1) Characters we care about.
There has been a recent trend to create extreme characters of varying degrees of psychopathology:
Lizbeth Salander– Girl with the Dragon tattoo –
Vanessa Michael Munro – from Taylor Stevens The Informationist and The Innocent – a multi-lingual, knife wielding, self-medicating psychopathic murderer with a cause.
Jack Reacher with his attachment issues
We afford them the status of our heroes, we want them to lead exciting lives, but we demand pain…
- we often like to see them confront and deal with some sort of internal struggle – Salander with her anti-social feelings conflicting with her liking of Numquist
- sexual and or non sexual tension between the characters – romance/sex. Most thrillers have it. Cannot think of one without it!
2) A convincing plot – this in turn is made of:
- This is the almost mystical quality –Gerald Seymour in ‘A Deniable Death’. A complex, finely told, fully realised, developed plot, with multifaceted characters
- Variations in pace – not frenetic like some thrillers, but nuanced, taking time for reflexion, mixing it with fast action. Seymour weaves in background like he is sitting opposite you, sharing anecdotes. He weaves it in with all the seemingly effortless brilliance of the best writers
- Unanticipated but plausible twists – Sarah Walters an Incidence of the Fingerpost, Robert Harris’s Ghost with its superb knife in the gut ending. The unexpected bad guy/ the traitor. There are not enough female traitors according to my then 11 year old son!
- Often but not always a sense that justice has been served – viz Reahcer riding into town as a renegade Sheriff fixing the bad guys
This authenticity in turns depends on the following:
* A sense of place, scene setting. Many modern thrillers take place in specialised worlds –Patricia Cornwell’s mortuaries, in my own case the worlds of finance and intelligence and terrorism. We like stepping into different worlds, but we have to be sure to get the facts right and to wear our knowledge lightly, weaving in facts in a manner that adds to not obfuscates the plot.
* Good dialogue
* moral truths. Its been said that modern crime novels/thrillers are talking and revealing more of the challenges and details of daily life than so called literary books, I think because they tackle big and small picture issues – Gerald Seymour’s Badger with his crumbling marriage played out against the background/foreground of the war on JIHAD.
The best authors take us to a different world where all the details make us feel it is real:
De Maurier’s brooding Cornwall
Donna Leon’s Venice
Francis Fyfield’s minor key London with its cast of misfits and outsiders.
Anything by Gerald Seymour – his Wootton Basset, his Iran
Graham Greene’s Vietnam of the Quiet American
Ian Fleming’s feast for the senses –his Blue Mountain Coffee, his shaken Martinis, his Aston Martins. Donna Leon also has the most delicious edible feast for the sense, her Guido Brunetti books drip with delicious meals that would take any normal person hours to prepare
* A nuanced, complex morality – Graham Greene with his morally ambiguous characters, nothing as straightforward as a hero. John Le Carre with his background world of Realpolitik, where there is no costless solution, where there is always a price. This needs a credible, complex bad guy –Gerald Seymour’s maker of IED’s in ‘a Deniable Death – we are shown him as more than a maker of death. We see him as a husband and father. A normal man with a job.