As a reader of thrillers and mysteries for close to my whole life, I’ve always been drawn to the flawed protagonist, the vulnerable hero, the amateur with a hill to climb. I do occasionally crack a book in which a mythic hero—Jack Reacher, say, or Miss Marple—saves the day by virtue of being stronger or smarter or purer than their adversaries, but I’ll usually wander back into fictional realms where ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary situations.
And these days some of these ordinary heroes are grappling with more than just a murderer in their midst. There has been an explosion of recent books in the mystery and thriller genre in which the protagonist is dealing with psychological disorders. Along with the melancholic and alcoholic detectives that have become the norm, we’ve seen agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder creep into the narratives.
As someone who has had my own bouts with anxiety, and as someone who has spent much of my life with a family member with bipolar disorder, this is a welcome addition to my favorite genre. It reflects the world we live in, and it opens up deeper avenues for exploring the human condition. We are all vulnerable creatures, a fact not lost in a genre where lives are often snuffed out like birthday candles. And thrillers work best when they reside in the grey area between black and white.
Yet there’s an unfortunate tendency to lump these types of thrillers under an array of umbrella terms: domestic suspense; “girl” books; unreliable narratives. The implication seems to be that this trend has been overdone of late (possibly true), but also that these books are somehow a new phenomenon. They are not. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, arguably the definitive suspense novel of the twentieth century, had a narrator so consumed by her own insignificance that she never provides her own name.
When Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl broke big in 2012 the sequence most cited by its fans was the one where Amy Dunne recounts the myth of the “cool girl,” the hot and understanding girlfriend that women pretend to be. Subsequent bestsellers, like Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, play around with the disparities between the person we project to the world and the person we truly are inside.
Again, this isn’t new. Think about Tom Ripley trying to become his more perfect friend in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a theme that has always resonated, but perhaps more now than ever. We have always been unreliable narrators of our lives, but nowadays, these false narratives are out there for everyone to see on social media. And there seems to be a direct link between the way we are curating our online lives, and the nationwide increase in depression and anxiety.
But can neurosis be overused? The answer is yes, when characters are defined by nothing more than their own limitations. If the agoraphobia and/or alcoholism of a character only serves as a plot device, then that writer hasn’t done their job. As a crime writer myself I know the allure of using character traits as plot devices. It would be helpful for instance if there was a condition that would prohibit the hero from being able to use a cellphone in moments of danger. And it’s always tempting to use mental health disorders as a kind of shorthand for undependability. Is the danger real, or is it all a figment of our narrator’s imagination? This has become a tired trope, if for no other reason than the fact that, the danger is almost always real. It’s a thriller you’re reading, after all.
Another common motif, one that’s threatening to become a tired trope, as well, is the character whose mental health problems act as a kind of superpower. I first saw it in Thomas Harris’s iconic novel Red Dragon. Will Graham, the FBI profiler who brings down serial killers Hannibal Lecter and Francis Dolarhyde, is able to do so because of his own mental instability, a gift to deeply immerse himself in the minds of the monsters that he hunts.
This same idea was used very effectively in the Showtime series Homeland, in which a CIA agent, played by Claire Danes, grapples with a bipolar disorder while becoming convinced that a recently returned war hero has been radicalized into a terrorist. The series, in its brilliant first season, caught the ravages of the disease, but also flirted with the idea that what made Carrie Mathison such an effective agent was the mania that fueled her brain. It was her super power.
One reads crime fiction to escape normality for a while. To look inside the head of someone who burns with the need to kill, or to step into the shoes of the person tasked to slay the monsters. Extremity sells. And while there is certainly some truth behind the idea that manic episodes can create bursts of creativity and inspiration, I believe the thriller genre can be expanded to include the people for whom mental health issues neither destroy their credibility nor give them any special gifts. They have a disease to be managed, like any other disease.
These characters exist. I think of Kurt Wallander, the damaged, melancholic detective in the late Henning Mankell’s series of books. And I love Gillian Flynn’s complex, damaged protagonists, particularly Camille Preaker from Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects. Camille, who self-harms, is both a mess and a successful journalist, someone who sees the world more clearly than she sees herself.
And one of my favorite crime novels is The Singing Sands, written by the reclusive Scottish novelist Josephine Tey and published in 1952. The story begins with her detective, Inspector Grant, visiting old friends in Scotland. He is suffering from depression and anxiety attacks and hopes that an extended fishing holiday will help. Tey writes about his health in a compassionate, matter-of-fact way. And when a corpse shows up (a corpse always shows up) Inspector Grant untangles the threads of the complicated mystery. He is able to do this neither because of nor in spite of the crisis he is experiencing. He is just doing his job.