How thriller writers love the psychopath! There is hardly a thriller that does not have one of these folks chewing the carpet and spreading woe, and aren't we glad when the hero consigns him or her to an imaginative end? I suppose psychopathy must be considered a disability (though perhaps one not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act) yet in thrillers psychopaths are always brilliantly competent. They've been to medical school, they're scientists, politicians, captains of industry, they're capable of fiendish planning, perfectionist in attack and escape, covering all possibilities, confounding the hero who is trying to catch them.
But in real life, the psychopath is characterized not only by lack of empathy and manipulation but also by impulsiveness and lack of self-control. The limited empathy of psychopaths, which is what makes them so cruel and manipulative, also leads to mistakes. They can only read people up to a point, and so are prone to errors of judgement. They have grandiose conceptions of themselves, which also works against self-discipline, and gets them into trouble, from which they try to extricate themselves via increasingly implausible lies. There are a lot of psychopaths in prison for incredibly stupid crimes. It's also an uncomfortable mode of life, which is why so many of them self-medicate with booze or drugs. Psychopaths may be cold to the sufferings of others, but they are not without suffering themselves. On the up-side, psychopaths are typically fearless and aggressively bold. Some psychopaths even lack the normal startle reflex, and this indeed has been used as a diagnostic sign. Psychopathy is poorly understood. We suppose that there are successful psychopaths, but virtually all the psychological study of these people has been carried out on prisoners. Characterization of the successful psychopath is largely an enterprise of fiction.
I started thinking along these lines because I've just finished reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which features a woman described as a psychopath. Ms. Flynn, by the way, is a terrific writer, with a flair for describing character and delineating class. Her prose is taut and witty; she understands how to move a story along. In her story, Amy, the psychopath, is a beautiful, wealthy woman who marries Nick, a small-town boy making it as a magazine writer in New York. They live a happy gilded life based on the fraudulent personas they invent, but financial disaster ensues and they move to Nick's home town in Missouri, where the action of the book largely occurs. Not to insert a spoiler, but the matter of the plot is that Amy, distressed by an affair Nick has begun, concocts her own disappearance, along with an elaborate plot that implicates Nick as her murderer. She wants him jailed and executed.
I found the book acutely disturbing, because it is both well-written and utterly false. This is the problem with being a good writer. If a hopeless hack like famed author Dan Brown writes poppycock it is no loss; when a good writer does, you wonder why, I mean besides the lure of gold. Ms. Flynn writes a strong plot because she is not afraid to make her stand clear: that love is a fraud, that it is all manipulation and persona wrangling, that self-giving is a lie. The only couple depicted as loving is Amy's parents, and their mutual obsession produced their monster of a daughter. It's the most misanthropic take on the human condition in popular fiction since Patricia Highsmith, another fraudulent presentation of psychopathy.
Now, thrillers are supposed to be preposterous, and we are willing to suspend disbelief in return for the thrill--that's the tawdry deal we make with the reader. But there are limits. The decent, chivalrous private eye is a lie, but we accept it, because we can at least imagine that there could be such a person. But the masterfully plotting psychopath, who fools everyone and gets away with it is out of bounds, at least for me. It'd be like a multiple amputee winning Olympic gold in gymnastics. A psychopath might yank a girl off the street on impulse and rape and murder her and he might be able to do this a lot (Ted Bundy, e.g.) but psychopaths never devise plots that would baffle Hercule Poirot. The very impulsiveness that makes them dangerous always trips them up.
And in fact, the whole genre of whodunits is based on the obvious notion that the more complexity in a plot, the more things can go wrong, because no one is perfect, even (and especially even) perfectionists. The detective always notices the misaligned wine bottle, the unwound clock, the gun in the wrong hand. And, to demonstrate the point, in devising her unbreakable scam for Amy, Ms. Flynn leaves holes you could drive a tank through and has to defuse them with hand-waving.
One of the functions of the thriller in popular culture is to focus our fear of the generalized evil in the world upon one person--the villain--who is defeated. When the villain is not defeated, as in Highsmith or the Hannibal Lechter books, the thriller becomes a sick joke, a bath in ordure. There is a vogue for this kind of book in France--think of Céline or Houellebecq--in which the clothing of an excellent style is hung on a rotten corpse. Gone Girl is such a book and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this too. I feel badly, however, for the poor, traduced psychopaths.