If one literary genre has defined the 21st century so far, it is surely the psychological thriller. This owes a great deal to blockbusters such as Gone Girl (2012), by Gillian Flynn, and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2015), whose vast global sales were quickly followed by mildly disappointing Hollywood films. These inspired a host of popular imitators, which as well as shamelessly plugging the word “Girl” into their titles, followed a similar formula: 1 Suspenseful stories packed with endless twists. 2 A crime, although law enforcement tends to be secondary. 3 Deceptively ordinary relationships (especially marriage, parenthood and small-town). 4 Every psychological state in the medical dictionary (paranoia, amnesia, agoraphobia and alcoholism are especially popular). Some of the biggest post-Girl hits include Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel Big Little Lies (sexual abuse, sexual addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder) and A.J. Finn’s 2018 thriller The Woman in the Window (shut-ins and Hitchcock obsessions). More recent contenders include Helen Phillips’ The Need (new-parent anxiety, insomnia), Tana French’s The Searcher (fish-out-of-water, small-town, dysfunctional family) and The Good Samaritan by Charlotte Parsons, a former columnist for the South China Morning Post . Parsons’ heroine, Carrie Haversen, has problems interpreting other people’s emotions. As her five-year-old daughter, Sofia, notes, “She didn’t understand what they were saying with their faces.” This limitation ramps up the red herrings when Sofia goes missing, and Carrie is helped by complete strangers, the good samaritans. But are these samaritans too good to be true? And how is someone like Carrie supposed to tell the difference? Neither Flynn nor Hawkins invented the form, of course. The modern renaissance was already well under way before they came along – thanks to S.J. Watson’s 2011 novel Before I Go to Sleep (amnesia, sexual obsession, recluse), Keigo Higashino’s 2005 masterpiece The Devotion of Suspect X (obsessive love, sexual abuse), and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which, among other things, started the craze for the word “girl”. But we need to rewind further to uncover the psychological thriller’s origins. One possible starting point are the Gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796). These essentially hurled youthful innocents (typically women) into gloomy surroundings populated by dastardly semi-devils who manipulate their overwrought emotions until the boundary separating reality and fantasy is hopelessly blurred. Burning the Books: how knowledge is under attack This premise was refreshed and refined in the 20th century by probably the presiding genius of the form, Patricia Highsmith. In masterpieces such as Strangers on a Train (1950) and her series starring charming sociopath Tom Ripley, Highsmith fused Gothic fiction’s sense of the uncanny with the crisp plotting of the classic crime novel as practised by Agatha Christie. Highsmith’s major innovation, apart from a wickedly dry sense of humour, was the psychological complexity of her characters, who could seem charming one moment and terrifying the next, or make the craziest idea seem rational and turn the most ordinary situation into a nightmare. If Gothic novels reflected the revolutions of their time (political, emotional, cultural and religious) and Highsmith the instabilities and upheavals of the Cold War (when so-called heroes behaved like villains and vice versa), what might the current vogue for the psychological thriller say about us? One entry point is fear. Past generations may have been scared witless by great white sharks or sharp-toothed aliens, the nuclear bomb or Hannibal Lecter, but as novelists such as Parsons understand, nothing is more terrifying – to parents, at least – than the thought of their child being swiped from an everyday setting like a park. Other stories exploit different fears: the break-up of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, a past trauma. One can only imagine what stories will emerge from the coronavirus and quarantine. That so many modern thrillers foreground the mental health – or otherwise – of their protagonists is equally intriguing, and suggests our anxiety includes the turmoil and confusion of our inner lives as well as dramas in the external world. Do the challenges facing Parsons’ character, Carrie, reflect a historical moment whose foundations are rocked by technology, virtual reality and artificial intelligence? Or by social media and its distorting effect on identity; the ceaseless rewriting of outmoded definitions of race, gender, sexuality and nationality; and a political landscape self-consciously in thrall to fake news and on-message newspeak. ‘Their mental health is suffering’: why young people are feeling the strain “It can be difficult to separate dreams from reality,” says Detective Chief Inspector Juliet Campbell in The Good Samaritan . Where does it leave us when reality participates willingly in the confusion and presents itself as a dream? One moral of these thrillers seems to be: the more we know, or think we know – about our minds, emotions, loved ones and the world around us – the more we seem to be nagged by our own uncertainty, even a sense of our own fictionality. Is there a better example of this ambiguity than the story of A.J. Finn, author of the book behind the upcoming film The Woman in the Window ? The book’s narrator, Anna Fox, is obsessed with psychological thrillers, which leaks into her everyday behaviour. According to a lengthy exposé in The New Yorker , Finn has experienced a similar muddle. Finn, whose real name is Daniel Mallory, rose to the top of publishing thanks to fabricated qualifications, endless manipulation and a host of alter egos. The circle of authenticity and fabrication has now been completed by the announcement that his life story is being adapted by writer and director Janicza Bravo for a Netflix series, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Truth, so the cliché goes, is stranger than fiction. What is stranger still is when terms like truth and fiction cease to apply. It will be fascinating to see whether Finn recycles these layers of life-as-art-as-life-as-art in his next thriller.