At the risk of sounding like valedictorian delivering a graduation speech, a ‘psychological thriller’ is defined on Wikipedia as a thriller “which emphasizes the unstable or delusional psychological states of its characters.” As definitions go, that’s good enough for me. In general, I just know a psychological thriller when I read one.

Most whodunits, at least the ones of the golden age, are not psychological thrillers. The criminal is cunning, the detective is rational, the story focused on clues and alibis and red herrings. And most police procedurals are not psychological thrillers. They are mainly about the thrill of the chase. That doesn’t mean that a good whodunit or procedural cannot qualify as a psychological thriller, and many do.

What really makes a thriller enter the psychological territory is when the writer is someone fascinated by the workings of the distressed or abnormal mind. Take Ross Macdonald, who began his writing career churning out pulp stories, then writing novels narrated by a California private eye named Lew Archer. The early books are good, but the later ones are better, as Macdonald (spurred probably by his own daughter’s struggles with mental health) began to dig into the psychological makeup of his characters.

Like Macdonald, Ruth Rendell was a true master at combining a classic whodunit with an astute psychological viewpoint. To my mind, she is one of the great suspense writers of all time, her books never failing to chill me to the core, while thrilling me at the same time.

I could easily put together a list of top ten psychological thrillers by Ruth Rendell, or by Ross Macdonald. Patricia Highsmith too. But for the purposes of this list, I’m limiting myself to one book per author. Here are ten of my favourites, books that have continued to stalk me long after reading.


V.G. Gollancz first edition

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

A great gothic thriller, but an astute psychological one as well. Our unnamed narrator recounts the story of how she is haunted and altered by the memory of her husband’s dead wife. The book unfolds like a particularly vivid dream.


A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin (1953)

This was Ira Levin’s debut novel, and a pretty perfect one. A young man seduces and stalks three sisters. It’s a book full of surprises and narrative trickery, but at its heart it is a study of sociopathic behavior, of a mind untethered to any notions of traditional morality.


Black Money by Ross Macdonald (1966)

A jilted boyfriend hires private investigator Lew Archer to look into the man who took his girlfriend away. Like all Macdonald novels, the plot widens to include issues of identity, depression, and the malaise of southern California. I’ve heard rumours that the Coen Brothers might make a film of this book.


Simon & Schuster first edition

Endless Night by Agatha Christie (1967)

Christie was not a writer of psychological thrillers. Most of her books are puzzles, mystery novels designed to confound the reader, but that doesn’t mean that her books don’t include interesting psychological insights. Many do. And Endless Night, a late masterpiece of hers, narrated by a shiftless young man obsessed with an heiress, is a full-on psychological thriller.


Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith (1969)

There are many Highsmith novels that could easily appear on this list, but I’ve selected this lesser-known novel of hers because the thriller elements are almost exclusively born in the psychological realm. An American screenwriter in Tunisia believes that he may have killed a man, and is haunted by this realisation. A book full of subtlety and dread.


Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981)

The introduction of Hannibal Lecter, and in this novel he is the third most fascinating character. The majority of this book is a hunt between the psychologically delusional Francis Dolarhyde, and the broken man who is chasing him, Will Graham. One of the best thrillers ever written. Gripping and terrifying.


Viking Press first edition

Misery by Stephen King (1987)

Annie Wilkes is one of Stephen King’s most memorable characters – psychotic, depressive, manic, motherly and smothering. But the book also delves into Paul Sheldon’s psychosis, the author who is kidnapped and tortured by his biggest fan. One of King’s best, and, along with The Shining, his best psychological thriller.


A Simple Plan by Scott Smith (1993)

A look at what happens when three lower-middle-class men find a bag of drug money in rural Ohio. A devastating study of greed, desperation and base human instincts. A bleak but brilliant thriller.


Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell (2001)

In a strange way, this book is similar to A Kiss Before Dying, in that one man affects the lives of three women. But in Rendell’s hands, it’s the women he victimises that are the most interesting psychologically. I’ll never forget the character of Minty Knox, a young woman with OCD, who obsesses over hygiene.


Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011)

It’s a high-concept thriller about a woman suffering from anterograde amnesia, but it’s so well done that as a reader you are plunged into the subjective reality of this complex disease. A woman wakes up every day with no memory of the last several years of her life, but despite this, she begins to believe that her husband is not telling the entire truth.


Author portrait © Lee Kilpatrick

Peter Swanson is the author of five novels, including The Kind Worth Killing, winner of the New England Society Book Award, and finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and Her Every Fear, an NPR book of the year. His books have been translated into over 30 languages, and his stories, poetry and features have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Measure, the Guardian, The Strand Magazine and Yankee Magazine. A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Emerson College, he lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and cat. Before She Knew Him is out now in hardback from Faber & Faber (£12.99).
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