Top 10 books about voyeurs

Reading fiction is a variety of voyeurism already, but these stories brilliantly examine the most sinister varieties of looking

In Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, incarcerated cannibal and ace profiler, tells FBI trainee Clarice Starling that the serial killer she seeks is defined by what he covets. “We begin by coveting what we see every day,” he says, describing a type that has always fascinated me, as both a reader and writer: that quiet outsider who observes life from a distance, often crossing the line into voyeurism, and sometimes crossing a further line into the criminal.

In my new book Her Every Fear, Kate Priddy, an anxiety-ridden Londoner, trades her flat for the luxurious apartment of a distant relative in Boston. Before beginning to write, I scouted the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Boston, looking for an apartment building that could serve as a model for the novel’s pivotal location. I found what I was looking for down a brick-lined side street near the Charles river, a fenced-in Italianate oddity with a doorman, ideal because two sides of the apartment building faced each other across a courtyard. Seeing that, I immediately knew there would be a voyeur in my novel, someone who watched, and coveted, from across the way.

Books, even more than movies (often considered the most voyeuristic of artforms), allow the reader an intimate look into the lives of others. Not just into their living rooms and bedrooms but into their thoughts as well. What other medium provides that? As a reader, you become an anonymous, all-seeing voyeur. I think it’s partly why books about transgressions and depravity fill up the bestseller lists. When we read, we are looking through a window, and what we often want is something dramatically different from our own lives.

The following are my favourite books and stories that involve voyeurism in one form or another.

1. It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich (1942)
This short story is more famous for being the basis of Rear Window than for being a noteworthy standalone piece. But it’s well worth a read, not just to see the bones behind one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but also because Woolrich’s central premise is so good. A man with a broken leg susses out a murder by obsessively watching a neighbour, building his case more on long-distance psychology than anything else.

2. The Executioners by John D MacDonald (1957)
The voyeur of this novel is Max Cady, a psychotic ex-convict, out to get revenge on Sam Bowden, the family man who helped put him away for rape. What is so menacing about MacDonald’s story – filmed twice under the title of Cape Fear – is the way in which Cady just hangs around, keeping an eye on Bowden, his wife and three children, among them a 14-year-old daughter just beginning to become a woman. Before he strikes, he simply (and legally) watches. MacDonald, an underrated thriller writer, shows the helplessness and terror inherent in such a situation.

3. Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959)
While everyone knows (spoiler alert) that Norman Bates is a psychopath with a split personality, he is also a committed voyeur. In Bloch’s chilling novel (supposedly inspired by the real-life serial killer Ed Gein), the last thing Norman does before donning his mother’s dress and knifing his attractive motel guest, is spy on her through a crack in the wall. It is the catalyst for the murder that changed American cinema for good. The novel, with its much briefer, but arguably more shocking description of the murder, is well worth checking out.

4. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith (1962)
There are multiple voyeurs in Highsmith’s work, but Robert Forester, a divorcee relocated to a new city who finds solace in watching a woman through her window, is a fascinating case of reversing the reader’s expectations. The voyeur is the least threatening character in The Cry of the Owl – the real danger in Highsmith country comes not from watching other humans, but from becoming emotionally involved with them.

5. The Collector by John Fowles (1963)
Frederick Clegg, the titular character of John Fowles’s debut novel, has two not unrelated hobbies: he collects butterflies; and he obsessively watches, and follows, a beautiful local art student named Miranda Gray. When Clegg comes into substantial money through the football pools, he realises he has the means to build a much larger net, that he can collect Miranda, and keep that beauty all to himself.

Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy in Atom Egoyan’s film version of Felicia’s Journey.
Bob Hoskins as Mr Hilditch and Elaine Cassidy as Felicia in Atom Egoyan’s film version of Felicia’s Journey. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Icon

6. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981)
Of all the murderers concocted by Thomas Harris, Francis Dolarhyde, the “tooth fairy” from Red Dragon, is somehow the most monstrous. This is because of both what he does, and what was done to him. Dolarhyde, scarred by a cleft palate, works in a dark room, developing home movies, and through that constant watching – the parade of happy families – he finds his victims.

7. Sliver by Ira Levin (1991)
A man builds an apartment building for the sole purpose of spying on his tenants with state-of-the-art hidden surveillance cameras. It’s not quite top-notch Levin, but the novel has enough wit and devilry to push its way past some of its plot contrivances. And it’s truly ahead of its time in speculating on a world in which everyone is both watcher and watched.

8. Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor (1994)
Alternating between a young Irishwoman’s quest to locate the father of her unborn child in northern England, and the story of a disturbed older man, Mr Hilditch, who watches Felicia before deciding to intervene, Trevor’s novel offers up two intimate portrayals of damaged lives. But it’s Mr Hilditch, a quiet observer without friends, whose transgressions might or might not be truly evil, who steals the book.

9. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (2003)
The story of Sheba Hart, a married, middle-aged schoolteacher caught up in a sexual affair with a 15-year-old student, is told cleverly and poignantly through the eyes of Barbara Covett. Barbara is an older teacher conducting a slightly predatory friendship with Sheba. Barbara does a lot of watching and studying in this novel. Her interest in Sheba predates her knowledge of the scandal, and Heller does an absolutely brilliant job of using Sheba’s story as a way of dissecting the storyteller’s pathology.

10. You by Caroline Kepnes (2015)
Joe Goldberg, the lovelorn homicidal maniac who narrates You, is obsessed with Guinevere Beck from the moment she enters the bookstore where he works. Thus begins a courtship that involves an enormous amount of voyeurism, both the old-fashioned window-peeping kind, as well as its modern version – stalking on social media sites across the net. Funny, disturbing, timely, and just a little bit romantic.


Peter Swanson

The GuardianTramp

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