The Anatomy Of Thriller Novels

‘Thriller novels’ is an area in which I specialise, both as a reader, writer and as a cinema fan too.

I first started in the genre when I was 9 or 10 years old, reading Mickey Spillane.Detective fiction it certainly was, and borderline pulp fiction too. I enjoyed it and it gave me a thrill, but I was a boy then. Does it really qualify as ‘thriller’ material though? It did then, for me. I was also reading Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean. Were they thriller writers? In fact, what does constitute a thriller? Is it writing that gets the heart rate up, that gives you nightmares? Does it have to be gory? Does a good thriller stop you sleeping?

Those are all interesting questions. Generally, detective fiction involves an act – let’s call it a trigger act – which leads to an investigation. Now, there may be other acts along the way, but it does start somewhere; the story then become about finding the culprit or perpetrator. Of course, the way the story is told will vary – some even start with the execution of the culprit. So, does detective fiction count as ‘thriller fiction’?

When I was a young teenager, I read ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson. Her skill was in leaving much to the reader’s imagination, and mine really worked overtime, I can tell you. It’s the best ghost story I’ve ever read and definitely qualifies as a thriller in my mind.

Let’s hop over to the cinema for a moment, and recall a thrill. In my teens, when I was maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, I took a girl to the cinema to see Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. I still recall vividly that moment when Anthony Perkins went down into the cellar to speak to his mother, and her dessicated body swivelled around in the chair. Remember it? At that moment, everyone jumped out of their seats and screamed in unison. Now that was a thriller. Of course, the cinema medium enables that immediate, concerted ’herd’ reaction, whereas with a book there is never really that suddenness, that instantaneous surprise. We read books alone – in bed, in the bath, on the train – wherever, it’s a solitary pastime. A skilled writer can take his readers close to that sudden reaction, though inevitably it will not be shared instantaneously.And of course the eyes and brain are not engaged as they would be in the cinema. The imaginative part of the brain is working overtime with a book, developing and carrying images of characters and scenes in a way that just isn’t necessary with the film medium.

So, we’ve looked at crime fiction, and we’ve considered horror, both of which provide thrills in their own way.

My preferred reading in the thriller novels genre is that which might come in several flavours: action thriller, espionage thriller, techno-thriller, political thriller. Generally, they do not involve horror, the occult, crime or mystery fiction in the conventional sense, neither do they necessarily involve physical violence (though there are few that do not). Suspense there should be, aplenty, and there will be crimes,for sure. But thrills? Gut wrenching fright? I guess that comes down to how the individual reader ‘gets their thrills’. It’s an interesting word to apply, but in this genre for me it means that you cannot put down a book because the story is so engaging – it’s 2 am and you have to work the next day…go on, just one more chapter!

How do you get your thrills from novels?