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  • Writer's pictureTantra Bensko

A Novel That Heated Up the Psychological Suspense Genre - and What That Even Means

Along with Gillian Flynn's 2012 hit Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, in 2015, brought Psychological Thriller/Suspense fiction to the forefront, making the genres quite popular, though they've been around for a long time, arising from Gothic novels, originally. And the movies adapted from both books of course fanned the flames. The Girl on the Train, set in suburban London, was the #1 New York Times Bestseller, USA Today Book of the Year. Psychological Suspense and Thriller novels are, as I label my Agents of the Nevermind, Thrills for Thinkers. The Psychological genres provide intellectual reading that is urgent and tense and delves all the way into the depths of the psyche, where is dark and filled with monstrous real creatures that slide against one while one wants nothing more than to rise to the surface to take a deep breath.

The Girl on the Train is often called a Psychological Thriller, though Amazon has it categorized as Psychological Suspense. The unreliable narrator isn't required for those genres but can be powerful, and that asks a lot of readers: but people are up to the challenge. The current popularity of this genre gives me hope for humanity. The protagonists are most often female, not usually the hot CEO or superwoman-looking FBI agent but people like the readers in their most troubled moments. While Thrillers can pump testosterone, Suspense creates dreadful anticipation of something that could go wrong, which is a state many people live in, without a savings, without proper insurance, surviving by a tenuous thread in a chaotic world.

In Girl on the Train, Rachel, an alcoholic divorcée, daily rides the train to and from London, to pretend to her roommate that she's still employed. The Psychological Suspense genre is most popular in the U.K., by the way. Rachel regularly passes the house where she lived when married, and her ex is still there, with his new family. In a house not far away, an affectionate couple has caught Rachel's interest, so when she spies the wife with another man, she gets involved, feeling she is a witness with information for the police, and her center falls apart. However, her blackouts mean her perceptions can't be trusted. And like the protagonist in any Psychological Suspense/Thriller, she finds life uncertain and ambiguous, questioning her identity, consistency, memories, and capacities for darkness.

Psychological Suspense/Thrillers tend to have multiple POVs, as does this one, with three. This POV contrast traditionally helps us start to realize how unreliable one or both narrator is. Domestic Noir and Domestic Drama could describe the trend within Psychological Suspense/Thrillers, as they very often involve ordinary women's secretive relationships with their families. On the surface, happily married suburban wifedom may seem like a rosy existence, but in reality, by the end of May already, roses are beginning to shrivel, brown, and look inconveniently non-romantic. Mortality and imperfection sets in even in the sweet lawns of the reputable suburbs where people are expected to keep their areas civilized and fitting into the neighborhood appearance.

While Psychological Suspense/Thrillers usually involve some kind of crime, the focus is not like a Police Procedural, focused on the clever and efficient professional detection, though they can sometimes be whodunits, like Gone Girl. They are more often whydunits like The Girl on the Train. And meanwhile, the protagonists are bewildered, usually experiencing gaslighting by the antagonist and maybe by other characters as well -- and now, with the advent of sneakier heroines in the genre they can be doing the gaslighting themselves.

Gaslighting is naturally reminiscent of Gothic novels and I feel it's extremely relevant today with the role of the mass media spin doctors and curious social media platforms to control the narrative with propaganda. Thrillers tend to focus more on large events such as would be covered on the evening news and Suspense is more commonly about obscure individuals, perhaps involved with manipulative Narcissists.

Certainly there is plenty to read about this excellent book elsewhere without learning about it from this blog post, so I won't go into more detail here and risk spoilers. This blog is eclectic but genre is core. Perhaps people interested in reading my Seductive Psychological Suspense novels will search through these posts to get a sense of my taste and see if it fits theirs. Fans of The Agents of the Nevermind may enjoy traipsing through these tulips.

And since I teach fiction writing and edit manuscripts, potential students and clients can also see if we resonate by checking out my casual, honest, quick thoughts about some types of popular commercial fiction. I've reviewed a lot of Literary fiction over the years elsewhere, such as in Literary Magazines, though many of the websites have closed down, and so a large number of them were lost. But I won't be focusing on those kind of books as much in this blog, though experimental Mysteries will find have an alley. I will include some Literary material, as long as the books contain Mystery/Suspense elements, since Psychological Suspense overlaps with Literary: Paul Auster, Anthony Horiwitz and Robbe Grillet, for example. Perhaps some readers looking for entertainment will browse through these personal review posts and find some new authors to try out.

However, in this case, the blog post functions as an introduction to Psychological Suspense and Psychological Thrillers; I assume you're interested in those since you're on this website for my more romantic books in that genre. I have other websites for my other Psychological Suspense books. Psychological Suspense analyzes the mindset of people confused going through hell, often pulled by a dilemma or their vices into committing an illegal act to escape a painful situation. Reading them is sort of like a dream of having inexplicably killed someone and having to hide the body to protect a child.

Chick lit was apparently too light for the current trend, which has replaced it as popular kind of fiction that women are especially drawn to with something much darker, something that helps them process their crazy. With my Seductive Psychological Suspense, tearing down the sense of self can sometimes lead to expansive awareness and truly intimate love. Yet the characters might have to fight against the way that positive potential is so often abducted by ruthlessly resourceful people like the Agents who control the narrative and abduct the gullible personality of vulnerable people.

With this genre, there often is no clear demarcation between the victim and the perpetrator: they can even be unacknowledged parts of the same character. This dissociation is a motif in my Agents of the Nevermind series, just as we wonder if it is in The Girl on the Train and many of the novels that have followed in its wake, especially those with amnesia as a trope.

Not being believed by authorities, landlords or families in desperate situations, wanting to clear one's name, but not being sure about the details to present, being unclear about what one one might have played -- many people have experienced this and how unbearable it is with the situation escalates and there is no ground to stand on.

Come back again for more blog posts on Psychological Suspense genre.

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