Why write psychological crime?

Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne

I have just finished writing my second psychological crime novel, and here I’m happy to explain what I mean by this category of crime writing and why I choose to write in it as opposed to any of the other crime genres.

The crime novel includes sub-genres such as classic detective, police procedural, cosy crime, hard-boiled, standard private eye, thrillers, the historical whodunnit, the legal thriller, courtroom, the spy novel, the crime caper and the psychological angle. Some of these categories have further sub-categories of their own and some cross-pollinating is also going on.

Psychological crime itself can certainly be broken down into sub-categories – at least in my mind. For instance, there is the standard serial killer story where the expertise of our forensic psychologist is used to help catch the crazy. This category may also cross over into another crime category. There is (I speak cynically here) that other type of psychological crime where the plot seems incredibly slow moving to the point where you wonder if there is one at all, and where the reader spends an awful lot of time soaking up a great deal of information about the main characters but ends up wondering what was the point of it, and in fact, what was the point in reading the book in the first place as one is left feeling indifferent or totally bored by the entire story.  I will not name names either of author or book title because of course all books (even the most boring ones) have their fans and I do not want to upset anyone here.  But these types of stories are what put a lot of people off from attempting a second or a third psychological crime story. I’m afraid I don’t actually have a technical definition for this type but am certainly fully aware I have one on my hands before the first chapter is over.

But a third type of psychological crime story (the one that I believe is not just far more interesting than the other psychological crime categories but also of any of the other general crime categories), can trace its lineage back to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, in my opinion. This novel has certainly been a great inspiration for me. If I had never read the story, it is probable that I would never have felt any interest in writing psychological crime stories at all.

Strangers on a Train is fascinating for its portrayal of an ordinary and well-socialised man who once dragged down into the darker side of his personality commits the extraordinary act of murder. In this original story, both the inner and outer personality of Guy Haines, the protagonist, is fully developed and dissected with skilful precision; both sides are laid out clearly for our observation. This occurs within a well-structured plot which offers the reader direction and pace right from early on; the plot throws up convincing and unexpected twists to keep our attention fixed eagerly on the story. The deep psychological and emotional aspects of the story never become a drag in reading, simply because Highsmith adeptly balances plot development between the inner and outer world. This is what impresses me most about the novel: it is deep but lively, informative but also greatly entertaining.

Ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances and struggling to deal with their new reality is generally what fascinates us most with a story. The ordinariness of the main characters enable us to identity with them and therefore cheer for them; we can easily follow their line of reasoning based on their social and moral anchors as we share these anchors – until, of course, the darker side of their personality begins to emerge. Then we watch spellbound as they begin to unravel, detach themselves from their social and moral environment and descend into the dark void.

These types of characters are indeed very familiar to us. They are members of our family, our relatives, our close friends, casual friends and work colleagues. They are the neighbour next door. They are you and I. This is what gives these stories their real frisson. We are usually able to make very close and direct comparisons between ourselves and these characters. So, even though we feel a little squeamish about it, we persist in identifying with them as their descent into the darkness continues.  We then bewitch ourselves with these questions: Could this have been me? Would my mind have been played with in this way? Would the fear and stress have also twisted me into psychological knots? Would a darker side of my personality have emerged to help me deal with this new reality? Would I have done this crime under the same set of circumstances? These stories challenge us to ask questions about ourselves in a way other crime stories cannot because they are peopled with earthy, quite domestic characters that are similar to ourselves and who find themselves in situations that some of us might possibly also find ourselves in one day.

Murder is hardly something the average person enters into lightly. That is why this type of novel creates vast amounts of tension and suspense on the psychological level. Will she, won’t see? How will she go about it? Will she lose her nerve at the last moment? Then how will she eventually justify her crime, at least to herself? Compare our sort of story to one about a hardened killer who is intent on committing another murder. Psychologically and emotionally we have no distance to travel with this other character. We are unlikely to sympathise with them to begin with, anyway, but that is not the big point.  Killing to them is normal and they don’t have to undergo some inner metamorphosis to achieve it. There is no moral conflict involved here, so there is no psychological struggle, no inner challenge to overcome. All inner conflict is already resolved. The killer has already crossed that bridge. As readers we are only witness to the killer’s challenges involving the technical and logistical aspects of his plans. Of course, the story will still be exciting, but we have far less of an emotional connection to make with this character. We don’t feel pulled into it on a personal level because we feel disconnected to the inner psychological and emotional world of the casual killer. There is no inner story burning through the pages that belongs to us as much as to the main character.

In our Highsmith story, we have so much at stake, not only for the protagonist but also for society.  Once the deed is done, Guy Haines, the ordinary and well-socialised man, has lost his innocence, an innocence he can never regain. He is now a murderer, and that status can never be thrown away. And, yes, in the story Guy certainly feels this loss of innocence. He knows he can never again lay claim to his old pre-murder personality. His dark side has won. But not only Guy is shocked and disturbed here by his own actions. Society is also disturbed; the social order has been shaken. Ordinary man, our next door neighbour, our brother, our father, the university educated, the successful architect, has carried out a brutal murder of an innocent man. Now he is a cold-blooded killer! We as a society are shocked and shaken by it in ways we would not be if it had been a gangland murder – because he is one of us and therefore he is bold proof of what we might also become if we were dropped into a similar set of circumstances as his own.

This is what truly disturbs us about Guy Haines and his type of story. If not under his set of circumstances then surely it’s only a matter of which set of circumstances would be needed to bring out our darker side. Ultimately, these types of novels are teasing us in a macabre way. They are saying that we might think we would never end up committing such an act, that we might think we know ourselves too well for that outcome, that we might believe we would always come up with an alternative and more virtuous way of dealing with our predicament other than turning our hand to murder, but that in fact we can really only believe such a thing from the comfort zone of our naïve psychological armchairs; and that, finally, if it came down to it, we would quite shock ourselves with the discovery of how willingly we’d run to embrace our darker side – it is only a matter of the right set of circumstances presenting itself in order to achieve that end.

These are the reasons why this type of psychological crime story is more fascinating and entertaining both to read and write than any of the other crime categories.


You may also like to read Women protagonists/antagonists in the psychological crime story

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About jerrydunne

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