(The second in Agatho's Series of Subgenres that seem to have fallen by the wayside)
For a while, a lot of crime fiction was carrying the subtitle, "A novel of psychological suspense." As with domestic suspense from last week's post, I think we need to begin by defining our terms. By psychological suspense I mean a novel in which the mental status of one or more characters is questionable. The plot is driven by the fact that readers remain in the dark about who the good guys are, who the enemy is, and the motives that drive both parties. In the best novels of psychological suspense, readers can't quite figure out whether a character is actually sane or whether some serious psychological issues are going to cause unexpected behavior or plot turns.
For the best examples I have to turn to some of my favorites. In Margaret Millar's Beyond This Point Are Monsters, we have a daughter-in-law facing off against her mother-in-law. Both are emotionally wounded; but is one of them a villainess? The fact that Millar keeps the reader in the dark regarding the answer to this most basic of questions propels the narrative and keeps tripping the reader up (in the best of ways). Ruth Rendell has done some very nice portraits of people unraveling; I particularly like The Killing Doll, in which a brother and sister who engage in some mischief as children part ways, with the boy going on to a relatively normal life and the girl developing a more lasting psychosis as she enters adulthood.
But my all-time favorites are the early novels by Rosamond Smith, pseudonym of Joyce Carol Oates. These are some very fine novels--Lives of the Twins, Double Delight, and Nemesis are my favorites. In each of them, the protagonists get in way over their heads, finding themselves questioning even their most basic identities. Smith has a good deal of creepy fun with the psychology of twins, of people crossing economic and class barriers in ways that aren't good for them, of revealing the past bit by bit to provide pieces of insight into why the characters are behaving as they do. More recently, Oates adopted the pseudonym of Lauren Kelly for her suspense novels, and I like these as well. In Take Me, Take Me With You we come to see how a young woman finds herself in the position of being stalked by a dangerous man and enjoying it.
From what I've seen lately, we're not getting a lot of really good psychological fare. On the one hand, we have a lot of books in which the novelist works overtime to make the protagonist 100% lovable and adorable. ("Yes, I have quirks, but I'm so funny, and so witty! You're dying to read more books starring me, aren't you?") On the other hand, we have those dark case studies (Ellroy, Vachss) that are so bleak as to allow no sunlight whatsoever. While I like both writers, I feel that neither is subtle psychologically; rather, the villains are simply depraved and the good guys "haunted" by unpleasantness from their past. The psychology is slathered on rather thick, but there's little questioning as to what will happen or how the characters will behave, or how things will play out in the end.
Then of course we have those serial killer books that like to masquerade as psychological suspense. There is no suspense, and no psychology in the vast majority of them. Just an endless supply of dead bodies, each marked by the killer's "inexplicable" calling card, such as a peony, or a sundial, or a piece of a medieval manuscript, or a coin from ancient Rome. The give and take between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, and Hannibal's ability to manipulate Clarice, had been spectacular in the early books before becoming an embarrassment in later books.
So, I say - Let's try to bring back some good psychological suspense, with some characters who have a bit of subtlety and whose mental status is not pounded onto the page and into the reader's head by a hamfisted author. Let's get into the vagaries of character and let the lines blur a little instead of making things so black and white. A couple of current writers who are doing this well are Jason Starr (Panic Attack, The Follower) and Dennis Tafoya (Dope Thief, in which one of two bad guys decides to go straight, with interesting results).