More thoughts on thrillers

March 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Having touched on the subject of thrillers in a recent post, I find myself  wanting to say more on the subject.

book cover thrillers must reads    books to die for 01  I’ll start by recommending Thrillers: 100 Must Reads (2010). This is the kind of literature reference work that I love. It consists mainly of  recommendations from writers of worthy works by other writers. John Connolly and Declan Burke use the same format in the equally excellent Books To Die For (2012).

Where thrillers are concerned, editors David Morrell and Hank Wagner cast a wide net – beginning with Theseus and the Minotaur ( Lee Child’s selection). In his “Welcome to the World of Thrillers,” David Hewson states:

Today, thrillers provide a rich literary feast embracing a wide variety of worlds–the law, espionage, action-adventure, medicine, police and crime, romance, history, politics, high-tech, religion, and many more.

…thriller authors are constantly aware that their readers want them to provide the sudden rush of emotions: the excitement, suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly, with peaks and lulls, sometimes  at a constant, breakneck pace.

Hewson concludes this introductory paragraph with a succinct statement of fact: “By definition, if a thriller does not  thrill, it is not doing its job.”

There is quite a bit of overlap between these two reference books. Of course, Poe appears in both, as do Conan Doyle and Patricia Highsmith. Thrillers recommends The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838); BDF (Books To Die For) weighs in with Poe’s Dupin stories. Both chose Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle, and both chose Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. And I recently encountered this latter once again in James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. As Lasdun struggled to come to terms with a perverse form of torment that  threatened to destroy forever his peace of mind, he found that he identified powerfully with the hapless yet well-meaning Guy Haines, the architect / protagonist of Highsmith’s riveting novel. (Among other things, Lasdun’s deeply unnerving tale has served to remind me that sometimes a true story can generate as much, if not more, dread than one that has been  fabricated expressly for that purpose.)

The great Wilkie Collins makes the cut twice. In Thrillers, it’s The Woman in White, while BDF features The Moonstone.    thewoman-in-white-cover   themoonstone This last recommendation is made by a favorite writer of mine, Andrew Taylor. I happily anticipate reading his new historical thriller, The Scent of Deaththe-scent-of-death


Graham Greene

Graham Greene

In Thrillers, we find The Third Man by Graham Greene. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve seen the film many times. If you haven’t, I urge you in the strongest terms to do so. In BDF, Peter James, himself no slouch when it comes to writing great novels of suspense, recommends Greene’s Brighton Rock. Greene called the novels he wrote in this genre “entertainments,” to distinguish them from what he considered his weightier and more self-consciously literary undertakings. (The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory come to mind.) Not long ago, I read something to the effect that the so-called entertainments are holding up better these days than Greene’s more intentionally profound novels. My favorite work by this prodigious, somewhat enigmatic, and in my view brilliant writer is The Quiet American. I was extremely pleased that Pico Iyer recommended this novel, among others, in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal. (Once again, I recommend the film. Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for his superb performance therein.)  Brighton Rock book cover   31371z5-P1.tiff   Penguin-3278x Greene Third Man (1999)


the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold  Not surprisingly, John LeCarre appears in both reference books, as does Agatha Christie. The Choice in both Thrillers and BDF is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Once again, I’ve not read the book but the film version starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner, is one of my all time favorites. As to Christie: And Then There Were None appears in Thrillers; Murder on the Orient Express is the choice of BDF.


Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler also appears in both Thrillers: 100 Must Reads and Books To Die For. M.C. Beaton chose The Light of Day for BDF; for Thrillers, Ali Karim chose A Coffin for Dimitrios. When I was in Paris in 1995,  A Coffin for Dimitrios was my choice for reading matter. I had no idea at the time that the second half of the novel takes place  in the City of Light – right where I was. What a happy confluence!  A Coffin for Dimitrios remains one of my favorite novels.    Coffin for Dimitrios


In BDF, John Banville recommends Act of Passion (Lettre à Mon Juge) by Georges Simenon. A more precise translation of the title would be ‘Letter To My Judge,’ and that’s  exactly what this novel is: a long, rambling missive full of excuses and self-justification addressed nominally to the narrator’s appointed adjudicator. Only midway through, the tone changes; the narrator starts seriously coming to grips with the enormity of what he has done, as does the reader. Although the narrator takes his time in revealing the exact nature of his transgression, you, the reader, may have already guessed the truth before he gets around to revealing it in his own way. At any rate, what begins as a somewhat plaintive, almost whining attempt at an explanation gradually gains in power as the narrator gains in self-knowledge. Act of Passion a real tour de force.  133706041


Also in Books To Die For: selections by three authors whom I revere. There’s The Chill and The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald, and The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.  007376   The_Chill_by_Ross_Macdonald   tey-brat-farrar-barbard  franchise4

Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald

Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey


And in his essay on Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in StonePeter Robinson rightly observes the following:

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is one of the most intriguing opening sentences in crime fiction.

Finally, Thrillers has an entry for the Ashenden stories of W. Somerset Maugham. After reading Selena Hastings’s magisterial biography of Maugham, I went on to read some of these tales – and to be astonished by them. They’re just plain terrific -incredibly readable and engrossing. (Like Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham worked during wartime as an undercover intelligence agent for the British government.)

W Somerset Maugham

W Somerset Maugham


On its cover, Thrillers proclaims that it features “Today’s best thriller writers on one hundred classics of the genre.”  Books To Die For give us ” The world’s greatest Mystery writers on the world’s greatest mystery novels.” Between them, these two books could keep a person happily immersed in the masterpieces of these genres for a long time. Ah, but one does like to look to the future as well, right? Here are just a few of the thrillers / mysteries high on my list of what to red next:  rage  BlackhouseCover  good-bait  13331170   A Deniable Death

Young-Philby-Littell-Robert-9781250005168  13167077

And then there’s this, due out in May:  A Delicate Truth by John le Carre US hardcover book

John LeCarre

John le Carré

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