Writing an Authentic Thriller: Carin Michaels

Carin Michaels

The writer of this article, Carin Michaels, is a former federal investigator working on her first thriller.  She is also a freelance journalist who has written for Gannett Newspapers, MLive Media Group, Third Street Publications and Crazy Wisdom Journal.  She is also a playwright and has had productions in New York, Chicago and L.A.  She reached out to me and I was intrigued because of her experience, and I think you will be as well, whether you are writing your own thriller or not.

This article was inspired after reading a bad crime thriller. As someone who was a federal investigator, I became incensed when I found the author’s story unbelievable. I have been writing for over 30 years, even though I’m just now working on my first crime thriller. I’ve earned paychecks, been reviewed and have developed a craft. Stephen King wrote in his book, On Writing, that “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” Given my unique experiences, I would like to discuss some minimum standards this bad book missed. This critique is an attempt to hone our skills as writers and readers. When creating intriguing crime stories, the basics for a good story are research, character, plot points and passion. read more

Reader’s Favorites

In the face of yet another list naming many male, noir writers as “the best”, I asked readers for their favorite books.  You all answered with passion!  As Julia Keller pointed out, “Lists are really just conversation starters.”  You all started the conversation! You all really really love Dorothy L. Sayers and Louise Penny, but the answers ranged from Cornell Woolrich to Donald Westlake to Dorothy Gilman to two titles from the great Canadian suspense writer Chevy Stevens.  I listed the respondents alphabetically, and if you didn’t include a specific title, you’re not here.  But read on!  You may find some food for thought and new books to love. read more

The Noir version of The ABC Murders

John Malovich as Poirot, Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome

When we closed the store and no longer felt Amazon breathing down our necks, we went ahead and subscribed to Amazon Prime so we could catch up on things like Bosch, which customers had been telling us frequently they enjoyed.  (And Bosch is excellent, very true to the books though not an exact replica).

Prime’s The ABC Murders is not an exact replica of Christie’s enjoyable, early serial killer novel either.  First there’s the casting of John Malkovich as Poirot.  He doesn’t look like everyone’s mental picture of Poirot – that would be David Suchet – he’s instead an older, defeated Poirot, scraping along without his faithful valet, George, and his nightly hot chocolate. read more

An Appreciation of Jane Langton by Nancy Shaw

Jane Langton

Jane Langton died last month, just short of her 96th birthday. Through 18 mysteries, her characters Homer and Mary Kelly studied transcendentalism while solving crimes. Langton wrote about the power of nature, art, and kindness. Her protagonists were often besotted with the natural world, or with art, while her villains and comically-awful annoyers were out of harmony with those worlds.

Though Langton hid clues and unveiled solutions, as the genre requires, her voice and presentations were utterly distinctive. She stitched plots together with quirky observations. A World War II-era University of Michigan alumna who studied astronomy and art history, Langton had prodigious powers of invention and spun plot complications from nuggets such as soil chemistry, the water table under a Boston church, and a flooded town under a reservoir. Her line drawings of the settings accompany most of the series, and the settings are integral to the stories. read more

Why I Love Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), was one of the four cornerstones of British Crime fiction in the 30’s and 40’s, and that is reason enough to love her. Along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, they were the original Queens of Crime, reshaping the puzzle based mystery and adding the bonus of continuing characters readers grew to love. Christie’s Poirot and Marple, Sayers’ Peter Wimsey, Allingham’s Albert Campion and Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn are some of the best known British detectives ever created. read more

Essay: Agatha Christie: Her Life and Legacy

This is an expansion of an earlier essay and the basis of a talk I’ve given a couple times.

Like many of you, I started reading mysteries in the form of Nancy Drew in grade school. I was entranced, and in middle school I decided to read every novel by Agatha Christie. I found I could read one a day and after reading a great many of them, I was able to figure out whodunit – sometimes.

During college I discovered Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, and when my husband and I moved to Ann Arbor in 1988, it was only a couple years before we opened Aunt Agatha’s. My husband Jamie worked at Borders for a few years and when we decided to branch out on our own, we went with the mystery genre. We named our store after Agatha and she remains, after 26 years, our bestselling author. read more

Mignon Eberhart: Forgotten Titan

She knew that something was happening in the house.

To me that line, the first one from 1944’s Escape the Night, is probably the ultimate Mignon Eberhart sentence. Eberhart, little remembered today, was once called “America’s Agatha Christie,” and wrote almost sixty novels, the first published in 1929 and the last in 1988 when she herself was 88.

On one of my buying trips to the local library bookshop I came across a nice uniform set of about ten of her titles, bought a couple of titles I knew I hadn’t read (Robin’s voice in my head admonishing we have ENOUGH books) but remained haunted by the others, ending up browbeating a kindly old lady into selling me the rest before the shop opened the next day. And excepting the browbeating stuff, I am very glad I did, because these are the perfect books for the snowy, cold, fluctuating fluey winter we’ve all been suffering through. I’ve been savoring them one by one like that box of Christmas truffles that didn’t last half as long. read more

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. read more

James R. Benn: No Such Thing as Human History

The fictional narrative offers the reader a coherent plot and movement toward resolution within the context of the time period; a reassuring process that lends a familiarity to what might be new territory. Reading historical fiction we are forced to think of the past not as a simply a sequence of large-scale events but rather to understand the patterns, causes and consequences surrounding those events and how they impact characters we have hopefully come to know and care about for better or worse. Intertwining the personal narrative of a fictional protagonist as an actor within the historical context can provide for a powerful historical understanding. We don’t just read about a battle, we feel the weight of a pack digging into a soldier’s sweat-stained back. Historians such as Bruce Catton and Douglas Freeman, among others, have written excellent volumes on the American Civil War, but it is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage that today still stands as a defining description of what those terrible battles were like. read more

A few thoughts on Agatha Christie (spoilers included)

Every couple years the “public” rediscovers Agatha. As there’s a new film of Murder on the Orient Express due in the fall, non-crime readers have been looking for that particular book. In general, however, Christie remains our bestselling author as her appeal is timeless. I was thinking about the innovations she brought to crime fiction and thought about her plots, for which she is justly famous.

She came up several tropes that are still in pretty much constant circulation: the narrator is unreliable/the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd); everyone is the killer (Murder on the Orient Express); everyone is killed (And Then There Were None); or someone long dead is found to be unjustly accused, causing an uproar in the present (Murder in Retrospect). Oh, and she also wrote a very early example of psychological suspense, Endless Night (1967). Though Josephine Tey wrote earlier versions of psychological suspense (The Franchise Affair, 1948 and Brat Farrar, 1949) Tey’s clung to some remnants of traditional detection. Christie’s story is so modern it could easily find a market today and it might be written by someone like Ruth Ware or Belinda Bauer (or, earlier, Ruth Rendell). read more