How we got to The Girl on the Train – the rise of the psychological thriller

In October 2016, prior to the release of the new BBC adaptation of The Moonstone, John Mullan looked at the development of the contemporary thriller genre and examined how Collins’ “melodramatic crowd-pleasers” laid the groundwork for titles such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2015).

Extracts from Mullan’s article directly pertaining to The Moonstone follow below.

The Moonstone is the story of a crime within a family. In the first instance, a famous diamond is stolen during a weekend house party at a country home. In trying to discover what has happened to the jewel, the novel’s characters, including the falsely accused hero Franklin Blake, begin stumbling on the dark secrets at the heart of their respectable social circle. What began as the story of a theft eventually takes in obsessive sexual passion, suicide, embezzlement and murder. Sergeant Cuff, the great detective who is dispatched from London, fails to find the thief but is the catalyst for the uncovering of these secrets. Collins elaborates his plot entirely through the accounts of witnesses and participants. The reader must piece it all together.


This discovery of what might thrill us in domestic circumstances should also be credited to Collins. It was Henry James who famously saw his originality in these terms. “To Mr Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.” The bourgeois household is his stage: no wonder his mysteries turn so often on the testimonies of servants. Terrible things happen in familiar places. In The Woman in White the most frightening location is a comfortable family home in Hampshire, within a few minutes’ walk of a railway station.

In his great novels of the 1860s, Collins invented a series of narrative tricks and peculiar plot elements that thriller writers still draw on. The Girl on the Train depends on the fact that one of its narrators, Rachel, suffers from alcohol-induced memory loss. She struggles through the book to recover the memories that might explain a woman’s mysterious disappearance. She even wonders whether she might somehow be responsible. It was Collins who introduced to the English novel this strangest of possibilities: that a person might not know what they know – might not even know what they have done. In The Moonstone opium removes some characters from conscious control over their actions. In Armadale Lydia Gwilt, the beguiling villainess, swears by it. “Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart.” (Laudanum was opium steeped in alcohol.) Collins’s close friend Charles Dickens was so intrigued by the fictional possibilities of opium addiction that he put it at the heart of his own, unfinished psychological thriller, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which the frighteningly obsessive choirmaster John Jasper is wedded to the drug.


Above all, [Collins] pioneered the use of multiple narrators. His preface to The Woman in White declared, “An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book.” Collins made it possible that a narrator might even be a culprit. He showed how to extract thrills from narrative unease. In The Moonstone the characters are like witnesses in a courtroom. They include the garrulous steward, Gabriel Betteredge, the heroine Rachel Verinder’s absurdly moralistic cousin, Miss Clack, and the opium addict Ezra Jennings. Often they have misunderstood what they have seen. No Godlike narrator presides.


Collins liked to experiment with different narrators. His longest and most complicated novel, Armadale, begins as a conventional third-person narrative, but then expands to include letters and first-person testimonies, and finally, grippingly, a diary written by the villain Lydia Gwilt, a formidably intelligent, red-haired governess, a murderer and a blackmailer, who uses her sexual allure to trick men. (One contemporary reviewer called her “Lydia Guilt” by mistake). She is fond of quoting Byron’s poetry and for relaxation plays Beethoven sonatas on the piano. Though ruthless, she finds herself falling in love with one of her intended victims. Eventually, her love for him prevents her gaining the fortune she seeks. She schemes to cheat the novel’s hero out of his inheritance, finally deceiving him into spending the night in a private asylum in Hampstead, where, with the assistance of the corrupt alienist Dr Downward, she attempts to murder him with poison gas as he sleeps. All this would be so much melodrama if we did not have her own account, and in particular the journal in which she records her mental torments as well as her infernal plotting.


Collins’s interest in unsettling our confidence in a narrative is what makes him seem so modern. One of the first reviewers of Armadale noted shrewdly, “If it were the object of art to make one’s audience uncomfortable, without letting them know why, Mr Wilkie Collins would be beyond all doubt a consummate artist.”

The original article was published in The Guardian on 8th October 2016 and is available to read in full here.

Join us for our event on Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone on 16th May 2018 at Cardiff University’s School of Optometry – tickets are free and available on Eventbrite here.

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