An exchange of emails and an interesting comment exchange (Thanks, Jan!) have got me to thinking about thrillers. What is it about the thriller that is so appealing? It’s not only the fact that well-written thrillers have solid plots and interesting characters. All well-written crime fiction has those elements. So what do thrillers have that makes them so popular with so many people? There are a lot of possible answers to this question; I’ll just offer a few thoughts.
I think one appeal of the thriller has to do with adrenaline – thanks, Jan, for this inspiration. That “adrenaline rush” can be awfully addictive. It’s the reason people go bungee-jumping and zip-lining. It’s part of the reason people are avid followers of their favourite sport. And a well-written thriller arguably gives readers the same kind of “rush.” For instance, in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County deputy prosecutor Rožat “Rusty” Sabich is assigned to investigate the murder of one of his colleagues Carolyn Polhemus. Sabich begins work on the case, but doesn’t tell his boss Raymond Horgan that he has a very personal interest in this case: Sabich was involved with Polhemus until a few months before she was murdered. When Horgan discovers Sabich’s secret he removes his deputy from the case. Soon afterwards evidence begins to suggest that Sabich himself is the killer. In fact, there’s enough evidence to arrest him and bring him to trial. Sabich engages Alejandro “Sandy” Stern to defend him and together, the two rush to find out who killed Polhemus and framed Sabich. There is a real sense of urgency in this novel and that’s part of what provides the “adrenaline rush.” Sabich’s freedom is at stake and even though he claims he’s not guilty, there’s not much at first to support him. And then too there’s the fact that, for reasons I won’t go into (no spoilers here!) you could call Sabich an unreliable narrator. Is he really innocent? That question also adds to the suspense and therefore the adrenaline level, as you might say, in this story.
There’s a similar sense of danger and urgency (although expressed in a different way) in Roger Smith’s work. In Dust Devils for instance, Cape Town former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are ambushed one day while they’re on the road. Dell survives but his wife and children don’t. As if his loss isn’t enough, Dell is suspected of the murder and is soon imprisoned. Dell is innocent and that’s what he tells the police, but they don’t believe him and it’s soon clear that he’s being framed for the murders. Right away there’s a sense of danger as Dell is taken to prison with every assumption that he’ll be found guilty in a perfunctory trial. Then unexpectedly, his father Bobby Goodbread finds a way to rescue his son. The two leave Cape Town and begin to search for the person who really is responsible for the murders of Dell’s wife and children. But the killer, a powerful Zulu named Inja Mazibuko, is hand-in-glove with the minister of justice. So he and his allies are a force to be reckoned with. There is real danger from Mazibuko and those he commands, and not only for Dell and Goodbread. Two other major characters in this novel, a former minor bureaucrat Disaster Zondi, and Mazibuko’s bride-to-be Sonto, also risk everything as they too, go up against Mazibuko. That peril adds to the “adrenaline rush” in this novel.
It’s not just the adrenaline rush that makes thrillers so popular. Readers want to be engaged in the stories they read, and the action in a lot of thrillers, and the pace of that action, keep many readers absorbed. For instance, there’s a great deal of action in James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. That’s in part the story of the murder of Agatha Mills, a seemingly inoffensive older-middle-aged woman who lived quietly with her husband Henry not far from the British Museum. At first, Inspector John Carlyle and his assistant Joe Szyskowski believe that Henry Mills killed his wife; after all, a spouse usually makes a very likely murder suspect. But Mills claims he’s innocent and in fact, he says that his wife had made political enemies and that they are responsible for her murder. Soon enough, Carlyle gets very strong evidence that Mills was right. So now, Carlyle has to deal with diplomatic protocol, international killers and more as he searches for the killer. In the meantime, an acquaintance Amelia Jacobs asks Carlyle to help her employer Sam Laidlaw. Sam’s worried because her son Jake’s father, local gangster Michael Hagger, has been threatening to take the boy and might very well carry out his threat. If that happens, Jake could be in real danger. Carlyle agrees to talk to Hagger but by the time he gets to it it’s too late; Jake and Hagger have disappeared. Events in this novel move quickly as Carlyle tries desperately to find Jake before something awful happens to the boy if it hasn’t already.
There’s plenty of swift action too in Lindy Cameron’s Redback. In that novel, we meet Team Redback, a group of Australian crack retrieval specialists led by Bryn Gideon. When a group of rebels on the Pacific Island of Laui invades the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference and takes the delegates hostage, Gideon and her team are called in to rescue the conferees. Not long afterwards, the team learns of other terror incidents in different parts of the world. There’s train sabotage in France, a murder in Japan and one in London, and an explosion at a U.S. military base. Gradually, journalist Scott Dreher begins to put the pieces together and discovers that the connection among these incidents is a shadowy terrorist group that’s using a war simulation video game to recruit and train new members. When Team Redback discovers this the hunt is on for the terrorists and their leaders and as they go up against each other, a lot happens and it happens fairly quickly. That kind of pacing and timing often keeps readers turning and clicking pages.
Another aspect of thrillers that appeals to readers is the sense of suspense – of not knowing what’s coming next. Of course, all well-written crime fiction has some sense of suspense to it but in thrillers, the suspense is often particularly emphasised. For instance, in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, we meet FBI profiler Will Graham, who is persuaded to come out of retirement to help catch a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy. Graham begins his investigation of some of the crime scenes where the Tooth Fairy has struck and realises that he is going to need help to catch this killer. His help will come in the person of brilliant but psychopathic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, whom Graham himself caught a few years earlier. Real suspense builds as Graham faces off against Lecter – no mean feat – and later against The Tooth Fairy. The reader does not know at first exactly how much Lecter will help Graham, nor at what price. We also don’t know how and when The Tooth Fairy will be caught. Harris uses the buildup of tension and suspense very effectively in this novel.
There’s quite a lot of psychological suspense in much of Ruth Rendell’s work too. For instance, in her psychological thriller 13 Steps Down, we meet exercise equipment repairer Mix Cellini. Cellini takes a flat in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer, who was the victim of a tyrannical father and has never really had a life of her own. Cellini himself is not exactly mentally completely sound; he’s got several phobias and insecurities. He and Chawcer don’t get on well, but they do establish a business relationship that works well enough. Then Cellini meets and becomes obsessed with beautiful model Merissa Nasha in the course of his work. He also learns about the life of notorious serial killer Dr. Richard Christie and becomes fascinated with it. These two obsessions lead to tragedy and there is a great deal of suspense as Cellini’s obsessions grow and Chawcer’s house and its history add to that buildup of tension and suspense.
There are other elements too that draw readers to well-written thrillers. If you’re a fan of thrillers, what is it that draws you to them? If you write thrillers, what is it that appeals to you about writing them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Oh, now, come on! Did I have a choice?