My Five Best Psychological Mysteries

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

Whenever Ruth Rendell writes under her pseudonym “Barbara Vine” she produces novels that are edgy, sweaty and dangerous, almost as though she has rolled down her stockings, pulled on a dark cloak and sparked up a cigarillo before settling down at the typewriter. Here, in A Fatal Inversion, she drip-feeds us information about the past so that we must constantly re-evaluate what we think we know. A young man inherits a country house, but instead of selling it, as originally intended, he and his friends move in and–with the help of alcohol and drugs–turn the place into a commune. Vine evokes the kind of lost youth in which sexy summer afternoons seem everlasting but, as the heat-wave intensifies, relationships within the house unravel. Ten years later, two bodies are found buried in the woods. The narrative shifts back and forth in time as, with masterful skill, Vine weaves a suspenseful story that culminates in a dramatic and unexpected conclusion.

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

“This is not a conventional cookbook”, we’re informed at the beginning of this witty novel. No, indeed: and Tarqin Winot is no conventional narrator. An intellectual and epicure, he is travelling from England to his home in Provence. Undertaking the same journey are writer Laura Tavistock and her husband. Laura is writing a biography of Tarquin’s late brother, a famous sculptor about whose talents Tarquin is scathing, since he considers himself to be the true artist of the family. But what kind of artist is he? Certainly, he is a superlative food writer, presenting us with seductive recipes for each of the seasons. His ‘cookbook’, however, is only an excuse to impart not just his pronouncements on ‘la bouffe’ but to provide a wickedly funny account of his life. Once the characters reach Provence, the plot thickens, like a good mayonnaise: and yet, mere narrative events are less crucial here than Tarquin’s playful, flamboyant style. This is a novel with a dark heart and a thoroughly entertaining protagonist.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

“A Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem…an infernal machine…a cat-and-mouse game.” Thus, upon its publication in 1962, one critic described this extraordinary novel. Pale Fire is all this, and more: both a satire and a mystery; a daunting intellectual challenge, but one that has many rewards for Nabokov fans, not least the satisfaction of his gorgeous prose and the way that this book turns us all into detectives. The novel comprises a long poem by recently-murdered American poet John Shade, alongside a commentary written by Shade’s friend Charles Kinbote, an academic from a country named Zembla. Kinbote claims to have been entrusted with preparing the dead poet’s manuscript for publication. But how reliable a narrator is he? Shade’s poem reads like elegiac autobiography, yet Kinbote apparently believes it to be an allegorical work about his own country. As the reader shifts between poem and commentary, trying to solve the puzzle of this novel, other possibilities present themselves until we aren’t sure who Kinbote might be or who, indeed, has even written this magnificent and melancholic text. 

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

There is something particularly compelling about novels that anatomise loneliness and obsession, and Notes on a Scandal is no exception. When beautiful, bohemian Sheba Hart joins the staff of St. George’s school, narrator Barbara hopes they’ll become friends. Barbara is in her late 50s: a single history teacher, devoted to her cat. Initially, Sheba brings a touch of glamour and excitement into her life. “I was the most fearsomely obsessive little masturbator when I was a girl,” Sheba confides, soon after they meet, and Barbara relishes her role as her new friend’s confessor. How disappointing, therefore, to learn that–without telling her–Sheba has embarked upon an affair with a 15 year-old schoolboy. Recovering swiftly from this shock, Barbara finds that she has to protect Sheba as her world begins to disintegrate. However, things are more complicated than they seem in this disquieting novel and the narrator is revealed to be a more complex character than we might have imagined. “This isn’t a story about me,” she insists, forcing us to wonder whether she might be protesting too much.

Engelby by Sebastian Faulks

Through the medium of his 1970s journal, we first learn about Mike Engelby: a bullied, working-class boy whose intelligence has gained him a place at an ancient English university. Mike’s brutal childhood has made him a wry observer, drily witty about everyone and everything, including college staff and students: “The captain of cricket has played for Pakistan, though he talks like the Prince of Wales. The teachers or ‘dons’ include three university professors, one of whom was on the radio recently talking about lizards. He’s known as the Iguanodon.” The social satire turns to mystery with the disappearance of Jen, a girl Mike has admired from afar and only with a shift in perspective are we able to solve the mysteries at the heart of this story. Engelby’s contemporary setting and darkly-comic tone were so different from anything that Faulks had produced that he asked Random House whether they’d prefer to publish the novel under a pseudonym. Ultimately, the author kept his own name and his fans will not be disappointed as he writes here, as ever, with intellectual playfulness, and narrative verve.