Friday, July 15, 2011

Thrillers: 100 Must Reads edited by David Morrell & Hank Wagner


“The Thriller is the oldest kind of story – rooted in our deepest hopes and fears, for ourselves, those we love, and the world around us.”

Whether you are an aspiring author, a seasoned veteran of the New York Times Best Seller lists, whether your books have been turned into multi 100 million dollar movies or you are just an avid reader, creative writing major, history student or just want to know more about what makes a thriller popular and good, this book is indispensible and should set on your bookshelf next to the dictionary, thesaurus and book of quotations. If you occupy any of the above categories, or many more, then this book is a Must Have not just a must read. There are few “writers books” that stand the test of time but “Thrillers: 100 Must Reads” not only will stand the test, it spans the history of the Thriller from Beowulf to The Bourne Identity, Dracula to Deliverance and The Heart of Darkness to The Hunt for Red October.

Writing a review on this wonderful book is akin to writing a book report on a book report. It’s a daunting task as the authors who wrote these essays are amongst the best in the world in any genre and the giants and grand masters of the Thriller. When the publishers, Oceanview Publishing first provided me with an ARC of this book I almost took a pass. These guys are an impossible act to follow. And if I think it is daunting for me, the authors of the essays found it daunting as well. Any “Best of…” list is hard for one person to agree on, let alone a large number of people. David Morrell states in the preface, the authors collectively had a hard time deciding how far back in history to go in compiling the list.  Here’s a peek at just a few of the contributing authors: David Baldacci, Steve Berry, Sandra Brown, Lee Child, Mark Terry, Max Allan Collins, Jeffery Deaver, J.A. Konrath,Tess Gerritsen, Gayle Lynds, Katherine Neville, Michael Palmer, James Rollins, Joseph Finder, and MJ Rose….this sounds like at least half of my personal library. And these esteemed authors didn’t just draw titles out of a hat and write quick little blurbs. It quickly becomes apparent that not only did they struggle with the selections and nominations, but each and everyone of them wrote what amounts to a synopsis for a thesis in a masters class in creative writing.

And the stories, ah the stories. You could just print out the table of contents, use it as a shopping list and go to the bookstore. Stack these titles on your coffee table, arrange them nicely on your office book case or devote a few shelves in your library to them and anybody In the world would think you are a serious reader and book lover.

I couldn’t possibly review each essay, but here are just a few bits and pieces, some are observations on my favorite books, others study some of the literary and writing elements that were introduced to the genre and were revolutionary at the time, still others are observations that I found engrossing on books I may never have considered as key points in the genre such as Lee Child’s finding parallels between Plutarch’s Theseus and Ian Flemings Dr. No. Theseus is a Prince, James Bond a Commander, Ariadane is Honey Rider, the ball of string is Q’s arsenal of weapons masquerading as everyday objects. Even the underground locations are obvious as is Bond’s character; his thumbing his nose at authority, his stubborn willfulness. Is he a bold innovator  or a hot head?

Then there is David Liss on Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe; Liss points out that before DeFoe, most prose or at least prose that survived until today was prose romance (not to be confused with Romance Novels) but novels focusing on action but with “stock characters” – knights rescuing maidens in distress from giants and ogres. Starting with Defoe, novels began to be injected with psychological realism and the characters became more rounded and complex. Liss also points out the Robinson Crusoe was probably the first novel to use what today we would call “tradecraft” something familiar in almost all spy novels today. It relates how Crusoe learned to make clothes, build shelters, dry food for storage, in other words, how he learned to survive using things in his limited environment, how he learned to improvise. He (Liss) also points out the pioneering use of a plot twist when Crusoe discovers the footprints on the beach. Until this point in the story the island is deserted.

Gary Braver has a nice piece on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein pointing out that most people today only know this story from the many movies that have covered it. Gary Braver is the author of eight critically acclaimed suspense novels. He brings to the conversation the observation that Frankenstein has the claim of being the progenitor of modern Science Fiction and opening the world of Thrillers to that type of story , but that Frankenstein also has something to say about “our hopes and fears” for the world around us being at once a spectacular Thiller and a manifesto of the dilemma’s of living in our scientific age expressed in our modern anxieties over genetic engineering, nanotechnology and other innovations. Katherine Neville, her work, The Eight, happens to be one of the  modern Thrillers included in the book, does a marvelous job on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket. Poe was both the inventor of the detective story and raised horror fiction to literary heights introducing concepts like alliteration and assonance as plot devices. He also used literary techniques like revealing something critical to the audience that the characters themselves don’t know. Specifically the use of irony in Arthur Gordon Pym comes off with chilling effect. By the way, the inclusion of Neville’s The Eight made me especially happy as it is at once a historical thriller and a modern-day thriller jumping from the French Revolution to the early 1970’s and using mathematics, chess and computers as devices and exploring European History, Charlemagne, and the French Revolution as back drops. When I first read this book I had to wonder if Neville had stolen my diary of deep dark fantasies. It seemed custom made for me, like someone had taken all my interests and neatly wrapped them in one book that is historical puzzle piece, mystery, post modern thriller, and a dazzling debut novel. I have reread this book at least 5 times over the past 20 years or so.

I must cover one more thriller from the 19th century in the interest of keeping this review as short as my “book-horny” self will allow. Douglas Preston’s essay on Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White. WiW created a new genre in fiction, namely the “sensation novel” the precursor to the 20th century thriller. It deals with extreme and disturbing subjects: murder, violence, bigamy, insanity, kidnapping, illegitimate children, dark legal maneuverings, adultery, forgers, fraud and dark family and personal secrets. And it does it not in some far away land but in a seemingly placid, peaceful English domestic life. It also introduced the “pithy” chapter structure – each chapter ends with a cliff hanger -- of modern thrillers, but the novel also is laid out (having been serialized in many parts) almost like a modern TV drama in episodes.  And it caused the same type of anticipation amongst the readers with giant lines forming at news stands to snatch up the next issue and the Prime Minister of England was said to have canceled important appointments in order to read it when it came off the presses. The novel is also quite famous for having a second chapter that contains one of the most memorable in all of fiction, one that Charles Dickens himself called “one of the two most dramatic descriptions in all of literature.” It is a chapter that every thriller writer should study. You’ll just have to buy Thriller, to see just what that chapter is, or even read the original. And if those aren’t enough “firsts” for any novel, it also contains a strong, intelligent, loyal and courageous – almost an anti-Victorian – female protagonist.

Moving into the 20th century, Janet Berliner covers John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps, the novel which is not only a master piece of modern fiction but also single handily launched the “chase novel”. The novel strongly influenced writers such as Eric Ambler, Geoffrey Household, Ian Fleming and most novelists and screenwriters whose main character is accused of a crime of which he is innocent and must run from the authorities and catch the bad guy to prove it. Mark T. Sullivan writes on Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze who could be considered the grandfather to The Man of Steel and all the super hero’s that came after. Then comes a master work of noir. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice examined by Joe R. Lansdale. As Joe put it, Cain…”was the master of hard-boiled prose, lean, clean dialogue shiny as a new dime. He wrote like a demon on holiday, sexed up and hung over, and he changed the landscape of literature as surely as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler.” Cain’s prose has a kind of working man’s muscular poetry, soaked in sweat and hormones so ripe you can almost smell it. The book opens, “They threw me off the hay truck at noon.” and stands as one of the best first sentences in fiction. Ali Karim is, Assistant Editor at Shots eZine, a contributing editor at January Magazine & The Rap Sheet and writes for Crimespree magazine, Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers International and is an associate member of The Crime Writers Association [CWA], International Thriller Writers [ITW] and the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA]. Ali covers Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios. Most of Ambler’s fiction were political/espionage novels where the protagonist was rarely a professional spy. Dimitrios is different than the average, action packed, plot driven thriller. Indeed, it has very little action until the end. Instead, Ambler changed the game and made the thriller a character driven novel and it’s more the use of dark imagery and description that makes the reader shiver. Ambler’s villains are not only fleshed out as real people but they are the kind of people that generate so much havoc in the world even now. If you don’t believe me, just open the paper and read about politicians and business men in the headlines.

There are many, many more excellent essays it this must have book. When I first received it I expected it to be more promotional of the authors and the publishers so you can imagine my surprise in finding a book that was both scholarly and deeply interesting as well as insightful to the nuances of the authors art and craft. There is not a weak essay in the entire book. Geoffrey Household’ The Rogue Male is excellently, and perhaps rightly covered by David Morrell, one of the editors of this book and the acclaimed author of First Blood, which introduced us to Rambo who owes his existence to Household’s book. MJ Rose, one of my favorite authors, does a great job writing on Vera Caspary’s Laura , Duane Swierczynski’s coverage of Richard Stark’s (AKA Donald Westlake) The Hunter (which also has an alias – Point Blank) and Mark Terry’s take on Six Days Of The Condor written by James Grady are particularly moving, as is John Lescroart on Brian Garfield’s Death Wish.

So, whether you are a literary scholar wanting to study the fictional tools, devices, plot pieces, pace, character development that are the craft of the great thriller writers, or you are an aspiring author, or indeed hitting the best seller lists and just need a great book to round out your reference books. Or perhaps you are just an avid reader and want to know more about what makes a classic a classic, or even a casual reader that might want to delve into something written when your father or grandfather were young, I couldn’t recommend this book enough. I warn you though, this one is a keeper. You’ll want to pick it up from time to time and go back and read one of these essays just for entertainment from time to time.


The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved






  1. I thought I wouldn't be at all interested in this, but you've got me thinking I should look out for it.

  2. Sheila, It is throughly engrossing and I'd recommend it to any of those audiences I mentioned. I have already gone back and reread a few of the essays. I was especially happy to see how much thought the contributing authors put into the essays. Impressive. Thanks for your comments.