It’s been a year since we last spoke. Has 2020 been a good year for thrillers?
There’s not much you can say that’s been good about 2020 so far except for some excellent thrillers. Here are a few my wife and I have read and enjoyed to date: Little Secrets by last year’s Thriller Award-winner Jennifer Hillier; Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz; The Wife Stalker by Liv Constantine; Long Bright River by Liz Moore; When You See Me by Lisa Gardner; A Cold Trail by Robert Dugoni; The Last Trial by Scott Turow. I’m looking forward to Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby, which comes out in July and is getting lots of buzz.
It’s really hard to promote books during the Covid-19 crisis, so I hope readers take an extra effort to be on the lookout for thrillers published during these difficult times. Reading is not only a great escape from the onslaught of coronavirus news, but also helps support authors who put years of their lives into their work.
Well, we are here to discuss the International Thriller Writers’ 2020 shortlist of the best hardback thrillers. First, could you talk us through the format of the Thriller Awards, and how the shortlists are compiled?
The International Thriller Writers, ITW, is an organization made up of more than 5,000 thriller writers from around the world. Every year, it holds the Thriller Awards to recognize some of the top titles from the prior year. ITW bestowed its first Thriller Award in 2007, and the awards are now a major literary event.
In the first week of September we open for submissions. In a typical year, publishers and authors enter more than a thousand books or stories in one of six award categories: best hard cover, best paperback original, best first novel, best ebook original, best short story, and best young adult novel. A panel of judges for each category then slugs it out for eight months and narrows that list down to their top 10. Then more fisticuffs and that list is narrowed to five –sometime six if there are ties – and we announce the short list in mid-April.
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Kidding aside, the judges – who typically include New York Times bestselling authors, former editors, reviewers, bloggers, and industry professionals – take the job extremely seriously. It has been heartening to see the pride and care they take to make sure every submission gets a fair shake.
You are personally an acclaimed writer of thrillers, and a vice-president of the International Thriller Writers. So what is it about this genre that captivates you?
I got hooked on thrillers as a kid. My father was in the military so we moved around a lot – multiple countries and four high schools in four years. There’s probably nothing lonelier than moving to a new town in the summer, so mysteries and thrillers were a reliable companion. They not only kept me company, but introduced me to new places and ideas and feelings. I loved the books, and that’s why I write them.
First on the 2020 shortlist of the best hardback thrillers is recent Five Books interviewee David Baldacci’s One Good Deed. It’s billed as a ‘historical thriller’ – that is, it’s set in 1949. Please, could you tell us a little bit about the book, and what you admire about it?
I’m not a judge – I just coordinate the process – but I can tell you why I personally admired One Good Deed: Baldacci writes a damn good story, and he doesn’t stick to convention. He’ll write a tender family drama one year, political or FBI-based thrillers the next, now a unputdownable noir crime novel set in the post-war 1940s. One Good Deed follows a WWII combat vet who is just out of prison and gets offered a job to collect a debt—and soon finds himself embroiled in a small-town murder. Beautiful prose, a compelling plot, but it’s the anti-hero protagonist who makes this book shine.
Yes, that protagonist, Aloysius Archer, is a new character for Baldacci, and I think we can expect to see more of him. But, more generally, how important are recurring characters to the thriller genre, and why do you think people like them?
Recurring characters always have been, and likely always will be, a mainstay in fiction. I think they are beloved because they allow readers to experience the characters’ growth and evolution over the long haul.
Next we have Joe Clifford’s Rag and Bone, the fifth and reportedly last book in his Jay Porter series. Tell me about it.
I really hope Clifford reconsiders making this the last in the series. Previously on the run when he was wanted for murder, protagonist Jay Porter has been cleared and returns to his hometown in New Hampshire out to avenge his addict brother’s death. The book is gritty and full of memorable, if not always likeable, characters.
Clifford often gets compared to Dennis Lehane, for good reason. There’s a raw authenticity to his work, and Rag and Bone proves that even five books in a series novel can stand on its own. Clifford is a writer to watch.
Okay, next on your 2020 shortlist of the best thrillers in hard cover is Blake Crouch’s Recursion. It has a very high concept plot and is receiving a huge amount of buzz – and is already optioned for a Netflix adaptation. Tell me about it.
Recursion is part sci-fi, part twisty thriller, part epic love story. I read this last summer while in Italy and missed my train stop because I was so engrossed in the novel. NYPD detective Barry Sutton encounters a woman who appears to have False Memory Syndrome, what some believe is a contagion that is spreading rapidly in which those inflicted have memories of a different life. But it’s not a syndrome at all, and instead the result of an invention of neuroscientist Helena Smith. Barry and Helena ultimately intersect to try to save each other – and the world.
Right. It’s completely mind-bending.
I can’t do the storyline justice, but it lives up to every bit of its ambition.
Next we have Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down. It takes the set-up of Agatha Christie‘s And Then There Were None as a starting point. What then?
Then Hall puts a clever, thought provoking, spin on the classic tale. Miriam Macy thinks she’s going to a remote island to compete on a reality television show, but soon learns that she and six others were brought to the island under false pretenses. Soon each guest’s secrets trickle out – and they start dying. Hall is known for her acclaimed series featuring detective Elouise Norton, but this standalone is a breakout. Hall’s another rising superstar.
Next up in your 2020 shortlist of the best hardback thrillers, we have Adrian McKinty’s The Chain. This book also has a wild premise. Tell us about it.
Yes, the premise is brilliant. A thirteen-year-old girl is kidnapped, and her mother is told that to free her, she must kidnap another child, in what turns out to be a chain-mail-like ransom scheme that goes on forever. The pace is intense and the premise plays on the central question: how far would any of us go to save our child? It’s an emotional, edge-of-your-seat read that lives up to the hype.
The genesis of this book was very unusual. McKinty, the author of a previous award-winning series set in Belfast, announced he was going to quit writing after finding he was unable to make a living at it despite the critical acclaim. Shortly afterwards, he received a call from a big name US agent, Shane Salerno, who wired him $10,000 on the proviso that he immediately start writing this book. It’s a fascinating story, like the set-up of a thriller itself – but does it give us a glimpse as to the difficulties of making a living as a thriller writer? I would have supposed it to be a well-remunerated genre.
I think this has always been the struggle of the arts and artists in general. Without a “day job” or financial support from a spouse or family many novelists wouldn’t be able to survive. I’m just glad McKinty found his way – he’s too great a talent to throw it in.
That brings us to Conviction by Denise Mina, a well-known author of ‘tartan noir’. Could you tell us more about it?
In this Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, the protagonist Anna McDonald has a connection to a true-crime podcast and sets out on a road trip to uncover the truth, drudging up secrets and a tragedy from her past. The book explores celebrity and the modern penchant for using private trauma for public entertainment in a hugely entertaining story told at a lightning pace. Mina has been called the “modern crime queen” and this book warrants a bend of the knee.
Fantastic. So what’s next: when will the winner be crowned the best thriller of 2020?
In a typical year, which this obviously is not, the winners are announced at an awards gala filled with literary royalty at ITW’s ThrillerFest conference in New York. The conference is cancelled this year, but ITW is presenting the awards during ‘Virtual’ ThrillerFest, on Saturday, July 11, 2020 at 2pm (EST), which will be streamed on Facebook live. We have a few surprises in store, so I hope everyone checks it out to honor the nominees and winners.
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