What makes a good thriller?
What do I mean by ‘good’? Successful, as in best-selling? That’s a very difficult question, no one really knows why one book makes the best seller lists while a similar book by a similar author does not. Publishing companies would give their right arms for an inkling. One author of my acquaintance was a middling success, writing under a couple of names, then he wrote a book not dissimilar to his others which really took off, hit the best seller lists and his novel is currently being turned into a Hollywood movie. He is quite open about his view that this novel is no better, or worse, than his others, yet its fortunes are so very different. It is, he says, down to luck.
We also all know books which have achieved great success, but which we can’t like or admire. Is it just not to my taste, one asks? Or is it clever marketing? ( Probably, is the answer. ) Then there are the incredibly successful books which aren’t widely considered to be the best of their author’s oeuvre. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is one such, her prize-winning Sharp Objects was much more widely admired, but not as successful when published.
I’ve been reading lots of them in an attempt to find out if there are similarities. This began with my preparation for Thriller in the Park, reading Lie With Me, The Orphans and Wrong Way Home but since then I’ve read Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh and The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn and one or two more are on my list. Being laid up after recent surgery means I have lots of time.
Lie With Me, Apple Tree Yard, Gone Girl and I Let You Go were all best sellers, with Apple Tree Yard being dramatised for television and Gone Girl receiving the full Hollywood treatment. All of these have more or less jaw-dropping plot twists, at least one, so this is clearly one prerequisite. All have their fair share of ‘cliff-hangers’. Each includes engagement with the criminal justice system, though not all books on my list include a court room element. Sex features as a fairly major element, as, of course does death. These aren’t ‘serial killer’ type books though, in two of them the deaths are by accident (though either subsequently hidden or fled from). Rather they are of the ‘psychological thriller’ type and a secret can be as important a driver as is a crime.
The protagonists are all flawed or damaged in some way, or place themselves, willingly, though not necessarily innocently, in a situation in which they are in danger and can be exploited or used. One or two of them are downright unpleasant, selfish and overly entitled. So much for the modern hero or heroine.
Many are written in the first person (or several first persons), but there is also the third person narrator and, in one instance, both third and first person. But it is the way they are written which engages and excites, drawing one in and the fuelling the desire to read on. I don’t mean fancy phrasing here, or elaborate metaphors, but pace and drama and emotional engagement and, in pretty much every case a sense of things awry from the outset and likely to become more so, even in those novels which don’t begin with a big bang.
So there you have it, the recipe for a successful thriller. Except, of course, it simply isn’t as easy as that.