Dissonance: the atonal soundtrack of psychological thrillers


Dissonance: the atonal soundtrack of psychological thrillers

Books editor DEBORAH STEINMAIR succumbed to the thrill of domestic and Scandi-noir.


I DEVOURED two bulky noirs from America and Norway. It's impossible to compare, but maybe there's a secret ingredient that only the Scandinavians know. Is it that black-and-white landscape, the dark, the inhospitable cold, the weird characters?

Domestic noir is often set in Britain, where it is also dark, cold and wet. This one is set in San Fransisco, where the fog plays hide and seek with characters and creates a haunting Hitchcock vibe. However, it was the back story that captured my imagination.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Unreliable narrator weaves dark fairy tale

Daniel Mallory burst onto the domestic noir scene with his debut novel, The Woman in the Window. It was at the top of the bestseller list, was translated into 40 languages and filmed. If, like me, you have never heard his name, he writes under the pseudonym AJ Finn, a name that fits like a glove in domestic noir. After all, the trailblazer was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I assumed that like many writers of domestic noir, Finn was a woman. Now his second novel has been published, End of Story, and it has kept me awake.

When I went to read more about the author, I found he was a flawed character: in his personal life, like the anti-heroines in noir, he has told many lies and untruths, mostly to win sympathy. The New Yorker posted an exposé. Like some of our politicians, he lied about a doctorate from Oxford and falsely claimed his mother died of cancer, he had a brain tumour and his brother committed suicide. He was an editor at a publishing house for 10 years and reportedly used lies and excuses to further his career and to disappear when things got awkward.

He later apologised in The New Yorker for his untruths and defended them by saying he had severe bipolar II disorder that causes delusional thoughts and affects his memory. So he's an unreliable narrator like the narrators in domestic noir. A bipolar letter writer to The New Yorker attacked him for further stigmatising the disease. Mental illness doesn't make you a liar or a fraud, the letter writer said.

Hot in pursuit of the mysterious author, I also read a review of the book, something I never do until I write about a book. The critic pretty much tears it apart and yes, I have to admit there are holes and flaws. But if you ask me, this one is also on its way to the bestseller lists .

It's more ambitious than his first novel — there's quite a bit of intertextuality; references to and quotes from classic crime fiction and psychological thrillers: “… plenty of great American novels are crime stories. Lolita. Mockingbird. Native Son. Gatsby — that’s a detective novel”. And: “All human wisdom … is summed up in these two words: wait and hope. Monte Cristo. One of my favourites. The original psychological thriller, I’d say.”

The narrator is Nicky Hunt, a young journalist and aspiring writer. She corresponds with a famous crime writer and is invited to write his memoirs: he is dying. So, she ends up in his mansion in San Fransisco and gets a glimpse into the life of the enigmatic, larger-than-life author. His first wife and son disappeared without a trace 20 years ago. He is a suspect. His second wife is beautiful and distant. His daughter, who also lives in the house, is a wreck: frumpy, overweight, chain-smoking and wine-swigging. It becomes clear that Nicky has one goal in mind: she wants to unravel the old mystery. Do you feel a nasty thumping on the top of your head? It will lay hold of you. The detective fever is breaking out across her brain.”

Like their creator, none of the characters are what they pretend to be. Someone else dies under mysterious circumstances in the house. One reads to unravel the teasing mystery.

The style is also more ambitious than in your run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Finn has a way with words, with unexpected metaphors that mostly work and only occasionally fall flat. The characters all sound the same: witty, cynical, smart and well-read, yet they take shape clearly before the reader's eye.

It's atmospheric like Hitchcock movies and old crime novels: San Fransisco is shrouded in dense fog and characters sneak through the streets.

What also makes the novel different is that it is written in the present tense, as if it were taking place in front of the reader's eyes, while  English novels are mostly narrated in the past tense. The author likes short sentences, which accelerate the pace and allow momentum to build.

Like the best in the genre, it is imperfect, flawed and unreliable. And hypnotic.

Who, what, where and how much?

End of Story by AJ Finn was published by HarperCollins and costs R453 at Exclusive Books.

Scandi-noir at its darkest

Samuel Bjørk is being hailed as the latest Norwegian crime fiction sensation and The Sunday Times declares: “Gives Jo Nesbo a run for his money."

He has written three books in this series: I'm Travelling Alone, The Owl Always Hunts at Night and The Boy in the Headlights. The protagonists include Holger Munch, middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking, humane, not as sexy as Nesbo's heroes. He set up a special task force with talented eccentrics. The newest recruit is Mia Kruger, a young woman who is a born profiler. Crime scenes talk to her. She has superhuman focus: disappearing into a tunnel and seeing details that escape everyone. She is also eccentric: undiplomatic, straightforward, asocial. Of course, she wrestles with her own demons: her twin sister is a heroin addict and Mia searches for her night after night through the streets and dens of Oslo.

A serial killer has been at work for decades and his murder scenes are stylised and dark, stark and almost aesthetic as only Scandinavians can write them, from their more or less crime-free environments. It's a cat-and-mouse game that makes you keep flipping pages, but for me it's the characters who stand out.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Wolf by Samuel Bjørk is published by Transworld and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Bernard Herrmann — Vertigo: Prelude/The Nightmare/Scene d'Amour:

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.