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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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In 2011, I had a conversation with Ian Fleming’s nephew about what makes a book a thriller. We were both milling around in the aftermath of the CWA Crime Thriller Awards, where I was fortunate enough to have won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller, and it was interesting to hear about the deliberation process, and how some of the judges weren’t even sure if The Lock Artist was a thriller at all. There were no spies in overcoats, no ticking time bombs, no deadly contagions that needed to be eradicated before mankind was wiped out. There was just a young man with an unforgivable talent for opening safes, trying to find his way out of an impossible situation. In the end, apparently Ian Fleming’s own conception of a thriller prevailed: Fleming believed that a good thriller was any book where one “simply has to turn the pages.”
Maybe you have a different definition of a thriller, but here’s mine: Unlike in a classic mystery—where the central problem is the commission of a crime and the resolution is justice—in a thriller the central problem is simple, mortal danger, and the resolution, if it’s found, is safety. Pure survival.
As I’ve heard Lee Child explain, this is what connects the idea of a thriller to the very oldest form of fiction, which can be traced all the way back to cavemen sitting around a fire, passing along the lessons that would teach you how to survive in a world where mortal danger (A saber-toothed tiger? A sudden snowstorm? The men from a rival cave?) can find you at any moment. That was the very first, and ultimate, high-stakes thriller.
I know I’ll leave out some great thrillers, but here are 11 of my own high-stakes favorites:
The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
Sue me for starting with an easy one. But when I think about thrillers I can’t do much better than this one. It’s pretty much pitch-perfect, and a thousand imitators still can’t touch it. The dialog from Hannibal Lecter alone (which was used almost verbatim in the film adaptation) is enough to make me want to reread this book right now.
UNSUB, Meg Gardiner
If there’s anyone who can come close to Harris’ classic, it’s Meg Gardiner and her new UNSUB series. This one is the first, a novel that directly parallels—and gives new insight into—the still officially unsolved case of the Zodiac Killer. Like a few others on this list, Gardiner is an already good writer who hits her stride when she raises all of the stakes in a genuine thriller like this one.
Garnethill, Denise Mina
A young woman is released from a mental institution, comes home to her Glasgow apartment and finds her psychiatrist tied to a chair with his throat cut. And then things get much worse. Besides being the most realistic depiction of mental illness I’ve ever read in a crime novel, this book is the ultimate psychological thriller for the simple reason that it’s not just survival that Maureen O’Donnell is fighting for—it’s her own sanity.
Sleepyhead, Mark Billingham
Another debut thriller from the UK, with an ingenious inside-out hook: A serial killer’s fourth intended victim is somehow left alive, with a debilitating stroke that has left her unable to move. In any other book, this would be the big mistake that eventually helps bring the killer to justice. But here it’s the first three dead victims who were the mistakes, and the completely paralyzed fourth victim is the one where he finally got it right.
Killing Floor, Lee Child
Before 22 other books in the series, 100 million copies sold, two movies and whatever the hell else, there was just this: Page 1 of this first book, and a loner named Jack Reacher walking down an empty road, with just a toothbrush and a few bucks in his pocket. I still remember the day a friend put this book in my hand and told me I had to read it. I’ve been hooked ever since.
The Force, Don Winslow
Winslow won the Steel Dagger for The Cartel, but this book is even better. “All Denny Malone wants is to be a good cop,” but this book shows just how impossible that goal can become when you’re trapped between the Feds and loyalty to your brother cops. Winslow researched the NYPD for years to write this book, and by the end, Denny stands at the abyss, with no way out.
Misery, Stephen King
There are no monsters in this book. No ghosts, aliens, nothing out of this world at all. Just one writer and a fan who has some strong opinions on what he should write next. In my entire life, this is literally the only book that I had to stay up all night to finish.
Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell
This has to qualify as a thriller, because the clock is ticking as 16-year-old Ree Dolly searches for her father—who has skipped bail on charges that he ran a crystal meth lab. If he doesn’t show up, dead or alive, the family will lose everything. And the writing itself is so good, it’s painful.
Triptych, Karin Slaughter
Slaughter was already a well-established writer with her Grant County series, but I consider this book, the beginning of her Will Trent series, the moment where Slaughter really started to show us just how great a writer she could be. I love a thriller that doesn’t ration itself, that’s willing to throw you its best twist in the very first act.
Tell No One, Harlan Coben
Another writer who already had a decent career going, until he broke out with Tell No One. Such a simple setup—a man whose wife has been dead for eight years receives an email that seemingly proves she’s still alive—but Coben takes it to a place you’d never expect. And then another and another.
November Road, Lou Berney
I’m going to end on a book that isn’t even released yet! But I was lucky enough to read an advance copy, and goddamn, this is a great book. It takes place in the shadow of JFK’s assassination: two lonely souls—a mob lieutenant and a woman fleeing her husband—hit the open road together, hunted down by an assassin at every turn. This is going to be the best thriller of 2018, period.