Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A well-written psychological thriller can draw the reader in and be compelling – even gripping – without resorting to gore and brutality. The tension is built not by violence but by the buildup of suspense and the interplay of the characters. To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at a novel of psychological suspense. Let’s turn the spotlight on Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal.
As the novel begins, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married for fifteen years and are the parents of six-year-old Axel. Everything’s gone along smoothly enough in their lives but Eva has suspected for quite some time that Henrik isn’t happy any more. He won’t confide in her though. She too is unhappy, mostly because of the way Henrik has distanced himself, but she’s determined to make a secure home for Axel and a good future for them all. Besides, every time she’s tried to find out what’s going on, he’s shut her out. Then Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Worse, she finds out who his new love is. Hurt and betrayed, Eva decides to take revenge against them both (And no, this isn’t one of those ‘scorned woman takes hatchet to philandering husband’ novels – promise).
In the meantime, we are also introduced to Jonas Hansson, who has his own tragedy to face. The product of a very unhappy childhood, Jonas found his solace in his fiancée Anna. Then she nearly drowned in a fall from the pier of a local boat club. She’s been in a coma since then and Jonas visits her daily at the hospital. In fact, he stays there whenever he can, often overnight. At first, the hospital staff members (and the reader) are impressed with Jonas’ devotion to Anna. But soon it becomes clear that he’s not dealing with his loss in a healthy way and that in general he’s a very unhappy and psychologically unwell person. Slowly, we learn more about his background and how that has affected him. For years he’s been carrying the burden of his parents’ dysfunction and that has left very deep and troubling scars.
Then one night, Eva and Jonas happen to meet in a local pub. After that meeting things begin to spiral out of control for both of them. In the end the decisions that each one of them takes have tragic consequences for nearly everyone. I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that in this novel, we see how devastating the results of lies and betrayals can be.
One of the most important elements in this novel – and it really adds to the suspense – is the tissue of lies that many of the characters have created. The obvious betrayal is Henrik’s unfaithfulness to his wife. But it goes beyond that. Eva isn’t really honest either and neither is Jonas. There are other characters too whose lies lead to betrayal. And part of the sadness in the story is that if they’d just been honest in the first place, much of what happens in the story could have been prevented.
But these characters are not one-dimensional nasty people. For instance, most people would probably disagree with Eva’s choices when she finds out about her husband’s affair. And yet we can’t help but have sympathy for her. She dreamed of a happy home with a loving family and her sense of betrayal and anger are very real. And she never could have imagined the consequences of what she does. We can say what we want about Henrik’s philandering, but as we get to know him we see why he feels so unhappy. Eva is not a perfect wife any more than he is a perfect husband.
This novel doesn’t end happily. So readers who prefer stories where things work out in the end will be disappointed. But the story is realistic and believable. As sad and bleak as it is, we really can imagine the events in it happening.
As I mentioned, this is a novel of psychological suspense. There is very little violence and no gore. And the story is all the more compelling for that as we know what seethes beneath the surface, as the saying goes. The story is told from the perspectives of the various central characters so as each layer unfolds, we see what happens through more than one pair of eyes. Readers who prefer only one point of view in a story will be disappointed. But it’s extremely easy to keep track of whose perspective is being shared and the multiple points of view allow the reader to see just how many lies, tragic misunderstandings and betrayals there are in the story. And that’s part of what keeps the story engaging. The characters act based on what they believe, which is not necessarily the truth. As we watch the drama unfold, there’s a real urge to call out warnings and reassurances.
Another tool Alvtegen uses to build the suspense is what you might call the slow reveal. We do learn the truth about everyone in the story but it happens bit by bit. So as the novel moves along there are several unexpected and sometimes eerie reveals that put everything into increasingly clear focus.
It’s not too cliché to say that Betrayal is the story of different lives on a collision course. It’s the story of what can happen when people are not honest with themselves and with each other. The action moves along swiftly and the suspense builds enough to call this a thriller. And yet the pace allows us to get to know the characters, the way they think and the reasons for their choices. But what’s your view? Have you read Betrayal? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 31 December/Tuesday 1 January – The Innocence of Father Brown – G.K. Chesterton
Monday 7 January/Tuesday 8 January – The Cape Cod Mystery – Phoebe Atwood Taylor
Monday 14 January/Tuesday 15 January – Ghost Money – Andrew Nette