My wife reads a lot of thriller books. And I mean a lot. On our bookshelf, next to the likes of Stephen King, William Peter Blatty, Max Brooks and Jonathan Janz, are such authors as David Baldacci, Clive Cussler, and Chris Carter to name a few. I never cared for those authors, but as I watched my wife consume these novels on a daily basis, I grew agitated inside; why wasn’t she reading Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, or Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin? Why, when there’s a wealth of dark, goose-skinning tales within reach, did she grab Steve Cavanagh instead of Michael McDowell? To rub salt in my already festering lesion of frustration, my wife is often seen choosing a book with a moody cover (usually a man silhouetted against a bleak woodland setting, or silhouetted man against a bleak roadside, normally close to a woodland), flicking through the first few pages, and then announcing, “I think I’ve read this.” I don’t know about you, but generally speaking, the books I read fall into two categories; the first being those that crawl under your skin and never leave, or those that I want to burn in a ceremony akin to that seen in the Wicker Man. Either way, I remember them. What I don’t do is re-read an unmemorable book.
So what is it with the thriller genre? Is it too formulaic? Have all the good ideas been done to death (no pun intended) so everything is a copy of a copy of a copy? That would certainly answer why readers get confused. Or is it that the authors themselves are falling into over stretched tropes and bland prose making it had to differentiate between one famous hack over the other? I don’t think I’ll ever get to the real reason, and to be honest, I’m not truly bothered. What bothers me are books that don’t resonate with the reader. And this is why an author whose wheelhouse is horror ended up writing a thriller – if it wasn’t obvious enough, that author is me.
Let me get one thing off my chest; I don’t like thrillers. Not that airport fiction, mass market variety. And that’s not me being ignorant. I have read a few, but I find the writing unappealing and the characters unbelievable. But that’s the appeal, isn’t it? No big words. Short sentences. Fast plot. It’s about consumption and consistency. Readers of Lee Childs don’t want to be reaching for the dictionary, nor be wooed by a scorching hot simile or metaphor. They want action and treachery. They want to finish the damn book in two sittings while drinking Mojitos at the pool side while holidaying in Crete. They want to turn that final page with their heart content and thirst for a good old bust up slaked. They certainly don’t want to endure the slow burn or dense prose found in such classics as The Exorcist. And I get that. You’re writing for a demographic. Simple is as simple does. But when every book is a facsimile of the last, when you’re blind to what words you’ve read because the narrative is overcooked and insipid, can you find among the millions an actual thriller that delivers?
That became my main goal; to write something that is different. Maybe it helped not reading too many thrillers in advance of the undertaking, or perhaps it’s the inability to unshackle from my horror roots that made this journey different, but when I wrote Bad People (the first book in the Tom Nolan series), and then the follow up, Labyrinth of the Dolls, and now the final book in the series, The Ghost of Stormer Hill, I had no template to work from. No alchemy was performed or crime author consulted. I just wrote a story that, if forced to choose from the thriller section in the local Waterstones, would linger, maybe even crawl under my skin and live there among so many other great titles. But did I succeed?
Reviews since Bad People came have been very positive (it’s true, honestly. Go look them up on Goodreads), with many claiming it should be a bestseller, that the story was unexpected, and more importantly, it delivered where so many other thrillers did not. I’m not claiming Bad People is a modern masterpiece, or that it’ll change the way crime/thrillers should be written. What I am claiming is this; writing in a genre you hate can sometimes yield a product beyond your expectation.
Neil Gaiman is an excellent example of this. Known for dark fantasy, he’s also written graphic novels, children stories and poems. Even Anne Rice dipped into the erotic genre with her Sleeping Beauty quartet.
Maybe you know other authors who write outside their genre and created something special. Maybe you are considering doing this very thing. But if you think I’m wrong, and there’s no way Bad People, Labyrinth of the Dolls, or The Ghost of Stormer Hill can be any better than Lee Childs or Peter James, I’d happily meet up so you can tear me a new one, because at the end of the day, good or bad, you’ll remember my books.
Bad People and Labyrinth of the Dolls U.K. edition.