I love a good thriller. This recent genre of novels is descended from older breeds of diversionary literature, such as the mysteries, detective stories and horror. Unlike these styles, which have tended to calcify into predictable forms, thrillers are still in an early state of evolution. Its writers feel free to combine aspects of the older genres. Or make up genres of their own.
There are tons of lousy thrillers out there, overloaded with clichés, overheated prose, preposterous plots and cardboard characters. The authors below create characters you can identify with. So when the action comes you’re invested in the outcome, turning the pages to answer the only question a good story need evoke: what happens next?
Getting on my list is simple. I have to be willing to buy your next book sight unseen.
1. Lee Child. His Jack Reacher series features a character like no other in life or literature. His other innovation is to stage every book in a different physical locale, making place a character in the story.
Read the first pages of One Shot and try to put it down. What you’re reading is a new form of action writing. I don’t know how he does it exactly – though I’m busy trying to figure out! –but he puts the reader so deeply in the moment that he can dispense with all the time markers that slow down prose. You won’t find “then, finally, suddenly, or meanwhile” in his books.
Don’t take my word for it. Janet Maslin at the Times loves him. So does Stephen King, who did him the honor of giving Reacher a cameo in Under the Dome.
2. Stephen King Most of my friends won’t read King, either because they had a bad experience with one of his earlier books, or, more likely, because they believe his old reputation for nonstop gore and crude, overheated prose.
He’s written fewer gruesome scenes over the years. He long ago dropped the excessive italics and exclamation points that helped make his earliest books the laughing stock of the literary set. More important, he (or an editor) have slimmed down his prose. That doesn’t mean his books are short. Under the Dome is 1110 pages. But I counted only about 10 where I was bored. That’s some trick.
He’s incredibly prolific. His output is still uneven. I couldn’t finishThe Cell. And frankly, though I blogged about it, I thought11/22/63 sagged through the long middle. But today he’s more on than off. Aside from Under the Dome, I recommend Duma’s Key, Lisey’s Story, Hearts in Atlantis. Oh, and if you dare try one of the old, wooly ones, there’s always The Stand. Love it or hate it, you’ll never forget it.
3. PETER ABRAHAMS is the bravest, most ambitious writer of this bunch. Until four years ago, he had forsworn the comforts of series characters. More, he reinvented the wheel with every book, coming up with a unique premise, in effect creating a new sub-genre. He credits Ross MacDonald as his inspiration, with his device of the past catching up with the present.
Despite receiving raves from King, Janet Maslin, and Joyce Carol Oates in the New Yorker, he hasn’t published a book for adults since Nerve Damage in 2008. Instead he’s been writing books for Young Adults. I haven’t dared read one.
My assumption, based on nothing, was that his books were underperforming and his publisher insisted that if he wanted to stay in print he needed to mine the burgeoning YA market.
But a quick check at Wikipedia suggested another explanation. He’s written 4 books under the pseudonymn “Spencer Quinn.” A series, of detective books. How depressing, when he was so innovative…but wait. The protagonist is a dog. With any other writer I’d run away fast as I could. But if anyone can pull that off, it’s Abrahams. So I’ll be checking out the dog.
4. MICHAEL CONNELLY His series features Harry (Heironymous) Bosch, a police detective in LA, but that’s where similarities with old genres stop. Great twists in the plots, super taut writing, and a character who’s dark and deep are enough to make these more than beach reads. His new series with lawyer Mickey Haller is just as good as the Bosch stuff.
5. JOHN CONNOLY No relation to Michael. John is perhaps the first Irish thriller writer to break into the US market. His guy Charlie Parker is one troubled soul, making Harry Bosch seem bright as a sunny day. Part of his troubles are not of this earth. About 5% of these books are devoted to some creepy supernatural realm. Just enough to spice things up, but not enough to ruin the real life drama.
6.NICCI FRENCH is the pseudonymn of the British couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Maybe thanks to having two writers their books vary a lot – from creepy psycho-killer dramas to lost children and that past catching up with the present theme which Peter Abrahams excels at.
7. PETER ROBINSON Another British writer. His books take place in the Yorkshire Dales, a great setting, and feature a number of memorable characters, including the main one, Alan Banks. He is the most completely drawn of any character I know in genre fiction, and grows over the long series of books.
8. KATE ATKINSON Yet another English author. Her plots are seriously convoluted, just at the edge of my ability to keep them straight. But she navigates these challenges with literary skills far above those of most genre writers, making the ride a blast. Reading her first book I was annoyed at what I perceived as pervasive misandry. By the next book I realized she was down on men and women alike. Her main character, Jackson Brody is one delightfully messed up guy.
9. JOHN SANFORD The 22 books in his “Prey” series are all good. So are the handfuls of books featuring Virgil Flowers and Kidd, a painter who’s also a cyber crook (a great conceit.) Lucas Davenport is the star of the Prey books, and rivals Alan Banks above for growth of character.
Sanford would be near to top of my list if his last book, Shock Wavehadn’t been such a dud. In the intro he says he co-wrote it with a golf buddy. That guy ought to stick to golf.
I will buy the next Sanford. If he’s back on his game all is forgiven. Otherwise, he’s off my list.
10. MICHAEL MARSHALL He started out writing sci fi and horror under the name Michael Marshall Smith. Starting with The Straw Men he gave up supernatural realms to write about a world very much like the real one we inhabit – if ours were pervaded by paranoia, inexplicable crimes and a organization whose evil is made that much more terrifying by the fact that we just get glimpses of its members. You emerge from his books grateful that all you have to worry about is terrorists and crooked politicians.
Bonus: STEIG LARSSON Sadly, he’s not around to write anything else. But his genre-busting Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy has paved the way for writers to paint outside the lines. It’s inspired me in my own thriller series, starting with “You Can’t Write About Me,” soon to be published, by hook or crook.