Take one … a movie camera from the early days of cinema. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/PA
There’s a touch of Angela Carter about Beatrice Hitchman’s beguiling debut Petite Mort (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99) – a sly, erotic thriller concerned with doubleness and duplicity that’s both a primer in the early history of French cinema and a reflexive study in female self-fashioning – or should that be “self-editing”? The fictional Petite Mort is a silent film from 1914, presumed lost in a fire that destroyed a section of the Pathé studio where it was made. In 1967, the height of the New Wave, a print is found by a suburban widow in her basement, but with a crucial scene inexpertly chopped out: a “doppelganger” special effect that may shed light on the subsequent murder trial of its star, Adèle Roux.
Hitchman gives us Adèle in the late-1960s “present” being interviewed by a journalist; then, in parallel, a series of back-stories starting with her initial escape from provincial drudgery: her entree to the film world was a job as a studio seamstress making velveteen costumes for absinthe fairies. We meet her mysterious director-lover André Durand and his volatile film-star wife Terpsichore, whose assistant Adèle becomes en route to stardom. Complex and cerebral, Petite Mort is softened by beautifully drawn characters, lightly drizzled period detail and an abiding suspicion that love and cinema might be part of the same illusion. Hitchman worked as a film-maker and editor before taking a creative writing MA, which explains her eye for nerdy details like the flies that swarm around the studio attracted by chemicals from the film-strip factory, and fascination with the primitive optical effects, often adapted from stage tricks.
Its title (Gone Again) and set-up (a wife’s sudden disappearance) suggest unsubtle Gillian Flynn exploitation, but Doug Johnstone’s third thriller (Faber, £9.99) has an elegant clarity rooted in its sure-footed rendering of photographer Mark’s relationship with his son. Mark has a violent streak – he once hit his mother-in-law, and we witness him punching a mother at the school gates – but that can’t mean he murdered wife Lauren, can it? One of Mark’s theories is that Lauren was suffering from a recurrence of pregnancy psychosis. It’s a topic Julie Myerson dabbles with in The Quickening (Hammer, £9.99): Rachel and Dan’s dream honeymoon on Antigua goes coffin-shaped when pregnant Rachel starts sensing a shadowy, oppressive presence who may be the ghost of one of her over-solicitous husband’s former schoolmates. Myerson can churn this stuff out in her sleep – a more apt title might be The Quota Quickie. But while she draws self-consciously on doomy-holiday classics like The Comfort of Strangers and Don’t Look Now, that doesn’t mean the results aren’t worthwhile. On the contrary, she’s superb at freighting innocuous everyday banter with ambiguity and dread. The Quickening keeps us guessing until the end, though it would be even more effective if Myerson had spaced out her setpiece shocks a bit more.
Like his breakthrough Straw Men trilogy, Michael Marshall’s chilling We Are Here (Orion, £12.99) posits the world as a sort of multidimensional palimpsest, taking what’s essentially a psychotic intuition and normalising it. David, a writer about to have his first novel published, is in New York meeting his agent and editor when he has a run-in with a man at Penn Station – a man David both does and doesn’t recognise and who says simply “Remember me”. A parallel plot-line follows couple John and Kristina as they help a female friend who thinks she’s being stalked. She is, of course, but not in the ordinary sense. In We Are Here the mass of humanity we barely notice on our way to work contains members of a loose confederation of “shadow people” who exchange messages and have designated roles (Cornermen, Fingermen). Are these characters ghosts? Are they “real”, in the sense of being solid and visible to everyone? Are they, perhaps, spurned, forgotten people from our lives who, for whatever reason, have not forgotten us? It sometimes feels as if Marshall is wrestling this massive concept into shape as he goes along, and the early chapters’ opacity may frustrate even fans. But this is still an intelligent and profoundly unsettling novel.
Tom Bale’s awareness of the old creative writing mantra “character is destiny” pays off addictively in The Catch (Preface, £12.99). Bale sets up the personalities of friends Robbie and Dan so carefully that we’re fascinated to see how they react when they accidentally kill a lecherous old man whom Robbie has ripped off, then attempt to cover it up. It’s proof that, sometimes, it’s enough for a thriller to be solid, purposeful and well written.
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