Okay, I’ll say it. I find many, more likely most thrillers boring. I know. I must surely be in the minority, but someone has to say it. Non-stop action with weaponry technologically impossible to imagine page after page is as monotonous as any repetition. It’s like having sex in every scene. Who cares?
I said most thrillers because there are some fantastic exceptions. Books where writers have taken the time, however brief, to artfully engage the reader in the story in which the action takes place. Books where writers have captured the reader and facilitated an attachment with the character(s) so there is something/someone to care about during the wild ride ahead.
One of my favorite thrillers is Harlan Coben’s Tell No One, one of his earliest novels and the one that landed him on the NY Times bestsellers list forever. During the first several pages we meet a young doctor, a pediatrician, who works in an urban setting and witnesses his patients falling prey to sociological problems beyond his medical talents. He is honest and sincere and has in his short time practicing medicine learned not to judge. We like him. We soon learn he has had his own personal share of tragedy and lost his wife during a violent episode eight years before. We are so sorry this has happened to our kind and generous young doctor.
So when we witness him opening an email from his dead wife with the admonition, “Tell No One,” we have purchased our ticket and we are ready for the ride. And a ride it was, with barely a moment to gulp air to sustain us from bump to bump, as we are thrust into an adventure so exciting we hope it won’t end, but pray it does. And it does, with a satisfactory resolution. Tell No One is a story with a hero, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is not one steady plateau of endless, senseless violence. It is a story.
I knew Finding Katarina M. by Elizabeth Elo needed to go in the TBR pile and packed to read and savor in Mexico during my annual winter hiatus. Katarina is a thriller with a story that engages the reader from the beginning. Our protagonist is a caring female doctor who lives a very solitary life. We learn early about her family history and how her Ukrainian grandparents were sent to the gulag. We are delighted when she learns during an unexpected visit from a relative that her grandmother is alive. We like family reunions, especially with a family member who was thought to be dead. Boom! An unexpected (no spoilers here) event occurs, and we are off to Russia and embark on an adventure throughout Siberia with steady well-plotted events and where the stark beauty of unfamiliar remote terrain leaves the reader as breathless as the story.
When I saw that The Chain by Adrian McKinty was a standalone set in Boston very different from his other series, I hesitated because it was touted as a thriller, and well by now you know, I am a very picky thriller reader. But “rare thriller that’s not only fiendishly clever but also powerfully empathetic” got me. Lost children, a mother of one fighting a reoccurrence of cancer, an urgency to commit an evil act to prevent harm. Onto the TBR pile and eventually into the luggage destined for Mexico. McKinty seamlessly painted the portraits of family members who were the victims of The Chain within fast-paced chapters, but ultimately his story also managed to capture the dysfunctional family history perpetrating the scheme. Quite the ride for the reader and reminiscent of Harlan Coben’s thrillers that place family at the center of the story.
In the end, a thriller must like any other kind of book have at its center a good story.