The Psychological Suspense Novel: Jenny Kidd
Laury A. Egan
Many of my novels and short stories fall into the “psychological suspense” category, which was epitomized by Patricia Highsmith’s claustrophobic plots wherein the protagonist is unable to keep himself from falling into dangerous webs and we, as readers, watch with growing alarm at what happens next. To heighten this effect, I often create settings that are, or will become, tightly enclosed so that the action and characters are trapped in the manner of traditional “cozy” mysteries created by Agatha Christie and others. This containment intensifies the interactions between the characters, much as a half-size pool table would cause the balls to carom more often and violently against the sides. I also have spent a great deal of time studying human behavior and psychology, particularly the darker aspects, and analyzing how best to strike the cue ball so that the action drives forward to maximum effect.
In my novel, Jenny Kidd, a young American painter tries to escape the shadow of her manipulative parents and establish her independence as a woman and as an artist. She travels to Venice and is inspired by its beauty—the first web—and then is captivated by a mesmerizing noblewoman, Caterina Barbon—the second web. Creating plausible psychological reasons for her behavior was one of my major challenges; showing her growth as a character was another. Jenny could not be too naïve because the reader would become impatient and lose identification with her. She could be sophisticated but not emotionally sure of her attractiveness or self worth. Giving her an ambivalent sexuality was an additional way to illustrate this dichotomy, as was placing her in a city that is ephemeral: romantic and shimmering, then ominous and dark.
One of the primary differences between this kind of novel and a true suspense/thriller is the development of the characters, the time spent on crafting their uniqueness, their history, and the nuances of their personality. A thriller is a very complex construction containing myriad details, plot switches, and diverse characters—most superficially sketched, all moving at a dizzying speed through time and multiple locations. Although I enjoy reading these novels, my preferred goal as an author is to create a protagonist who feels deeply, is hurt, cries, and experiences joy, who pulls herself out of the web and survives as a stronger, more enlightened person.
A danger of centering a story on a semi-unformed narrator is that it can produce inner weakness in the book’s core, a kind of donut-hole vacuum. Despite this obstacle, I keep returning to this structure because it allows me to bombard the protagonist with thrusts and shocks, the pushes and pulls of more dominant secondary players, thus forcing a reaction, a movement when there was little or no initial dynamic activity when the book opens.
As in Highsmith’s plots, there usually is one moment when the reader cries, “Don’t do that!” But even so the character does, hopefully for reasons that make sense because of his or her personality. I’d love to hear from readers of Jenny Kidd about when they believe Jenny makes that critical decision and what they imagine Jenny will do after the conclusion of the book.
Laury A. Egan’s website: www.lauryaegan.com.
Jenny Kidd is published in paperback and eBook formats by Vagabondage Press http://www.vagabondagepress.com/bookpreviews/jennykidd.html#.UHL5ScUUbCY
Her collection, Fog and Other Stories, is available at StoneGarden.net Publishing http://stonegarden.net. Both books may be purchased through local bookstores and on-line retailers.