and a charming devotion. As the past and present inch closer together we are rivetted to the page, willing good to triumph over evil, dreading the psychopath out-manoeuvring the victim. The ending is very cleverly crafted and maintains the suspense to the very last page. Scary stuff but an excellent example of tense and fast-moving plotting.

But behind the fiction, lies the real-life problem. Let’s not forget hidden women everywhere for whom oppression or abuse or injustice in any form is their lived experience.

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Messiah

Last week I shared stories about the life of an exceptional real-life forensic pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd. When I worked at Edinburgh University I was familiar with the sight and sound of another such hugely experienced pathologist: Professor Anthony Busittil. So when I found a psychological thriller where he was mentioned in the acknowledgements, my antennae quivered excitedly. And yep, the book looked intriguing enough to buy.
Blurb: A clever serial killer at loose in London’s steamy streets, leaving no clues behind except his trademark – silver spoons in their mouths instead of tongues.
Claim: ‘Guaranteed to haunt your dreams‘. Oh yeah?
Title: Messiah.

You’d certainly need a dependable expert to guide you through the minefields of this particular tale! I can just imagine the phonecalls …
What would happen if you drove a nail through a human hand and let it take the weight of the body?
How would you go about skinning a human body?
What would the blood splatter look like if you cut out a person’s tongue while he was still alive?
What’s also fascinating to me is that Professor Andreas Lubezski, the Home Office Pathologist in the story, shares a number of similar characteristics with Prof Busittil! An accolade or mini-thanks in itself.

So, what of the book then? Well, it was the debut novel for Boris Starling back in 1999, and I’ve subsequently discovered it was dramatised for the BBC with no less than four televised sequels! Who knew?! It completely passed me by. But I guess that ongoing interest gives some indication of its fascination and pull. And indeed, the original book is a fiendishly clever novel, hooking the reader in from the very first sentence, managing to maintain the suspense through eleven gory murders, two wrongful arrests, and even twisting the knife at the very end.

If you’re like me, and haven’t seen or read it before, then
BEWARE: WHAT FOLLOWS INCLUDES SOME SPOILERS

In a nutshell, a killer is stalking the streets of London, slaughtering men to a pattern. Not a shred of incriminating evidence is left behind, just corpses, clothed only in their underpants, with their tongues expertly cut out and solid silver spoons left in their mouths. So from the outset the police know this monster is acutely forensically aware, and he has an agenda, a message. Pitting his wits against this merciless maniac is Detective Superintendent Redfern Metcalfe, a skilled investigator, famed for his ability to get inside the minds of deranged killers. Alongside him, three handpicked colleagues, later reduced to just two. But Red himself has a tortured past. He has hidden an act that could have him imprisoned if it ever came out, and his only brother is serving a life sentence for murder. Baggage enough, you’d think.

Initially Red is at a complete loss. There are no mutual friends, no mutual interests, no apparent pre-death links at all between the victims. So who is ‘Silver Tongue’? Gradually, as the macabre body count rises, the team pieces together a profile. The killer is a religious zealot, basing his murders on biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ, each victim, each manner of death, carefully selected and executed to reflect features relating to each of the apostles, each killing occurring on a specific date.

May 1st. Philip is a caterer. He’s been hanged.
May 1st. James is a bishop. He’s been beaten to death.
July 25th. James is an army officer. He’s been decapitated.
August 24th. Bart(holomew) is a leather worker. He’s been skinned alive.
September 21st. Matthew is a tax inspector. He’s been hacked to death.
October 28th. Jude is a worker with the Samaritan. He’s been clubbed to death.
October 28th. Simon is a member of parliament. He’s found sawn in half.
November 30th. Andrew is a young fish man from Billingsgate market. He’s been crucified on a Scottish Saltire.
December 27th. John was an author and journalist. He died two years before but his embalmed body has been removed from a mausoleum and draped out in the open in Highgate cemetery.
June 29th. Peter is a locksmith. He’d been crucified upside down.
December 21st. Thomas is an architect. He’s been killed by a lance and his right hand severed.

Can you see any patterns?

Well, by the time of the eleventh murder Red has unravelled the secrets of this demonic mind. What’s more, he knows he himself is next. His fear is unlike anything else he has ever experienced; he is up against an assailant who hasn’t made a single mistake in executing this whole series of murders, even when the police knew the date he would next strike, the name of the expected victim, and the likely weapon of destruction. Will Red manage to outwit this monster? Will they capture him alive? It’s mesmerising reading. I must be hardened after all this immersion in psychological thrillers because it hasn’t affected my sleep, but it has given me a sense of awe, in that the real human mind can conceive such a plot and capture it so mind-blowingly well. Hats off to Boris Starling … and Anthony Bussitil!

PS. I’ve since watched the dramatisations and, guess what? the book is way way better!

 

 

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Psychological control

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on train stations of late, and browsing in the book sections on platforms while I wait … and wait … and wait. This week I was struck by the proportion of books in the top 60 which deal with psychology and crime – not just through fiction (there were several of those), but factual books.
Confessions of a Psychopath by ME Thomas
Stalkers by Rachel Cassidy
Talking with Psychopaths and Savages by Christopher Berry-Dee
Talking with Serial Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee
Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd

Hmmm. Is this the current trend, d’you suppose/know?

Weirdly enough, I had a book for the journey on Thursday that takes psychological thriller writing to a whole new level. “A wonderful portrayal of psychological obsession at its creepy best’ as one reviewer puts it. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Creepy serendipity? or just my mind atuned to the subject?

The setting for The Girl Before is an ultra-minimalist house in South Hendon in London: One Folgate Street. Austere, sterile, disciplined. Serene, calm, beautiful emptiness. A mausoleum of a place. Its award-winning architect and owner, Edward Monkford, insists on a huge number of rules – over 200! – for anyone leasing the property: no flatpack furniture, no cushions or rugs, nothing to be left on the floor at any time, no animals, no handrails, no books! …These rules constitute a restrictive covenant, a legal condition imposed on the property in perpetuity. Potential inhabitants must sign documents, fill in questionnaires, submit to being interviewed, before being selected to move in, and undergo repeated ongoing psychometric measurements grappling with intense ethical dilemmas – we get glimpses of the penetrating questions they’re asked throughout the book. Once in, they must undertake to keep the property completely uncluttered and regimented in line with Edward’s exacting standards. And every tenant so far has been a beautiful red-headed girl with determination and intelligence – facsimiles of Edward’s dead wife. Every one a vulnerable woman who has know grief and loss.

I’m always somewhat fascinated by the concept of the unreliable narrator, but it’s a tricky tactic to adopt in reality. This story follows two of the tenants – Emma and Jane – as they attempt to live up to the expectations of One Folgate Street, as they unravel the tragedies and stories relating to their predecessors. Because, for all its outward perfection, the house’s history is dark and sinister. Three people have died tragically – Edward’s wife and son amongst them. And Edward’s obsessive tendencies spill over into his control of the women sexually as well as mentally. He is looking for a pure relationship, unencumbered by convention, with a sense of simplicity and freedom on both sides. When it’s no longer perfect, each must be ready to move on, without regret.

Well written, cleverly plotted, interesting structure, well researched – and a runaway success. It took the author a decade or so to work out how to write the book, but she has captured something very special. It was well worth the wait.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in obsessive perfectionism, but it rings true. As does Delaney’s description of grief and loss, and the emotions around having a disabled child. Not surprising maybe as the author has herself lost a son, and has another one with a rare medical syndrome.

And the poignancy of this book is enhanced further for me by a report out the very day I finished it, about a five year high in the statistics for deaths relating to domestic violence in the UK. There is something particularly sinister about pathological behaviour behind closed doors. And Delaney has captured the essence of it in The Girl Before.

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Domestic psychological thrillers

Although I’ve read a large number of thrillers in an effort to understand the secrets and techniques that make for success, I’ve come across surprisingly few that fit more precisely into the family-based variety I’ve been trying to create myself; ‘domestic’, so-called ‘real-life’ fiction. So when I saw Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes in a supermarket second-hand charity corner at the weekend, I snapped it up. And I read it in two days.

I love the cover (her trademark style apparently), and the strap-line spoke to me: To create her family she will destroy yours. My kind of territory, huh?

And it got better and better the more I read about the book and its author. She’s dipped a toe in being a barmaid, a fruit picker, a private detective, a factory worker; she’s lived on a kibbutz, holidayed on Cornwall (my home county)… – a colourful life even before she took up crime writing. And in her novels she focuses on current issues, designed to challenge the reader to think, What if this happened to me or my family? Exactly what I try to do.

And indeed, Until You’re Mine bears some striking similarities to my own new novel, Killing me Gently, which becomes available for purchase this coming weekend*. Both are based around a young career woman, trying to adapt to being a mother; things clearly not being what they seem to be; threats hanging over families; marriages and relationships in peril.

In the case of Until You’re Mine, there are three principal women involved. Claudia Morgan-Brown has a history of numerous previous pregnancies all ending in miscarriages or still births – leaving her feeling ‘ an unworthy shell of a woman‘ and ‘a freak‘. Around perfect families with perfect babies ‘jealousy stuck in my craw like a bowlful of mud shoved down my throat.’ And yet her job – a job she loves – revolves around parents and children. As a social worker heading up a child protection team, she’s constantly dealing with dysfunctional, violent, abusive, disadvantaged families. Nor is she a stranger to the painful experience of removing children from their inadequate or unfit parents.

And it’s in the course of her work that she goes to check out the welfare of 2-month-old twin baby boys, Oscar and Noah Morgan, whose mother has just died of pancreatic cancer. They are being well cared for, but Claudia falls in love with their so-recently bereaved father, James, who reciprocates the emotion. ‘He was hurting. I was hurting. Together, we were mended.’ And now she’s heavily pregnant with James’ baby, but determined to keep working up till her due date and take the minimum of time off after the birth.

Husband, James, is a naval officer, a submariner, away for long stretches of time. And in reality Claudia knows very little of his past life. She does know, however, that he has inherited wealth from his first wife, enabling them to live in a huge and beautiful house, and that he has secrets about which she knows nothing. They decide to hire a live-in nanny to enable Claudia to keep doing what she’s good at.

Enter Zoe Harper, who comes with impeccable credentials, and is clearly really good with children. The twins adore her. We, however, know from the outset that Zoe isn’t what she appears to be. She lives in the ‘centre of an ever-changing lie’. We know she is preoccupied with pregnancy and babies. We know she’s recently left an intense relationship but still longs to make contact with her past. We also know she has her own agenda and is on a mission which somehow relates to counting down to the birth of Claudia’s child.

The third woman is Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher. She’s dealing with domestic crises at home – an errant husband and a rebellious teenage daughter determined to abandon her education and career prospects, leave home and marry her boyfriend. And on the work front Lorraine is dealing with two cases of pregnant women being sliced open and left for dead. Both the victims had troubled pasts and had been in the care of social services. Both had been wanting to terminate their pregnancies early on but for some reason had not gone through with it. Both babies and the first mother have died, but the second mother has survived, and somehow the survivor is the link between the social worker, nanny and detective.

Through the eyes of all three women we inch forward towards the critical date – the birth of Claudia’s baby girl. It’s tense, gripping stuff. But the three stories simply don’t hang together. Who is to be believed? Three women desperate to become mothers. Three women juggling competing demands. Three murders already. We’re counting down the days to deadlines with huge trepidation. The suspense keeps us glued to the pages. The killer twist in the tale, when it comes, is brilliantly executed. And the last sentence is perfection.

Phew! A serendipitous find but highly recommended. And I’ll certainly be hunting down more of Samantha Hayes’ books.

* Yep, at last! We’ve had a few glitches in the publishing process this time, hopefully now ironed out. More on this next week.

 

 

 

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Multi-tasking

I love it when the writing involves solid thinking time. This week the brain’s been working overtime during the night, but I’ve been able to mull over new ideas and possibilities while outwardly tramping in the glorious autumn scenery – simultaneously improving physical fitness and mental spark, and making the most of the light and warmth before winter grabs us by the scruff … yep, they say it’s imminent!

Somehow bright sunshine transforms the view, doesn’t it? and visiting the same place – Penicuik House in Midlothian – on two different days, paid dividends. The 18th century Palladian mansion is a ruin (albeit a very elegant one), destroyed by a fire in 1899, but the grounds are open to the public and the numerous walks are gorgeous at this time of year.

So a few cogitations gleaned from my wanderings …

I’m trying to provide more contrast in my prose – hard lines against the softer aspects, darkly sinister against lightly optimistic. Outwardly the Morgan family have everything … but something is very wrong in their household. Family, professionals, friends are wanting to see the best side of their privilege, but the safety of a baby is at stake here. That conflict/contrast was epitomised in the fabulous colours and outlines in the grounds of Penicuik House.

The storyline needs to beckon the reader on, like these alluring pathways, seducing us with suspected horror, false security. It’s not just the baby’s welfare we’re concerned about here; a marriage is in jeopardy, professional relationships are threatened. But we have to care enough in the first place to stick with the players in this drama, to creep right into their lives, to root for them.

The foreground action needs to have a coherent backstory that rings true but doesn’t intrude. We’re watching the principals but we want to believe in their context, understand why they’re kicking up the leaves, keeping their backs to the light, creating long shadows, hiding things from us.

And that backcloth too, needs to be intriguing enough to draw us in. At once credible but intriguing. And maybe just a bit scary.

After the second long tramp, I was certainly seeing light at the end of my literary tunnel. It may get dark and ominous as we sink down into the psychological mire, but there has to be hope of some kind of resolution to pull us along. The sun goes in every now and then, leaving us floundering in the darkness before we can see our way out of the quandary they present us with. But we’re inching closer to the light all the time.

Phew! Exhausting stuff mentally. But exhilarating physically.

A good week overall on the writing front, then. And more encouraging news … that Sunday BBC psychological thriller I mentioned a few weeks ago – The Cry? … it doesn’t steal my thunder at all. Wahey! No need to re-write my tale. But after watching/analysing/critiquing each episode carefully, I realise that, in a film, so much is conveyed by the actors’ skill – a look, a pause, the tone of a voice. With Killing me Gently, I have to imagine the camera rolling but capture the tension and emotion in my words on the page.

Oh, I nearly forgot … I’ve also finished writing the first draft of the annual McHaffie Christmas story-play. Which reinforces what I’ve just said. The story will be enhanced, and brought to life, indeed, immortalised, by the expressions, the voices, the actions of the players: my grandchildren. They will undoubtedly steal the show! As they should.

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