I came across this article by award winning thriller writer Brian Freeman on Bookish, and I wanted to share it with all of you. Brian checked with Bookish, and they agreed to allow a reprint of his brilliant article. Thanks, Bookish and Brian. Love to hear your comments.
10 Qualities of a Great Mystery/Thriller (and 10 Novels That Get it Right)
By Brian Freeman
Author of MARATHON
1. A Sense of Place:
LOS ALAMOS by Joseph Kanon
The best mysteries have a “you are there” quality, where every chapter feels as if you’ve been dropped down in the middle of the action, and you can hear, see, taste, touch, and smell everything happening around you. That’s true in a lot of series novels (Laura Lippmann in Baltimore, James Lee Burke in New Orleans, etc.), but there are wonderful stand-alones with a great sense of place, too.
LOS ALAMOS captures not only “where” but “when” in its setting. Kanon’s novel is a murder mystery set in 1945 at the atomic bomb facility in New Mexico. He is equally vivid in bringing the arid but beautiful Santa Fe desert landscape to life and in capturing the culture, uncertainty, and fear of people living in the midst of war and secrecy. It’s like going back in time.
2. A Gripping First Chapter:
THE UNLIKELY SPY by Daniel Silva
When I’m buying a book, the first thing I do is read the first page. Does it grab me by the throat? Does it immediately conjure an atmosphere of suspense and drama? Yes, there are great novels that unfold slowly — but most of my favorite mysteries hook me in the opening pages.
Before there was Daniel Silva’s series hero Gabriel Allon, he wrote a brilliant debut THE UNLIKELY SPY. Here’s the first line: “Beatrice Pymm died because she missed the last bus to Ipswich.” Ten pages later, after back-and-forth sequences between the perspectives of Beatrice and her killer, I dare you to stop reading.
3. A Human Hero:
THE REDBREAST by Jo Nesbo
I don’t like to write about super-heroes. The moral grayness of the mystery novel — we’re writing about murder, after all — demands a hero who is human and flawed, with a determination to find justice in an often unjust world, sometimes at the cost of his or her personal happiness.
That’s why readers relate to a hero like Harry Hole (I love the name) in Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian crime novels. Harry is weighed down by personal loss, including the devastating murder of a colleague in THE REDBREAST that Nesbo handles with great emotional depth. And yet Harry ultimately rises above his own struggles to solve a wrenching mystery with roots from the distant past. This is a novel that shows how solving crimes takes a little bit of the hero’s soul with every case.
4. A Page-Turning Pace:
THE CHANCELLOR MANUSCRIPT by Robert Ludlum
I once had a reader tell me she’d been reduced to taking “illicit bathroom breaks” at work to get in another chapter. Great mysteries and thrillers give us a story so “unputdownable” that you have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
I bought THE CHANCELLOR MANUSCRIPT as a teenager in the 1970s, and even now, you can see why Ludlum revolutionized the thriller genre. I started reading it as I walked out of the store, and I don’t think I stopped reading — or even took a breath! — until I finished it hours later. The story, about a novelist writing a political conspiracy thriller that may be too close to the truth, never lets up for a single page.
5. A Sense of Humor:
THE CHARM SCHOOL by Nelson DeMille
Most mysteries and thrillers deal with dark themes. People die. Things blow up. Serial killers lurk in every abandoned building. It makes you wonder how writers get up in the morning — so I love it when a writer tells dark, hard stories with a wink and an irresistible sense of humor.
DeMille may be the best novelist around in that regard. Most of his thrillers have a narrator with an ironic wit that makes them irresistible. You can’t really go wrong with any DeMille novel, but THE CHARM SCHOOL is my own pick. It’s a Cold War novel about the Russians training moles to work their way into American society. Dark, right? But he manages to lighten this gripping thriller with a sly, charming hero.
6. A Lot of Clues:
SUSPECT by Michael Robotham
Mystery readers are detectives themselves. They want to solve the crime before the hero does, and that’s part of the fun. So readers expect the author to play fair — by dropping in clues throughout the story that give you a shot at figuring out the ending. (Mind you, don’t expect us to make it easy!)
Australian crime writer Michael Robotham wrote an amazing debut with SUSPECT, in which psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin starts as a consultant — but soon becomes a suspect — in the murder of a former patient. The denouement has the perfect mystery quality: The clues stare you in the face throughout the book, but then you slap your head at the end and wonder how you missed them.
7. A Spectacular Twist:
I KILL by Giorgio Faletti
OMG! Isn’t that the reaction we want in every mystery? We want to turn the page and have our breath taken away by a surprise we never saw coming.
The late Giorgio Faletti was one of Italy’s great crime writers. His bestselling novel I KILL tells the story of a serial killer who calls into a radio show to taunt a popular host. It’s a long and winding road to get to the heart of the mystery, but the “whodunit” in this whodunit is simply brilliant. You’ll never guess the killer’s true identity.
8. An Elegantly Simple Solution:
BLOOD WORK by Michael Connelly
I love mysteries that are so multi-layered that they inspire what I call a “delicious confusion” in the reader. However, when you get to the end, the best mysteries take your breath away because the solution is so, well, simple. It should make such perfect sense that you wonder why you didn’t expect it.
BLOOD WORK isn’t a Harry Bosch book, so it’s not as well known as some of Connelly’s other novels (despite a Clint Eastwood movie adaptation). However, it’s my favorite Connelly book, because the resolution of the mystery is so elegant. Along the way, the motive of the killer seems horrifyingly random — but then you discover the gruesome logic underlying the entire book.
9. A Sense of Closure:
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Yes, we expect to solve the mystery at the end of the book — but a great mystery or thriller gives us more than that. We should also feel like the ending gives us the last piece in the psychological puzzle and a sense of closure for the characters.
Stephen King won the Thriller Award for 11/22/63 (the year before I won for SPILLED BLOOD). By writing a time-travel thriller about a man trying to stop the Kennedy assassination, he sets a high bar for closure, because we know he can’t really “stop” the assassination. (Or can he?) King manages to have his cake and eat it, too, by bringing pitch-perfect emotional resolution not just for his hero, but for the rest of us who live in a post-1963 world, too.
10. A Story You Want to Read Again:
IN A DRY SEASON by Peter Robinson
The best mysteries and thrillers aren’t books that you can simply put aside when you’re done. They should linger in your heart. The story should be so compelling — and the characters so richly drawn — that you want to go back and experience it all over again. When you do, you pick up wonderful nuances and subtleties that you missed the first time.
Peter Robinson’s IN A DRY SEASON revolves around crimes in the present and distant past. It has all of the other nine qualities on this list, which is what makes it one of my favorite mysteries of all time. And what a great premise — a World War II murder that is only discovered when a dry lake exposes the ruins of a small town that was flooded years earlier. I won’t tell you any more than that. Just read it.
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