Psychological Thrillers In Song - Ten Perfect Pop Songs With Plots, Shocking Twists And Body Counts

It is a truth universally acknowledged (by me, because I write them) that the psychological thriller is the greatest sub-genre of crime fiction, itself the supreme genre of all literature. Psychological thrillers are really just old-school suspense; murder mysteries, but instead of the police coming to solve the crime the reader lives it through the victim’s or killer’s viewpoint – sometimes both. If all art aspires to the form of music then no wonder singers keep writing songs about murder. There are countless pop songs about ‘classic’ crime fiction: from Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sherriff to Jonny Cash’s Fulsome Prison Blues. These songs tell a subtler side of the same story.

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1. Hazzard by Richard Marx

The greatest domestic noir ballad of all time. A small-town outcast finds love with Mary, who disappears in suspicious circumstances. (‘The first time that someone looked beyond the rumours and the lies and saw the man inside,’ suggests the backstory is a novel in itself). I have spent more hours poring over the lyrics than is healthy and have spotted a hole in the alibi. In the second verse he croons ‘the night she went out walking all alone and never came home.’ Yet just before the middle eight he says, ‘I swear I left her by the river. I swear I left her safe and sound.’ These two facts are clearly contradictory. Lock him in Hazzard County jail and throw away the key.

Killer Lyric: No escape for me this time / All of my refuges gone

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zli3zUwWu8g

2. Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine by The Killers

An indie-pop murder mystery in E-flat, about a boy whose ‘friend’ (yeah right) Jenny has gone missing. There are those who say that this is a poor man’s Hazzard although actually the stakes are higher in this novel. Here our narrator appears to be actually in police custody, addressing the officers who hold him. If he’s telling the truth – and unreliable narrators are a staple of the genre – his insistence that ‘She said she loved me, but she had somewhere to go,’ suggests that Jenny had another close friend. We never find out whether he’s guilty but they must have at the very least strong circumstantial evidence to bring him in.

Killer Lyric: There ain’t no motive for this crime

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4j0dPbZe1lM

3. Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry

A masterpiece in subtext: a young woman from the Mississippi Delta narrates the suicide of her classmate, Billy Joe McAllister. Verse by insidious verse she reveals her own tragic part in his decision to leap off the Tallahassee Bridge. In the original, Bobbie Gentry’s haunted voice is at eerie odds with the jaunty guitar picking and the twist in the tale is as disturbing as anything you’d find in a Gillian Flynn novel. Don’t tell the purists but I actually prefer the Sinead O’Connor* haunting cover version. However it is disqualified for having a baby’s cry sound-effect in the final verse. Show don’t tell, Sinead, show don’t tell.

Killer Lyric: She and Billy Joe was throwing something off the Tallahassee Bridge.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaRacIzZSPo

*Sinead version

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn6L9gd8ch8

4. Aisha by Death in Vegas

Iggy Pop rasps a warning that a serial killer is on the loose over looping bass and snaking oboe. In a reveal worthy of first-year crime-writing students everywhere, he turns out to be the killer. The vocal is chillingly convincing. By all accounts Iggy Pop is a lovely bloke in real life but you’ve got to admit it’s very easy to imagine waking suddenly in the small hours to find him sitting on the edge of your bed wearing nothing but silver trousers and unspooling a roll of duct tape. Subtle it ain’t, and the video loses points for a ‘whoops there go my clothes’ girl stumbling across in escape from a killer, but as a game of cat and mouse between predator and victim, this is the pick of the pops.

Killer Lyric: Aisha... he got out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExLqMBLyWd8

5. Stan by Eminem

Witty, meta, disturbing, angry and catchy as all hell. Misfit superfan Stan writes endless scratchy letters to his idol, rapper Slim Shady. Slim’s ongoing failure to reply and an accidental blanking of Stan outside a rainy stage door forces Stan to respond in a way that seems perfectly logical to him: by getting tanked up and deliberately driving his pregnant girlfriend off a bridge. In a truly Shakespearean twist, Slim Shady’s letter arrives one day too late. Uniquely in this list, Stan also presages a real-life crime in that it launched guest singer and video star Dido to global domination.

Killer Lyric: Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSLZFdqwh7E

6. Delilah by Tom Jones

Here’s your mild-mannered auntie on the outside of six Babychams at your cousin’s wedding, leading a chorus of hammered relatives in a jolly little sing-song about a violent misogynist who gets dumped, spies on his ex, catches her with another man and then stabs her to death but it was all her fault because she didn’t want to have sex with him any more, do you see? A masterpiece in victim-blaming.

Killer Lyric: Forgive me Delilah I just couldn’t take any more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S87jWwzvwd8

7. Funny Little Frog by Belle & Sebastian

This is a dark, brilliant little vignette of a lonely man who takes wretched comfort in an imaginary relationship with a woman he knows only from pictures. Is she a magazine covergirl? A painting in a museum? His repression bubbles over in street violence ‘I’ve been starting fights’ and he finally confesses he can’t bear to think of her in a physical way, suggesting that if this fantasy woman ever turned up on his doorstep he’d go postal. It’s John Fowles The Collector with handclaps.

Killer Lyric: You are my girl and you don’t even know it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fT6pssrES8

8. Henry Lee by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Only Nick Cave could release an album called Murder Ballads. The record’s breakout single Where The Wild Roses Grow gets all the attention because of Kylie giving it her best Ophelia in a wet nightie in the video, but this, adapted from a folk song, is just as dark. PJ Harvey’s deranged narrator tries to seduce Henry Lee who already has a girlfriend. Unusually for a man in a psychological thriller, Henry is a decent man of deep integrity. He pays for his fidelity with his life: she plugs him with a knife and throws him down a well. Folk songs pre-existing DNA fingerprinting, we’re assuming she got away with it.

Killer Lyric: That girl you love in that merry green land can wait forever for you to come home.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzmMB8dTwGs

9. Goodbye Earl by The Dixie Chicks

No musical genre does narrative like Country and this feminist revenge anthem – think Thelma and Louise in aural form - has a beginning, middle and a gloriously satisfying end. This is a deceptively twangy song about an abused woman who enlists her best friend’s help to poison her estranged husband’s black-eyed peas (bonus points for C&W brand consistency).

Killer Lyric: Ain’t it dark wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7gNf_9njs

10. Don’t You Want Me? by The Human League

You might think it’s a chirpy little synth-pop classic, and on one level I concede that yes it is about a power struggle between two lovers torn apart by showbiz. But now listen to it again, imagining that the song’s dialogue playing out with the woman chained to a radiator in a cellar in Sheffield while police helicopters circle overhead.

Killer Lyric: Do you think you’ll change your mind? You’d better change it back or we will both be sorry.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPudE8nDog0

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Ruth Rendell, 1930-2015

Thestorysnail

When I was very little I had a picture book called The Story Snail, about a lonely little boy who wanted to tell stories but didn’t know how to begin. He was befriended by a giant talking snail who told him one hundred wonderful stories, which the boy then shared with his new friends. When they ran out, the boy found that he had learned to tell his own; he had become a storyteller simply by learning from a great. It was by this system that Ruth Rendell taught me to write. Those 10,000 hours they say you have to put in to get good at something? Most of mine were spent lolling on a sofa, a Ruth Rendell paperback in my hand. There are worse ways to spend an adolescence.

I was fourteen when I picked up A Fatal Inversion. Written under Rendell’s Barbara Vine pseudonym, it is a flawless, lyrical story about obsessive love and youthful privilege, set in rural Suffolk in the long hot summer of 1976. When I opened the book I was a keen and curious reader: by the final page, my long-held but vague desire to write had zoomed into pin-sharp focus. This was the kind of thing I wanted to do. Of course, I wasn’t ready at fourteen. I had my GCSE French oral in the morning for a start. But I read, and I read. The beauty of discovering an established writer at the height of her powers is the back catalogue. My local library had literally yards of Rendells and Vines on the shelf, and I tore through them like a termite.

fata inversio

 

I knew that I wanted to write mysteries, but not police procedurals: I just don't have that kind of brain. The Chief Inspector Wexford novels aside, Rendell often dispensed with the question of ‘whodunit’ altogether, occasionally solving the physical mystery on the first page; the suspense is all in the psychological unravelling. 1977’s A Judgment In Stone opens with the memorable line, ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Murderer, victims and motive are laid bare in the first sentence yet the novel grips to the last full stop. Crucially, it was all done without recourse to graphic violence. Rendellian torture is purely psychological.

She could see the squirming darkness in the everyday, something that fires me, too. One of her most memorable short stories features a husband and wife being driven to murderous psychosis by a loose bathroom window that kept banging in the night. Who hasn't listened to their spouse eating an apple and looked longingly at the knife drawer? It was through reading Rendell I discovered that accident, loss of control, is as likely, and often far more interesting, than premeditation. My books always contain a murder but they are psychological thrillers, concerned with what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do.

Sense of place is hugely important to my novels, and Rendell was a psychogeographer before the term was coined; her stories are indivisible from their settings. She captured that strata of London, where rich and poor, bored and desperate, live cheek by jowl in the mansions and bedsits, squares and estates of our capital. Some locations she returned to time and again; Highgate, Maida Vale, Regent’s Park. There is a swathe of London, from Portobello in the West to Crouch Hill in the north and most of the land in between, where it is hard to walk very far without treading in her characters’ footsteps. Naturally, when I left my home in metropolitan Essex to move to the capital – the same, one-way journey Rendell herself made at a similar age – these were the streets I sought. When I wrote my first novel, The Poison Tree I set it on the edge of Queens Wood in Highgate. (The Poison Tree, incidentally, is a novel about obsessive love and youthful privilege – sound familiar? - I tried so hard not to mimic A Fatal Inversion, but have been told by more than one reader than in doing so I inadvertently captured the spirit of another Vine classic, The House of Stairs. Meh.)  My second, The Sick Rose, took place partly in Kensington. It was not until my third novel, The Burning Air, that I charted my own territory, a thickly-wooded valley in remote Devon.

queenswood

Her political, occasionally almost polemical, style inspired me too. Rendell unabashedly dramatised the causes close to her heart, especially in the later Wexford novels, with Not In The Flesh memorably confronting the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation. The novel I’m writing at the moment, about a young couple who witness a rape, and take the law into their own hands to secure what they believe is the right outcome at the subsequent trial, is, in part, an opportunity for me to climb on board my soapbox. Rendell will be my gold standard in using compelling drama as a Trojan horse for this.

Occasionally I have been asked to defend my devotion, usually by people who say they ‘don’t read crime fiction’, never having tried it. I would always do so with relish. In fact, Rendell was held in almost uniquely high esteem for a genre writer, having the respect of her peers in the literary establishment as well as millions of devoted readers. Perhaps an element of snobbery remained, as she was denied the heavyweight prizes. Had she not cut her teeth writing detective fiction, her 1998 Barbara Vine outing The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy – about the secrets uncovered on the death of a beloved writer – would surely have been listed for the Booker it so wryly referenced. The same goes for No Night Is Too Long had it carried Ian McEwan’s byline, or Asta’s Book Sarah Waters’.

My loss is not personal, in the sense that we never met. The closest I came was a couple of years ago at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival where she had just given a talk, and I was due to appear the following day. She was checking out; I was hot and flustered after a long journey from London and holding a bottle of freshly-expressed breastmilk, much of which was also on my top, for the hotel to keep in the fridge for me. I felt that I lacked the gravitas to impress my heroine. I was happier in the audience.

Recently, I found an early Rendell, The Face of Trespass, in a charity shop. I thought I’d read them all, so to me it was like finding a lost Beatles album. The novel was written before I was born, the idiom dated and the technology on which the plot turns obsolete, yet it was more gripping than anything new I had read in years.

If you have never read Ruth Rendell, I envy you, and urge you to begin today. Her stories will stay with you for the rest of your life: and they may yet inspire you to write your own.