Beginner’s Guide to Thrillers
October 8, 2020
When I was a young adult, I was mostly all about movies. The only books I read were the Sweet Valley High series. My English-lit-major mother tried to introduce other types of books, to no avail. It was either Francine Pascal’s teen melodramas or nothing. One day, while devouring my latest copy of the now defunct Premiere Magazine, I read that Harrison Ford (one of my favorite actors, then and now) was filming an adaptation of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.
The next time my mother dragged me to Super Crown, I saw a paperback copy and on impulse asked her to buy it. She looked at me skeptically...the daughter who only read 150 pages of Peyton Place-esque dramas was asking for an almost 500-page tome? Not wanting to smother my literary fervor, she bought me the book, which propelled me into a world I never knew existed. The world of crime and passion. The world of lawyers and court battles. The world of murder.
Scott Turow’s legal thriller masterpiece is still one of my favorite thrillers. Whenever I read any thriller, even other Turow works, I always compare it to Presumed Innocent. “Well, it was good, but it’s no Presumed Innocent.” One of the things I loved was the way Turow set the pace. It’s methodical. It’s systematic. Nothing is rushed or forced. To this day, that is how I like my thrillers. From there, I read other Turow books, followed by John Grisham, Patricia Cornwall, Richard North Patterson, David Baldacci, and on and on and on…
What is a thriller?
Thriller is a genre of fiction that has numerous and often overlapping subgenres. Thrillers are filled with heightened feelings of suspense, anticipation, and anxiety. They are like going on a wild ride from start to finish. You’re pulled in, the tension and suspense mounts, and you keep guessing until the very end. And that is the goal of a thriller: to keep the reader engaged, entertained, and guessing to the very end.
According to Barry Trott in “Getting Up to Speed in Thrillers and Suspense,” thrillers...keep readers on the edge of their seats with increasing tension and menace. The protagonist has limited time [to] neutralize a threat to him/herself or the world--but can they? Readers may have access to the villain's perspective, which amps up the suspense. Anticipation keeps readers hooked.
Now that we know something about thrillers, let’s examine where they came from. Many say thrillers began in 1821, when James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Spy, the story of a heroic American agent during the Revolutionary War. Some think it was Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckling revenge epic The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844. Others look to the early days of the 20th century and the little-known British/Irish writer Erskine Childers, whose novel The Riddle of the Sands is sometimes called the first thriller. But, does it count if you’ve never heard of it?
A little later, we have:
- Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent
- W. Somerset Maugham, whose Ashenden: Or the British Agent is frequently cited as the origin of the modern espionage novel, even though it is really a series of spy stories
- John Buchan and his Richard Hannay novels, most notably The 39 Steps
- Graham Greene’s The Third Man, among many others
- James M. Cain, author of noir thrillers The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity
- The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Mystery vs. Thriller
One of the age-old questions of this genre of books: Is it a mystery? Or is it a thriller? It’s a quandary as timeless as, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Trott says, “Although many readers will use the term mystery to describe suspense or thriller writing, there are some differences between these genres. Unlike mysteries, thrillers and suspense stories, even when a crime is involved, are usually more about action and an impending sense of doom and less about whodunit or how it was done. In thrillers, the reader often knows the identity of the villain from the start, and the tension of the story centers around whether the protagonist will be able to overcome the obstacles the villain places in his or her way.”
I recently found a list of differences based on Trish MacDonald Skillman's Writing the Thriller and also Carolyn Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction. Here are the basic differences from that list:
- Closely related to thrillers, mysteries typically focus on a crime that has already happened and a hunt for the guilty party.
- A mystery concerns itself with a puzzle. A thriller presents the reader with a nightmare.
- In a mystery, the hero or heroine already has the skills he or she needs to solve the puzzle. In a thriller, he or she must learn new skills to survive.
- In a mystery, thinking is paramount. In a thriller, feeling is paramount.
- Readers of mysteries are looking for clues. Readers of thrillers are expecting surprises.
- The hero or heroine in a mystery is looking for suspects. The hero or heroine in a thriller looks for betrayers.
- A mystery hero or heroine must confront a series of red herrings. The thriller hero or heroine faces a cycle of distrust.
Your average thriller is a “general thriller.” Examples:
- Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg
- They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
- Crooked River by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
- Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay
- The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal
- Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Other notable authors are Karin Slaughter, Dennis Lehane, James Patterson, John Sandford, C.J. Box, Harlan Coben, Jeffery Deaver, Tami Hoag, Dean Koontz, Lisa Gardner, Greg Iles, Robert Crais, Lisa Unger, Joy Fielding, John Hart.
Within the thriller genre, there are many different types of thrillers or subgenres. Some use the label crime thrillers, which to me is an oxymoron. Goodreads uses the term mystery thriller for what I call a general thriller. The terms revenge thrillers, historical thrillers, gothic thrillers, noir thrillers, domestic thrillers, literary thrillers, and suspense thrillers (another oxymoron) are bandied about. I feel that all of these are more like sub-subgenres. You can have a historical spy thriller or a gothic psychological thriller. Take L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy. It’s a general thriller and an excellent noir thriller. Matthew Pearl, Charles Palliser, and Iain Pears are general thriller authors who happen to write historical thrillers.
After lots of deliberation, I’ve narrowed it down to what I call the basic 6 subgenres of the thriller. Keep in mind, there is enormous overlap within these subgenres, almost as much overlap as between mysteries and thrillers themselves.
By far our staff’s favorite type of thriller, these books have a heavy focus on the unstable emotional states of characters, usually the main character. An early example is Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Decades later, we had The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Then, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn started a wave of psychological thrillers with female lead characters, which included The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Recent examples are The Eighth Girl by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung, Outside the Lines by Ameera Patel, and The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong.
Other notable authors: Laura Lippman, Thomas Cook, Alafair Burke, B.A. Paris, Lori Rader-Day, Mary Kubica, Shari Lapena, J.P. Delaney, Fiona Barton, Chevy Stevens, Sophie Hannah, Tana French
The major characters are lawyers and their employees. The system of justice itself is always a major part of these works, at times almost functioning as one of the characters. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow started the modern legal thriller craze, though it was definitely not the first. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958), Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie (a 1933 short story) were some early examples.
Other notable authors: John Grisham, Steve Martini, Lisa Scottoline, D.W. Buffa, Brad Meltzer, John Lescroart, William Bernhardt
They involve espionage as a plot device and emerged in the early 20th century. These thrillers really amped up during the Cold War. Today, they thrive on international criminal organizations, Muslim fundamentalism, global terrorist networks, maritime piracy, technological sabotage, and other types of espionage as potent threats. In the 1950s, a former naval officer named Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale with an MI-6 spy named James Bond, and the modern spy thriller took off and never looked back. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre is the quintessential spy thriller. Robert Ludlum popularized it and brought it into the mainstream with his Bourne series, starting with The Bourne Identity. Alan Furst has taken over the mantle of early 20th Century British author Eric Ambler with his pre, during, and post-WWII spy thrillers. Also Jason Matthews, whose Red Sparrow might be the best spy thriller of the past decade.
Other notable authors: Len Deighton, Ken Follett, Brian Freemantle, Daniel Silva
A techno-thriller is a hybrid of spy, action/adventure, technology, military. This subgenre includes a disproportionate amount of technical details on their subject matter (typically military technology). Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October really began this subgenre in the 1980s. Recent examples are Every Last Breath by Juno Rushdan and The Ninja Daughter by Tori Eldridge.
Other notable authors: Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, W.E.B. Griffin, Lee Child, Nelson DeMille, Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn, Brad Taylor, Stuart Woods, James Rollins
These books play on our fears of disease and death. They often focus on doctors, medical examiners, and forensic pathologists who must square off against the novel's antagonist.
Notable authors: Patricia Cornwall, Kathy Reichs, Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Palmer
A political thriller is set against the backdrop of politics or a political power struggle. Political thrillers can be based on true facts, such as the JFK assassination or the Watergate Scandal. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth is one of the best examples of a classic political thriller, though David Baldacci’s Absolute Power rebooted the subgenre in the late 1990s. Also of note is Richard Condon’s classic The Manchurian Candidate and Robert Olen Butler’s thrillers featuring Christopher Marlowe Cobb.
Other notable authors: Brad Thor, Richard North Patterson, Jack Higgins
What’s the appeal?
Why do we like thrillers? I could cite Trott once again: “Readers come to thrillers for several appeals. The fast pace and cinematic feel of the stories make them accessible and popular. With the domination of contemporary culture by big businesses and tech firms, there is a satisfaction in seeing the cover drawn back from corrupt practices, and villains getting their comeuppance, even if it happens more often in fiction than in real life.”
But, we want to know what the reader thinks! Skokie Public Library staff members chimed in on why they enjoy reading thrillers:
Andrew: "It's that guaranteed ‘thrillerness.’ A thriller will not be boring."
Jarrett: "I love thrillers because they help me escape my own thoughts and plant me squarely into the mind of another person living in a nightmare world, but with more excitement."
Lynnanne: "I love thrillers because I love the heart-pounding action of them."
Allyson: "Thrillers are so compelling and engrossing--it's a form of escapism in that I get so wrapped up in them that I get to take a break from my own life."
Shelley: "I like to let the author lead me..."
Lukie: "I turn to thrillers when I want a fast read that is going to absorb me completely and provide a great escape."
Michelle: "I love thrillers because they transport me out of the normalcy of my life and into an eerie world with twists and turns, edge-of-your-seat plot sequences, and off-puttingly relatable characters. I love being in this place with the protagonist and trying to piece the puzzle together as the story unfolds."
Steven: "For me, a thriller should be escapist in that it doesn't seem too realistic. The reader should always be well aware of reading a fictional story. A good thriller pulls the reader into the world of the book rather than outward to the world we actually live in."
Whether you’re never read a thriller before or already like the genre, view a list of some of our staff’s favorite thrillers.