Gaslighters, Grifters and Gangsters: Psycho-thrillers of the 40s and 50s

Course Dates: 27/06/24 - 18/07/24
Time: 12:30 - 14:30
Location: Keeley Street
Join us to explore the rise of a dark, psychologically complex strain of Crime Fiction in the 1940s and 50s. Often termed the ‘psycho-thriller’, these novels put the criminal mind centre-stage, delving into murkier recesses of the human psyche than had previously been entertained. Focusing on two key examples of the genre, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, we will analyse and contextualise the psycho-thriller as it evolved in Britain and America.
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Gaslighters, Grifters and Gangsters: Psycho-thrillers of the 40s and 50s
  • Course Code: HLT334
  • Dates: 27/06/24 - 18/07/24
  • Time: 12:30 - 14:30
  • Taught: Thu, Daytime
  • Duration: 4 sessions (over 4 weeks)
  • Location: Keeley Street
  • Tutor: William Brady

Course Code: HLT334

Thu, day, 27 Jun - 18 Jul '24

Duration: 4 sessions (over 4 weeks)

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What is the course about?

This in-college literature course focuses on the emergence of the criminal as a figure of psychological interest in Crime Fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. During the inter-war period, British Crime Fiction was dominated by the well-mannered Golden Age detectives of Christie and Sayers, while in the United States, the dogged, disillusioned investigators of Chandler and Hammett held court. The Second World War and its immediate aftermath produced a series of social and cultural shocks. Following these mass upheavals, there emerged in the Crime Fiction of the forties, a new appetite for stories centred on morally dubious, damaged and dangerous protagonists.

This course will analyse the rise of the psycho-thriller within this Post-War cultural context. We will consider how and why the writers Patrick Hamilton and Patricia Highsmith developed such compelling and intimate portraits of mild-mannered killers, charming swindlers and alluring psychopaths. Manipulative, devious, sadistic and irresistible: why is it that the reprobates who populate these novels inspire empathy and revulsion in equal measure?

What will we cover?

Topics covered in this course include the rise of criminal-centred narratives in wartime and Post-War Britain and America; the cultural anxieties expressed within these novels concerning class, gender, sexuality and national identity; the role of official law enforcement structures in psycho-thrillers; the enduring influence of the ‘charming psychopath’ (from Norman Bates to Hannibal Lecter and beyond); and the incorporation of contemporaneous psychoanalytic theories into the Crime fictions of this period.

We will also consider the role of the reader in relation to these narratives of moral aberration: are we meant to feel complicit, guilty or gleeful for sharing in these darker realms of the psyche?

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

- Draw on an increased critical vocabulary to discuss key developments in mid-twentieth century Crime Fiction.
- Understand how social and cultural shifts in Post-War Britain and America are reflected in 1940s and 50s Crime Fiction.
- Discuss the emergence of the criminal as a figure of psychological complexity in Post-War culture and consider the ways in which wider discussions of trauma, neurosis and psychopathology in this period informed several Crime Writers in their approach to the genre.
- Respond to, compare, and enjoy a range of novels, stories and articles from the period.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

This is a course for anyone who is interested in crime fiction and/or mid-twentieth century literature.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

The sessions will consist of a combination of presentations by the tutor, class discussion and small group work. Alongside the main course texts, we will look at shorter articles and clips to supply context and support for deeper critical engagement.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

Please buy or borrow:
Patrick Hamilton. Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941) —any edition is fine
Patricia Highsmith. Strangers on a Train (1950)—any edition is fine

The tutor will distribute additional materials (articles and excerpts) for discussion in class.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Please look for other fiction courses under History, Culture and Writing/Literature/Fiction at

William Brady

William Brady is a lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and is from Dublin. In 2019 he received his PhD in English Literature from Trinity College Dublin and has presented his research in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Croatia. He writes and lectures on contemporary literature, war writing, and psychogeography. A passionate Gaeilgeoir, he is on the committee of Conradh na Gaeilge i Londain, which promotes and organises events relating to Irish language and culture in London. He is also a contributor to the Nuacht Mhall podcast, which delivers news and current affairs at a gentle pace for learners of the Irish language.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.