Hazel McHaffie

psychopaths

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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Expecting the unexpected

While my current novel is still open to change I’m on the alert for anything that will improve it. And especially how to ratchet up the tension and suspense.

To that end I watched the British-made BBC drama, Killing Eve, billed as breaking with convention and putting warm heart into psychopathy. Twice!! Ahah. Some alternative angles on psychological themes then? Could be useful.

The story basically features a rather bored desk-bound MI5 security officer, Eve Polanski, (Sandra Oh) commissioned to bring a talented psychopathic assassin, Villanelle, (Jodi Comer) to justice. The chase covers continents and time-frames and languages and widely disparate settings at breathtaking speed, leaving a trail of death, destruction and confusion in its wake, constantly surprising and subverting expectation. The two women become obsessed with/by each other. Both principal actors are brilliant in their parts, and are well supported by the rest of the talented cast. Almost everyone seems to be suspect at some point or other, nothing is what it appears to be … as you might expect in a spy thriller.

Being in critical mode, I kept thinking how improbable various points were, how implausible. Incongruities, unfulfilled story-lines, questionable details … but you know what? It didn’t matter! I’m not one of those anachronism watchdogs who whinge about detail, and I’m not about to assassinate this hugely successful programme on the basis of trivial criticisms. Instead, I’m lost in admiration of the skills (at all levels, in all aspects of film-making) that went into creating it, holding me enthralled episode after episode. The eighth and final-to-date installment (8) ends with Villanelle, seriously wounded by Eve, escaping yet again. There has to be another series, and indeed one is promised. And I’m already awaiting it with bated breath.

Lesson learned? Get the big picture right, provide the compelling story, and you can be forgiven much. So … back to employment laws and grievances and settlements and ….  Research can be fascinating in its own right.

 

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