PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS: What You Don’t Know About the Genre May Keep You from Reading a Great Book! by Lisa Malice

E.B. Davis is one the many amazing authors with whom I blog-share Writers Who Kill. Her November 15th post spotlighted my debut thriller, Lest She Forget, with an interview and a blunt admission—as a cozy and paranormal mystery writer, she was not a fan of genre and didn’t expect to enjoy my tale. But Lest She Forget surprised E.B. She was “hooked from page one.” Why?

“The main character’s voice is compelling,” she started. “She seems like a good person. Readers know she’s in a tough spot and trying to do the right thing, but she gets clobbered. Then you want to stick around and find out if she can come through her ordeal all right.”  The hard part for E.B. was classifying the book’s genre. “It surely is a mystery, but then we know the bad guy, or at least one of them, so it’s a suspense. There is also a romantic element—one sweet and one sour—that comes into play. The plot keeps the reader wondering—and there’s a big twist.”

Actually, between her synopsis of my tale and analysis of its story elements, E.B. nailed my page-turning tale’s genre—psychological thriller. So, for those of you who, like E.B, may be unfamiliar with this popular genre (AKA “domestic thriller”) but not comfortable with the idea of reading something a little different, I offer a few thoughts to entice you to take the plunge.

First off, let me say that I’m like you, cerebral, left-brained, addicted to murder mysteries—all of which I inherited from my mother, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Ngaio Marsh. Sherlock Holmes became my literary drug of choice in high school. As an adult, my tastes gravitated to amateur sleuth series that injected more personality into the heroines as they juggled their work, friends, family, and love interests, with their compulsive need to bring murderers to justice.

As a psychologist-turned-thriller writer now, mystery is always a central part of my stories, but my objective as a writer isn’t simply to lay out clues that readers can use to solve a crime, inject unexpected plots twists into the fray, clear innocents of murder, and bring a killer to justice. My goal is also to trigger the right side of my readers’ brains—where emotions originate—by creating a rising sense of tension, fear, uncertainty, and danger inside the tortured mind of my heroine as she struggles to answer three urgent and terrifying questions: Who is out to kill me? Why? And, most importantly, what must I do to stay alive?

As a subgenre, psychological thrillers share some distinctive story elements with its thriller cousins (e.g., spy, sci-fi, crime)—forward-driving, high-stakes stories with protagonists struggling to prevent a formidable foe (identified early on) from committing murder and mayhem. But psychological thrillers are more subtle. The hero is usually an ordinary person cast into a perilous situation—her sanity, her life, perhaps those of loved ones, on the line—but unsure of herself, her dark thoughts and emotions. What is real, and what is not? Is there really someone out to kill her, or are her fears and suspicions all in her mind?

If you are a film fan, chances are you are already familiar with the suspense and adrenaline rush

 you experience with psychological thrillers, including classic Hitchcock movies (Vertigo, Psycho) and more contemporary films (Gone Girl, Memento, Mulholland Drive).  The latter two movies rely on amnesia to create stories of tortured, unreliable narrators who find themselves struggling to

 recover their forgotten memories and uncover the truth of their lives before their foes, whether real, imagined, can do them in.

Now that you know a bit more about psychological thrillers, how it challenges readers to use both sides of their brain to solve a mystery and save the day, consider accepting my challenge to read a psychological thriller, starting with the back jack copy for Lest She Forget below. What do you have to lose—except maybe your mind and some sleep?

Haunted by a forgotten past. Hunted by a ruthless killer. No one to save her but herself.

After surviving a car crash, Kay Smith wakes from a coma with amnesia, a battered face, and no one to vouch for her identity. Her psychiatrist is convinced that her memory loss is connected to the horrific flashbacks and nightmares haunting her. As she digs for clues to her past, Kay uncovers a shady character following her every inquiry. Who is he? What does he want from her?

As Kay’s probes deepen, she realizes everyone around her has deadly secrets to hide—even her. Emerging memories, guilty suspicions, and headline-screaming murders push Kay to come out of the shadows and choose: will she perpetuate a horrendous lie, or risk her life to uncover the truth?

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Lisa Malice is a psychologist-turned-thriller author. She loves being part of the community of crime-loving writers and readers. A compulsive volunteer, you can often find Lisa interviewing an author for a feature in ITW’s “The Big Thrill,” planning an author event for her Sisters in Crime chapter on the Florida Gulf Coast, or working the registration table at Bouchercon and Thrillerfest. Find Lisa at:  and .


13 thoughts on “PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS: What You Don’t Know About the Genre May Keep You from Reading a Great Book! by Lisa Malice”

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article. I have many friends who were hesitant to see The Marsh King’s Daughter, based on the psych thriller by Karen Dionne. They expected gore and stayed home from our movie outing. With Debra writing cozy mysteries, I thought writing about the genre might change a few minds enough to check out my book.

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