Robin’s Take on Thrillers

This is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Graubner Library in Romeo, Michigan in 2012.

I got started reading mysteries, like many of you, with Nancy Drew. Nancy was just the “gateway drug” – after her I devoured Agatha Christie, then Sayers, then Marsh, and eventually my dear departed father-in-law introduced me to contemporary mysteries. I have him to thank for my love of Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Dick Francis, Lillian O’Donnell, and Tony Hillerman. Since we opened our bookstore 20 years ago my reading journey has been a varied one, but I’ve always loved the suspense part of the genre.

Mysteries were “invented” by Edgar Allan Poe, who published The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, which features the first Detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe of course is also the inventor of the horror and science fiction genres, bringing his gothic, noir-ish tone to all of his writing. Wilkie Collins, heavily influenced by Charles Dickens (who was a personal friend) wrote many books, two of which are still regarded as classics of the mystery genre, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

And of course the detective novel was firmly implanted in the public’s imagination by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1886).   If Poe gave mysteries a tone – noir – and the idea of an omniscient detective, and Collins added suspense and atmosphere, Doyle gave his detective the brain power he would need to solve any case through examining the evidence. All of these threads follow through the history of mystery – the suspense thread introduced by Collins, the dark, noir tone introduced by Poe, and the flat out detection introduced by Doyle.

In 1938 one of the greatest suspense novels ever written was published by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca is still a fresh classic, steeped in atmosphere, creepy psychology, and yes, suspense, as Rebecca’s dead spirit seems to haunt and control the action in the story. The gothic influences of both Collins and Poe are alive and well in this novel.

The 1950’s brought a development of the more psychological aspects of crime to the table, as books like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) introduced a main character who was absolutely morally corrupt. He is a murderer who kills to get what he wants. You are drawn into the stories because Highsmith is a great storyteller, and it’s fascinating to try and figure out Ripley’s twisted motives and behaviors. Of course the contemporary “Dexter” books by Jeff Lindsay are a new take on this model.

All these mystery strands – atmosphere, psychology, and often the simple chase or quest model – come to fruition in the contemporary suspense novel. The psychological strand introduced by Collins, the gothic tone introduced by Poe, and the logical detection introduced by Doyle are still present, they are just changed up and adapted to a modern format. I sat down once and tried to analyze what makes a modern suspense novel a suspense novel, and here’s what I came up with.

The story has to “up the ante.” The main character has to have some kind of mission which is tied to a deeply felt allegiance. It can be a lost love, a frequent trope used by Harlan Coben; but it can be a family member or a fallen friend. I think that’s why my favorite Lee Child book is The Enemy, because it concerns Jack Reacher’s family. Even if it’s a save-the-world type situation, it also needs to have a personal tie for the main character.

There need to be twists. The twists should be spaced through the book, but it’s good if there’s one toward the end where a previously unsuspected character turns out to be bad. Jeffrey Deaver and Harlan Coben are especially good at this. For a really recent example, check out Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

There should be an unsolvable problem. Obviously, there is a solution, but it must seem as though there isn’t one, and that even more importantly, the problem won’t be solved in time. That adds to the suspense.

A good extra can be romance, though it’s optional. One of my favorite guilty pleasure suspense writers, Michael Palmer, often uses romance to good effect, where the two characters who fall in love end up working as partners to solve the crime.

One of the most important aspects is specificity. This is what separates the really good thrillers from the so-so ones. The specifics of something need to be a part of the story – it makes the whole story more resonant and more engaging and simply, better. This is one reason Dick Francis’ books set in the world of horses – which work as pure thrillers – are so great. The horses are specific. It’s good if the specific thing spotlights something you haven’t known about before. A good example is Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist, where, along with a great story, you learn what it’s like to crack a safe. Patricia Cornwell’s breakthrough – often imitated – was setting her thrillers inside the coroner’s office. She took the medical thriller and combined it with the old fashioned evidence based detection story invented by Doyle to come up with something really different.

And very, very importantly, there’s PACE. A poorly paced story is just a bad book, it’s not a thriller. A good story has a rhythm, with the action almost coming in waves, and it’s better if the waves of action are sometimes unexpected. And finally, a concise definition of thrillers – from no less than Laura Lippman: “I define thrillers as race-against-time books in which the story is driven by the reader’s more omniscient view of events.”