Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Psychological thrillers come in a variety of different forms, with different sorts of characters. And it’s interesting to see how various authors add suspense to this sort of novel. Let’s take a look at one today and turn the spotlight on Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood.
The main action in the story begins when novelist Leonora ‘Nora’ Shaw gets an email from a woman named Florence ‘Flo’ Clay. It seems that Flo is planning a hen do for her best friend Clare Cavendish, who’s getting married soon, and Nora is on the invite list. Nora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years, and isn’t sure why she would have been invited, but Flo insists. So, Nora makes a pact with her friend, Nina da Souza, who’s also been invited. Neither wants to go, but each agrees to go if the other does. The final attendee list includes Clare, Flo, Nora, Nina, Tom Deauxma and Melanie Cho.
The hen weekend is to take place at a remote summer house belonging to Flo’s aunt, and Flo has planned every detail, so everything will be perfect for Clare. As you can imagine if you’ve read enough crime fiction, things don’t work out that way. For one thing, there are good reasons that Clare and Nora haven’t seen each other for ten years, so there’s awkwardness there right away. For another, no-one else is particularly enthusiastic about the party games, etc… And, there’s an undercurrent of unease for several reasons.
Little by little, there are some uncomfortable revelations made on that first night. As if that’s not enough, the group begins to wonder whether they are as alone as they think they are. Is someone watching them? Nerves begin to fray, and it’s not long before everything starts to unravel. Then, what’s supposed to be a fun getaway turns sinister.
This is a psychological thriller in a lot of ways. So, there’s emphasis on the unsettled atmosphere. And, as we slowly start to learn about the characters and their histories, we learn that there’s a lot more going on then just a group of friends getting together. And, as everyone gets more and more tense, this leads to unkind remarks, little ‘sideways’ snipes, and more. The sense of ‘we’re here to have fun’ begins to fall apart quickly. This, too, adds to the suspense.
So does the setting for a lot of the book. It’s a lovely house, but it’s located in a remote place where there’s no reliable telephone signal or Internet. That feeling of being cut off adds to the tension, especially as things begin to turn sour. The woods are beautiful, too, but they are also eerie, especially at night. So, no-one feels entirely comfortable to begin with.
It’s also a psychological thriller in that it’s not clear (and I’m being careful, so as to avoid spoilers) which characters are who they seem to be, and which are not. As we learn new things, and get new perspectives, little pieces of the puzzle start to come together. But throughout the novel, there’s a sense that we don’t always know the real truth about any of the characters.
Still, we do get to know things about them. Clare, the bride-to-be, works in PR, for the Royal Theatre Company. She’s a sort of ‘golden girl,’ beautiful, successful, and she can be quite charismatic. Nora is a reclusive author who’s never been overly comfortable in groups. Nina is an outspoken doctor who can be sarcastic, but who is also both honest and loyal to Nora. Tom is involved in theatre. He’s witty, sometimes sarcastic, and genuinely caring. Flo is completely devoted to Clare and obsessed with making sure she has the perfect hen do. Melanie is a little more removed than the others. She’s looking forward to a chance to take a break from her newborn baby, but she finds that she misses her family a lot more than she thought she would. Yet there’s more to these characters than it seems, and it’s not really clear what they may be hiding.
That’s particularly true of Nora. The story is told from her point of view (both past and present tense, at different parts of the story’s timeline), so we see the events and other characters through her eyes. But how accurate is her perception? Is it a case of the unreliable narrator?
The timeline of the novel goes back and forth from the events at the house to the present time. Readers who prefer a sequential, linear story will notice this. That said, it’s not difficult to tell when the various parts of the story happen.
Since this is a psychological thriller, there isn’t a focus on violence. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s there. But the suspense comes much more from the psychological than it does from the physical, if I can put it that way. Readers who don’t like a lot of gore in their stories will appreciate that.
The story doesn’t have what you’d call a happy ending. No-one who spends the weekend at that house will be the same afterwards. But there is a note of hope, and we get the sense in several cases that pieces might be put back together.
In a Dark, Dark Wood is the story of what happens when hidden truths and the past come back to haunt a group of people who are gathered together for what’s supposed to be a fun weekend. It takes place in an eerie, atmospheric setting, and features a narrator who never really wanted to be there in the first place. But what’s your view? Have you read In a Dark, Dark Wood? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 27 August/Tuesday, 28 August – Faces of the Gone – Brad Parks
Monday, 3 September/Tuesday, 4 September – Bats in the Belfry – E.C.R. Lorac
Monday, 10 September/Tuesday, 11 September – Down Cemetery Road – Mick Herron