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February 6, 2011 / C.T. Henry

Looking for a Thrill?

Thrillers today are a dime a dozen.  Most fail to thrill for a variety of reasons:

  • The story takes too long to get moving
  • It’s too predictable
  • It’s all plot and no character development (like The Da Vinci Code)
  • The ending is lousy
  • The action sequences are boring

Today’s best thrillers have a fast pace, a character you really care about, and enough plot twists to keep you relentlessly on edge.  In fact, you can actually observe when a thriller utterly captivates a reader.  I remember watching my wife read Tell No One.  She was constantly exhaling every few pages just to give herself a break from the exhilarating prose.

A truly great thriller is a gem to treasure.  Here is my list of favorites (in order) that are guaranteed to thrill:

1. Tell No One – Harlan Coben – 2001
Book Description: For Dr. David Beck, the loss was shattering. And every day for the past eight years, he has relived the horror of what happened. The gleaming lake. The pale moonlight. The piercing screams. The night his wife was taken. The last night he saw her alive.

Everyone tells him it’s time to move on, to forget the past once and for all. But for David Beck, there can be no closure. A message has appeared on his computer, a phrase only he and his dead wife know. Suddenly Beck is taunted with the impossible — that somewhere, somehow, Elizabeth is alive.

Beck has been warned to tell no one. And he doesn’t. Instead, he runs from the people he trusts the most, plunging headlong into a search for the shadowy figure whose messages hold out a desperate hope.

But already Beck is being hunted down. He’s headed straight into the heart of a dark and deadly secret — and someone intends to stop him before he gets there.

2. Fatal Flaw – William Lashner– 2003
Book Description: “Lust will make a fool of any man, but it is only love that can truly ruin him.” So says Victor Carl, the ethically adventurous Philadelphia lawyer who usually ends up doing the right thing, but, as his law partner says, often for all the wrong reasons.

Late one night Victor gets a panicked phone call from an old law school classmate. Guy Forrest claims he has just found the body of his fiancée lying murdered in the house they shared. The victim is Hailey Prouix, for whose love Guy had abandoned his children, his job, his wife, his life. Hailey had mesmerized every man she ever met — including, unbeknownst to Guy, Victor Carl. Convinced that Guy is Hailey’s killer, Victor agrees to represent him, all the while secretly vowing to see justice done, whatever the cost.

The plan would have to be dirty, base, vile, the plan would have to exhibit a complete lack of moral fiber in the soul of the deranged maniac who dreamed it up. I was just the man for the job.

But when Victor’s certainty begins to crack, he embarks on a quest that will take him from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to the valleys of West Virginia and back again. He digs further and further into Hailey Prouix’s past and discovers that nothing is as simple as it had seemed, especially the woman he thought he loved.

Who was Hailey Prouix? Behind the answer lurks a killer. As Guy’s murder trial heads toward its shattering conclusion, Victor must find the brutal truth before the mechanism of retribution he himself has set into motion falls like a hatchet, smack on his client’s head.

3. Garden of Beasts – Jeffrey Deaver – 2004
Book Description: Paul Schumann, a German American living in New York City in 1936, is a mobster hitman known equally for his brilliant tactics and for taking only “righteous” assignments. But then Paul gets caught. And the arresting officer offers him a stark choice: prison or covert government service. Paul is asked to pose as a journalist covering the summer Olympics taking place in Berlin. He’s to hunt down and kill Reinhardt Ernst — the ruthless architect of Hitler’s clandestine rearmament. If successful, Paul will be pardoned and given the financial means to go legit; if he refuses the job, his fate will be Sing Sing and the electric chair.

Paul travels to Germany, takes a room in a boarding house near the Tiergarten — the huge park in central Berlin but also, literally, the “Garden of Beasts” — and begins his hunt. The next forty-eight hours are a feverish cat-and-mouse chase, as Paul stalks Ernst through Berlin while a dogged Berlin police officer and the entire Third Reich apparatus search frantically for the American.

Garden of Beasts features a cast of perfectly realized locals, Olympic athletes and senior Nazi officials — some real, some fictional. With hairpin plot twists, the reigning “master of ticking-bomb suspense” (People) plumbs the nerve-jangling paranoia of prewar Berlin and steers the story to a breathtaking and wholly unpredictable ending.

4. Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane– 2003
Book Description: Summer, 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Along with his partner, Chuck Aule, he sets out to find an escaped patient, a murderess named Rachel Solando, as a hurricane bears down upon them.

But nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is what it seems. And neither is Teddy Daniels. Is he there to find a missing patient? Or has he been sent to look into rumors of Ashecliffe’s radical approach to psychiatry? An approach that may include drug experimentation, hideous surgical trials, and lethal countermoves in the shadow war against Soviet brainwashing. . . . Or is there another, more personal reason why he has come there?

As the investigation deepens, the questions only mount:

  • How has a barefoot woman escaped the island from a locked room?
  • Who is leaving clues in the form of cryptic codes?
  • Why is there no record of a patient committed there just one year before?
  • What really goes on in Ward C?
  • Why is an empty lighthouse surrounded by an electrified fence and armed guards?

The closer Teddy and Chuck get to the truth, the more elusive it becomes, and the more they begin to believe that they may never leave Shutter Island. Because someone is trying to drive them insane. . . .

5. Running Blind – Lee Child – 2000
Book Description: People say that knowledge is power. The more knowledge, the more power. Suppose you knew the winning numbers for the lottery. What would you do? You would run to the store. You would mark the numbers on the play card. And you would win. Same for the stock market. Same for basketball or the horses or anything. Same for killing people…

So begins Running Blind, the electrifying new novel in the acclaimed series featuring ex-military policeman Jack Reacher.

Women are dying. Women who have nothing in common except the fact they once worked for the military. And they knew Jack Reacher. How and why these women are in danger completely baffles the elite FBI team working the case. There is no trace evidence. There are no links between the victims. Their bodies have no fatal wounds. And the killer has entered their homes and exited again like a summer breeze. Are these the perfect crimes? There is only one certainty: there is a new kind of killer out there, one so calm, cautious, and careful that even the brilliant Reacher is left running blind.

What’s your favorite thriller?  Have you read any of these books?  Do you agree or disagree with any one of them?  Please comment below.

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One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Steve Anderson / Feb 7 2011 4:42 am

    Nice post, especially the part about why thrillers fail. It’s only the ones written well that transcend genre and can be considered great fiction, period. I have to admit I’m fairly new to straight thrillers, being more of a historical espionage/mystery reader (and writer), so I’m looking forward to checking out a couple of these I haven’t read, including that Deaver book. Looks to be right down my alley. Thanks.

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