There’s a classic French novel called Le Grand Meaulnes, which is basically in two parts. The first is about a runaway schoolboy who stumbles into a marvelous, fairy tale experience in an isolated, ancient mansion in the countryside. The second half is the prosaic, logical explanation of this seemingly magic occurrence and the resulting quotidian grind of real life. In a way it’s satisfying to know what really happened, but in another way you want to rip the book in two and throw the ending out of the window. Or in the words of the marvelously named Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end, it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.”
What makes a thriller good? What makes one stand out from the pack of – let’s be honest – the many, many books at the moment about women in jeopardy who have lost their memories or are unreliable narrators or have terrible husbands? Let’s start with the main character. Lawyer in training Rachel North has none of those problems. Her memory is intact and her husband seems like a doll in a Red Sox cap. She seems reliable and balanced. She’s just – in a situation.
Thrillers need to be plotted like clockwork, without the gears showing to the reader. So someone as gifted as Hank Phillippi Ryan can introduce many characters onto her canvas, turn the wheel of the plot, and a previously introduced character will unexpectedly show up where you least expect it. Gears at work here, but not on display. Masterful.
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.
This book was a non stop read of the creepy psychological variety. The book opens with Lauren and her husband Patrick in the hospital as Lauren gives birth to twin boys, Riley and Morgan. While initially Lauren is afraid she won’t love them, that fear is quickly dispelled, but it’s replaced by a more disturbing fear: someone is trying to take the babies.
There’s an epigraph at the beginning of each chapter that grounds the book in the idea of the changeling, an ancient folkloric concept that the real baby is taken and replaced by an elf baby or an ice baby or in Lauren’s case, a river baby. And if this was the straight up thrust of the novel, it would have been almost a cliché.
This book is a knockout. I’ve read several books by St. James, but this one is by far my favorite. While she doesn’t have a recurring series character, her novels are always historical, and they all feature an actual ghost. There are some mysteries where a ghost is suggested but turns out to be something else more explainable. St. James is firmly in the old school ghost story camp and it serves her well.
The Broken Girls takes place at a girls’ boarding school in Vermont. Part of the book is set in the Vermont of the 50’s when the boarding school was still operational; and part of it is set in 2014 Vermont, where we meet central character Fiona Sheridan, who is much scarred by the now 20 years ago death of her sister on the boarding school grounds.
Timely, suspenseful, well crafted – all true, and irrelevant, as this novel is impossible to put down, so as you read you may simply be inhaling Ryan’s words. It’s going back into the story that gets you really thinking. Ryan frequently uses her extensive professional background as an investigative reporter to good advantage in her fiction, giving her characters, journalists all, a real ring of truth. It adds to the street cred of her novels. You can believe what she’s saying, because she knows what she’s talking about.
Jenny Milchman’s talent for suspense is of a very high order. I read lots and lots of mysteries – obviously – but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me so squirmy I have to put it down a couple times as I read it. She reminds me of Joseph Finder, in that I had to keep telling myself that this was fiction and wasn’t actually happening.
The book opens at a lovely wedding, but of course, as any suspense fan knows, this wedding is not going to end well. In this case, it’s not the wedding that’s the problem, it’s the honeymoon. Natalie and Doug have a camping/canoeing trip planned for their honeymoon, one that takes them deep into the Adirondack wilderness.
This is a terrifically exciting novel by the always interesting Barbara Fradkin. The second in a series featuring traumatized international aid worker Amanda Doucette, the book opens as Amanda is planning a trek into the Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter, taking along “marginalized” students struggling to acclimate to Canadian culture after fleeing violent situations in their homelands. While the requirement is not that the students be foreign, merely struggling, most of them are from other countries with many Muslims being represented. Amanda’s idea is to build bridges one at a time while sharing a common experience.
Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.
The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it.
Steve Hamilton’s Exit Strategy, the second book in his Nick Mason series, begins with the kind of slam-bang bravura action sequence that we’ve come to expect before the credits in a James Bond or Bourne movie. Nick must infiltrate a heavily guarded eighty-two-story building, elude or incapacitate at least a dozen Federal Marshals, eliminate a prospective witness and then escape before the big explosion. Adding to the degree of difficulty is Nick’s reluctance to kill innocent people.
Exit Strategy is built around several expertly dramatized set pieces like this, where Nick must rub out targets who are heavily guarded by professionals on high alert. Action sequences may seem basic, but their actual execution takes a very adroit hand to delineate who is doing what to whom. You have only to read a bad thriller or watch a bad action movie (no names please) to see that pacing, sure description and accuracy are crucial, and the lack of them excruciating.