It’s All in Your Head: Psychological Thrillers and the Unreliable Narrator

You’re a liar…delusional…confused…insane! No one is EVER going to believe you!

Ok, well not you per say (theoretically at least, I don’t really know you, so…), but this is a common accusation made in many of the best psychological thrillers available today. Take the box office success, The Girl on the Train, staring Emily BluntRebecca FergusonJustin TherouxLuke Evans, and a bunch of other names that Wikipedia lists. The movie, based on the New York Times best seller by Paula Hawkins, follows Rachel Watson, an alcoholic divorcée who is having a really rough time (to say the least).

Without giving anything away (no major spoilers, promise), Rachel witnesses and becomes involved with quite a tangled web of intrigue, missing persons, and violence. Despite all of the sleuthing and witnessing she does, there is one problem: no one is going to believe a depressed alcoholic. Anything Rachel says is immediately discredited due to her penchant for bottling her emotions by unbottling lots and lots of liquor.

So how common is this “no one believes you” trope? Well, doing a quick browse of the Bell Library’s own Popular Reading collection, I stumbled upon AJ Finn’s latest title, The Woman in the Window*.

In this book, we have Dr. Anna Fox, a drunk agoraphobic who (surprise, surprise) is a witness to something alarming taking place in her neighbor’s house. Once again, our main character is left without a friend in the world. Some characters look at her like she’s crazy…ok, basically everyone looks at her like she’s crazy, and she’s pushed to the point of even questioning her own reasoning abilities.

Thinking about it now, maybe it’s more than the fact that the other characters don’t fully believe the protagonists; maybe, it’s the fact that we as readers have a hard time believing the very characters who are leading us through their story.

In the two titles mentioned above, our primary narrators are presented as individuals with questionable sanity which leads readers to be suspicious about the information they’re provided. This is especially true when our narrators begin doubting their own actions and thoughts. It is at this point that we realize we have an unreliable narrator on our hands.

The idea of the “unreliable narrator” is a writing technique that has been around for years. Whether the narrator is intentionally deceptive, or is simply unaware of the fact that they are missing details, their interpretation of the story creates an often exhilarating read for mystery lovers. We as readers are left lost in false information or are lacking information altogether; prompting us to don our own detective hats and try to piece together what we know.

Through these faulty narrators, we witness twists, turns, who-dun-its, and some incredibly drawing psychological thrillers. Readers are left seeking answers between the lines, taking note of how certain comments are phrased or actions depicted. Eventually, we are led to the first reveal, prompting us to return to a previous scene and catch all that we missed (something I found myself doing while reading The Woman in the Window).

Whether you’re the type of reader who tries to solve the puzzle before the big reveal, or the kind who loves to wait for the LE GASP moment, the next time you find yourself pages deep in a mystery/thriller, pause and ask yourself…can I trust this narrator, or is there something more that they’re not sharing?

Happy reading!!

Trisha Hernandez

*Bonus Info: The Woman in the Window is set to be made into a movie starring Amy AdamsJulianne MooreGary OldmanAnthony MackieFred Hechinger, and Wyatt Russell!!

Other Psychological Thrillers in the Popular Reading Collection


Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.


Into the Water by Paula Hawkins: With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.


The Other Woman by Sandie Jones: The Other Woman will have you questioning her on every page, in Sandie Jones’ chilling psychological suspense about a man, his new girlfriend, and the mother who will not let him go.


Sunburn by Laura Lippman: New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman returns with a superb novel of psychological suspense about a pair of lovers with the best intentions and the worst luck: two people locked in a passionate yet uncompromising game of cat and mouse. But instead of rules, this game has dark secrets, forbidden desires, inevitable betrayals—and cold-blooded murder.


Tangerine by Christine Mangan: Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with an enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind. Tangerine is a sharp dagger of a book—a debut so tightly wound, so replete with exotic imagery and charm, so full of precise details and extraordinary craftsmanship, it will leave you absolutely breathless.


Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough: David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife. But then why is David so controlling? And why is Adele so scared of him? As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong.


Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough: Three women, one big secret, and the betrayal that threatens to destroy their lives.


Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan: An accused killer insists she’s innocent of a heinous murder. A grieving journalist surfaces from the wreckage of her shattered life. Their unlikely alliance leads to a dangerous cat and mouse game that will leave you breathless. Who can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?


Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter: The disappearance of a teenage girl and the murder of a middle-aged man, almost a quarter-century apart: what could connect them? Forming a wary truce, sisters look to the past to find the truth, unearthing the secrets that destroyed their family all those years ago…and uncovering the possibility of redemption, and revenge, where they least expect it.

Titles Coming Soon


The Flight Attendant by Christ Bohjalian: From the author of The Guest Room, a powerful story about the ways an entire life can change in one night: A flight attendant wakes up in the wrong hotel, in the wrong bed, with a dead man – and no idea what happened.


An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks: Looking to earn some easy cash, Jessica Farris agrees to be a test subject in a psychological study about ethics and morality. But as the study moves from the exam room to the real world, the line between what is real and what is one of Dr. Shields’s experiments blurs.


She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge: Six friends. One killer. Who do you trust? A teen girl is missing after a night of partying; thirty years later, the discovery of her body reopens a cold case in an absorbing novel featuring a small-town cop determined to finally get to the truth


The Current by Tim Johnston: Grief, suspicion, the innocent and the guilty—all stir to life in this cold northern town where a young woman can come home, but still not be safe. Brilliantly plotted and unrelentingly propulsive, The Current is a beautifully realized story about the fragility of life, the power of the past, and the need, always, to fight back.


Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman: If you could make one simple choice that would change your life forever, would you? With piercing insight and fascinating twists, Something in the Water challenges the reader to confront the hopes we desperately cling to, the ideals we’re tempted to abandon, and the perfect lies we tell ourselves.

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