The Girl On The Train
The Girl On The Train

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How the psychological thriller came to tackle coercive control

The internet has dragged violence out of the dark alleyway and on to our screens, and a new type of thriller is tackling that, says Erin Kelly

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By Erin Kelly on

Have female crime writers gone soft? A decade ago, crime writing by, for and about women was visceral. Mo Hayder and Lynda La Plante shocked readers with their brilliantly unflinching graphic depictions of the torture and dismemberment of women, bringing rare but realistic murders to the page – and women devoured the books in their millions. 

Today, we have, largely, swapped physical torture for the subtle slow burn of psychological violence – the bruises no crime-scene photographer can capture. 

The crime juggernauts of recent years have been psychological suspense; this week sees Emily Blunt star in the film of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train, a blockbusting thriller. Women are treated with brutality here too, but within a more claustrophobically domestic sphere, and the novel exploits the "softer" female tropes of babies (or lack thereof), careers (or lack thereof) and drinking wine alone (or excess thereof). Like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, it’s crime fiction in that it gets blood on the walls, but all three novels take the scenic route to murder – the weapons here aren’t knives and nooses, but gas-lighting and coercion, bullying and lies. 

All good crime fiction mirrors the society of its writing, so what does the continuing appeal of the psychological thriller say about us? Social media means that our external lives are out there for consumption. Every time we check into a gig on Facebook, Instagram our brunch or live-tweet Strictly, we externalise our lives a little more. Things that used to be private – a Saturday night in front of the telly – we now choose to transmit. The obvious security implications of this aside, it means that the only safe space is in your head, the last place on the planet that even Anonymous can’t hack. The unknowability of someone else’s thoughts are our new obsession. Current Channel 4 drama National Treasure, about historical rape allegations against a fictional celebrity, riffs disturbingly on memory and perception. It’s not Robbie Coltrane’s accused character who fascinates so much as his wife’s denial and his daughter’s doubt. Julie Walters and Andrea Riseborough give stunning performances as the two women desperately trying to safe-crack his mind. 

Tech has dragged violence out of the dark alleyway and on to our screens. Online, identity is blurred. Revenge porn is a thing. Gang-rape threats are an occupational hazard for women in public life. The story of the boy who stalked his own girlfriend on the internet for years, consoling her as she cried over the trolling, reads like the plot of the next outlandish bestseller. You no longer have to lay a finger on someone to devastate them. And because these are new forms of psychological harm, our psychological responses to them are new too, because they're unprecedented. 

Novels like The Girl On The Train  take the scenic route to murder – the weapons here aren’t knives and nooses, but gas-lighting and coercion, bullying and lies

Reading about psychological violence might also be a form of escapism in 2016. It’s hard to avoid horrific images of real dead bodies, whether that’s children washed up on beaches or lingering stills of murder victim Meredith Kercher’s bloodied feet in the Netflix Amanda Knox documentary. Maybe it’s in going back to the beginning that we can hope to understand the heartbreaking outcome. 

That’s the really chilling thing about psychological violence – it is part of a grimly familiar narrative. Ask anyone who works with survivors of domestic violence and they’ll tell you that the first punch never comes out of nowhere. The Archers’ recent domestic storyline was so chilling because it played out in real time; we saw Rob systematically erode Helen’s confidence for years before it turned physical. It starts with the drip-drip-drip of control and undermining, and it ends up – as this age-old story always does – with blood on the walls. 

I dare to hope that our examination of internal violence is a symptom that society is moving towards a greater understanding of true abuse. Since the start of this year, there’s been a new coercive-control offence, recognising that abuse is a sustained pattern of behaviour intended to create fear. It carries a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. It’s not a perfect law and it’s hard to pin down – possessiveness is easily disguised as protection; control can be parcelled in a Tiffany box and called a present – but it’s a start. 

Erin Kelly, Paula Hawkins and SJ Watson and The Pool’s Sam Baker will be discussing violence against women and girls in crime fiction at the Killer Women Festival in London on October 15.

@mserinkelly

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