Although my reading (and writing) tastes tend towards science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, I do occasionally enjoy curling up with a thriller. By ‘thriller’ I mean the sort of fast-moving tale that’s heavy on intrigue and excitement, but that doesn’t fall primarily into some other genre like murder-mystery.
Here’s a quick look at some of my favourites, together with one or two that I felt were a bit meh. As always, these are purely my personal preferences; if I enjoyed one you didn’t, or disliked one of your favourites, that’s okay—varied tastes make life more interesting.
The first out-and-out thriller I can recall reading was Run For Your Life (also mentioned in the post about children’s books, When I was Three, I Ate Mud). I guess I must have been around nine or ten when I first read David Line’s tale about two boys who go on the run across the wintry Norfolk countryside after witnessing a murder. It captivated me to the extent that I read the book over and over again during the next four or five years until it was falling apart.
If I had to name one thriller author as my favourite, I’d have to plump for Frederick Forsyth. Every novel of his I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I’ll mention two as being superb examples of thriller writing. First, The Odessa File, the gripping tale of a journalist trying to uncover the whereabouts of a former SS concentration camp commander. Second, The Day of the Jackal, a white-knuckle ride about an attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Both novels were adapted into darned good films, starring respectively Jon Voigt and Edward Fox.
There’s one author of whose writing on a technical level I’m not the biggest fan, yet I’ve read most of his books. It’s very much a case of story trumping writing style. (Not, I hasten to add, that I’m criticising his writing, and not that he’d give two hoots if I was—he’s sold millions of books and stellar actors like Tom Hanks star in adaptations of his works.) I refer, of course, to Dan Brown.
When I read The Da Vinci Code, I didn’t know the theory about the Holy Grail (being careful here not to introduce spoilers) that Brown drew upon—and which subsequently led to allegations of plagiarism and a law suit, but that’s another story—and it blew me away. It resulted in a trip to my local library to borrow a book on art so I could study Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. (This was in the days before the internet was routinely used by pretty much everyone to look up pretty much anything, and it wasn’t that long ago.)
I also enjoyed one or two of his earlier novels, such as Deception Point, and another featuring Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons. The latter is set in Rome, a city with which I’m familiar after trips to watch Wales play Italy in the Six Nations. Brown uses many locations, such as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, which I have visited many times. It doesn’t hurt to make a scene come alive in the imagination when you know the setting, and I enjoyed the novel in spite of the most far-fetched escape from a stricken helicopter you’re ever likely to encounter. I’m not so keen on the more recent Robert Langdon novels—in them, I feel that Brown’s tendency towards melodrama and contrived, cliffhanger chapter endings become distracting. Not enough, mind, to stop me reading each one he brings out.
Some thrillers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed but almost instantly forgotten, which hasn’t led me to rush to find other works by their authors. These include novels by Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Harlan Coben and Clive Cussler.
Then there are many celebrated thriller authors whose books I’ve never read. Tom Clancy and Lee Child, for instance, though I have one or two of their books sitting in my tottering TBR pile. As usual, it’s a case of too many books, too little time.
There are some well-known thrillers that left me cold. The Girl on the Train I found irritating and I saw the ending coming long before the main characters did. The Firm was meh enough that I never bothered with John Grisham again. And I Am Pilgrim was filled with improbable escapes from seemingly hopeless situations and began to drag around halfway so that I was relieved to finish it. (I’m not trying to put you off reading any of these books—you might love them.)
I’m going to finish on a high with a few more thrillers I felt were top-class. Before I Go to Sleep is the tale of a woman whose memory resets every night when she goes to bed so that she cannot remember who she is when she awakes the next morning. How she deals with this I’ll leave you to find out—it’s an intriguing journey. The only novel of John Le Carre’s I’ve read is The Little Drummer Girl, but I hope it won’t be the last. It’s an edgy story of a young actress recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell, and it gripped me to the end. The BBC recently made a damned fine job of adapting the novel for television. Finally, a mention of the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris isn’t as celebrated as the author’s better-known The Silence of the Lambs, but is far superior in my view. Difficult to imagine a darker, more disturbing study of human depravation, at least when it comes to fiction.
Thrilling reading, folks!