I love thrillers. Exciting storylines, packed with action, the good guys seeking to defeat the bad guys against impossible odds. I wouldn’t want to read them all the time, but there are certainly moments when thrillers are perfect – on holiday perhaps, or when you have limited time but want to immediately lose yourself in a book. Generally, they don’t make intellectual demands on you, yet give you hours of pleasure.
I was thinking the other day about some of my favourite thrillers, and found myself trying to select which were my all-time favourites.
That was hard. How do you compare different things and say this one is definitively better than this other one? It might depend on the mood you’re in, or how biased you are in favour of the most recent example that passed your way. Then there’s the embarrassing moment when you realise you left out that one that you’ve always raved about every chance you get.
First, a working definition of a thriller: let’s say it’s a novel with a plot based around crime or espionage (I wonder how real spies feel about being linked with crime like this?) It also has to be exciting (“thrilling”) although the excitement can be in-your-face non-stop action or a slow-burning fuse.
Okay, now here are the top five (or five-ish) I’ve narrowed my list down to:
I’ve left out a lot of favourites, from Sherlock Holmes to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. There are also a bunch of authors from whom I tend to read a book a year – Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen. I enjoy them all, so I was surprised none of their individual books made my list.
A few words about each of the books that did make it:
1. The Guns of Navarone, by Alistair Maclean
Three thousand British soldiers are about to die on a Greek island in World War II. Rescue by ship is impossible unless the great artillery units on the nearby island of Navarone can be silenced. But the guns are in a cave where they can’t be reached by bombers. The only way in is for a party to climb the reputedly unclimbable cliffs at the other end of the island, and then make their way through the German garrisons to the guns.
The party is led by New Zealand mountaineer Keith Mallory – surname probably based on another NZ climber – and includes that action trope of the mis-matched crew – the Greek strong man, the American saboteur, the Scottish technician and the English youngster with the painful secret. They face obstacles at every step of the way – German soldiers and dive-bombers, fire, terrible conditions and traitors.
Maclean has a wonderful understanding of men of action confronted by situations that are seemingly beyond their control, where all that can be done is to rely on your team-mates and keep going, using brains as much as brawn.
2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, by John Le Carré
This is the ultimate Cold War novel, where nobody can be trusted in a world of slowly unearthed secrets. Doing the unearthing is George Smiley, Le Carré’s most wonderful creation, a shabby, plump, bespectacled little man whose knowledge and instincts quietly take him unerringly to the truth.
There are two storylines. In one, Jim Prideaux arrives as a teacher in an obscure private boys’ school, where he lectures boys on the greatness of England, while demonstrating there is something in his past that remains hidden. Where did he get that back wound? Why does he write letters to himself? Why does he have a gun?
In the other storyline, a renegade member of the British Secret Service turns up with a story of a Russian spy embedded for years in the deepest echelons of the Service. Smiley, as a former employee of the Service, is privately asked to investigate the allegations. Slowly, gradually, his questions turn to a series of incidents some years ago, and the ordeal Jim Prideaux went through.
This is the complete opposite of Guns of Navarone in terms of physical action – I think someone gets a bleeding nose at one point – but the mental action is intense. Having written this, I want to read the book again!
3. Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
I read this one by mistake. I hadn’t read a big sci-fi blockbuster for years and wanted to do so. Neal Stephenson writes big sci-fi blockbusters, I told myself, so I’ll grab his latest.
But by the time the group of innocent Americans – captured by the Russian mafia to find a group of Chinese hackers – broke into the wrong apartment and instead found a militant Muslim terrrorist cell, it was pretty clear I was dealing with a thriller, not sci-fi at all.
Stephenson juggles these varying elements into a wonderfully complicated story. Unlike Keith Mallory or George Smiley, his heroes aren’t professionals; they’re a bunch of ordinary people responding to the impossibly difficult situations they’ve been thrust into. Stephenson is good at making sure his characters resist stereotyping, whether they’re computer programmers or wilderness survivalists.
4. The Good German, by Joseph Kanon
I read Kanon’s Los Alamos when it first came out – a decent murder mystery set amongst the research labs of the American atom bomb programme. Then he wrote an awful book called The Prodigal Spy, which had me repeatedly asking if he even knew what ‘prodigal’ meant.
It was a relief to read The Good German. More than a relief: it’s sensationally good, one of those books that transcends genre fiction to be an excellent piece of literature.
Jake Geismar is an American journalist arriving in bombed-out Berlin shortly after the end of World War II. A former Berlin resident, he’s there to cover the Potsdam conference but also to try and find the woman he used to love.
Then an American soldier is murdered, and Jake starts digging. What he finds goes far beyond a murder – amongst the ruins of one war’s end he finds two sides plotting how to gain the biggest advantage for the next war. Gaining that advantage takes precedence over justice for the American officials, and any German prepared to help their side becomes by definition a good German.
The novel beautifully combines a murder mystery, a love story and an evocation of Berlin both before and after the war. Find it. Read it.
5. Prey, by Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton writes science-based thrillers. That is, he takes some fringe or cutting-edge scientific technology or ideas, such as genetically cloning dinosaurs from DNA left in mosquitos, and turns them into stories such as Jurassic Park. He doesn’t just stick with the science, of course. He creates engaging characters and what-if plots that hold you long past the time you meant to stop reading and go to bed.
Prey is an excellent example. An experiment to create a predatory cloud of nanoparticles has gone awry – don’t they always? – and the cloud has escaped from the lab. It’s becoming more intelligent with each passing day, learning from the attempts that have been made to destroy it.
Jack Foreman, computer programmer and biologist, is hired to try to deal with the swarm. He’s also dealing with what seems like the end of his marriage to the laboratory’s vice-president. She has certainly been acting strange since about the time the nanoparticles got loose – just how clever and powerful are these micro-robots? And is there anything that can be done to stop them from making humans – all humans – their prey?
6. Expats, by Chris Pavone
This was a little gem of a book, something that looked slight at first glance but built and built into a tense and compelling story.
It seems so innocent to start with. Kate Moore is an American housewife in Luxembourg, where her husband has some sort of banking work, while she occupies herself shopping and arranging play-dates for the children. Her husband is vague about his work, but Kate has her own secrets…
When another American couple arrive, Kate feels that her secret past may be catching up with her. It turns out that this past gives Kate a lot of training that she now puts to full use, digging first into her husband’s banking activities, and then moving on into the intricate web of intrigue that’s being spun around her. She’s pretty good with a gun, and in a fight too.
The tension keeps ratcheting up as Kate strives to keep her and her family’s heads above water, and the final revelations and the ending are beautifully satisfying. This was everything a thriller needs to be!
So what are your own favourites? Time to share them around…