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The Best Literary Thrillers

recommended by Chris Power

A Lonely Man by Chris Power

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A Lonely Man
by Chris Power

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For those with a taste for fine literature, but who also enjoy their fiction with a bit of suspense and momentum, the acclaimed novelist Chris Power—author of A Lonely Man—has put together a recommended reading list of five 'literary thrillers', including work by Fernanda Melchor, Roberto Bolaño and the Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

A Lonely Man by Chris Power

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A Lonely Man
by Chris Power

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Thanks for choosing five of the best literary thrillers. I want to start by interrogating that concept for a moment, just because I think some might consider it to be a contradiction in terms—thrillers not generally being thought of as literary.

Yes, it’s a bit of a minefield. What is a thriller? And what is literary fiction? It’s a genre in itself, albeit an ill-defined one. Speaking from my own experience, I was trying to write a novel that had significant internal momentum, that impelled the reader to keep reading. I suppose literary thrillers frequently have a criminal or transgressive element. There needs to be some sort of mystery at the heart of things, albeit one that might not necessarily be resolved – as is borne out in many of the books we’re going to discuss today. But you need something propelling you onward.

Even as I’m saying this, I’m aware of counterexamples, but that’s one of the things that appeals to me—it is kind of amorphous and undefined. The novel is such a plastic and elastic form, and I find the literary thriller similarly capacious and welcoming.

I suppose I can see some common threads between the two forms. Thrillers often play with your expectations, as literary novels do, albeit in different ways. Your novel A Lonely Man took all elements of the classic thriller—a mysterious stranger, layers of secrecy and doubt, international intrigue—but took them in quite unexpected directions. I came to think of it almost as a sort of anti-thriller.

A friend who read a draft of the novel came up with one of my favourite descriptions of it: he said I’d written a thriller about a man who was too busy to be in a thriller. Because there’s a sense, in the usual thriller, that normal life gets swept off the table at some point, and it becomes all about the overarching plot. Whereas I was really interested in the idea of normal things carrying on amid this incursion of the extraordinary into daily life. There are precedents for this. Take, for example, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. He went to Itsu to have his lunch, a very mundane London thing to do, but that branch was closed down for months because of radioactive contamination—due to its brush with the shadiest side of international affairs.

“There needs to be some sort of mystery at the heart of things, albeit one that might not necessarily be resolved”

This blend was why it was important to me that my main character, Robert, should have a very prominent family life, and why he remains so uncertain about what’s going on. If you got mixed up in this sort of situation I think you’d naturally question it, and look for any other excuse other than it really being the Russian state security services who are shadowing you. I think in certain books people quite rapidly accept they are in a thriller and that this outlandish thing is really happening. I was much more interested in the idea of someone not accepting what was happening around them.

I suppose thrillers are often a medium of fantasy fulfilment. You can imagine yourself as brave and reckless and quick-thinking as the protagonists. They don’t worry about their home lives, or any other responsibilities. Let’s talk about Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, your first literary thriller book recommendation. What’s it about, and why do you like it so much?

Right at the beginning of this book the narrator, Victor, a ghostwriter, is at his lover’s house. She’s married and has a kid, who she’s put to bed. And then she suddenly dies, leaving him with a dilemma. He leaves some food for the child, who’s sleeping, and runs off into the night. The rest of the book is the development of an obsession with, and an inability to keep himself away from, the woman’s family.

It’s deeply mysterious. One of the things I really love about this book is how Marías holds us at a distance from Victor. He’s the first-person narrator, but you’re left quite uncertain as to his drive and reasons for doing things. You wonder what’s happened, what sort of trouble he’s going to get into, and you’re also wondering why he’s doing this. But Marías does it in a way that doesn’t feel like withholding; it doesn’t feel artificial. You are with this person, but they’re unknown to you.

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His actions are in some way unknowable to him, too. There’s a line where he describes himself as a spy who doesn’t know what it is he has to find out. That’s a perfect one-sentence encapsulation of the novel, I think—and it moves wonderfully between realism and a sort of surrealism. There’s a scene where he’s with a sex worker who reminds him of his ex-wife, and he starts thinking that his ex-wife has changed her identity or something. It’s weird and uncanny and feels hyperreal—but oddly believable too. The book is filled with unusual moments like this.

Also, maybe because I grew up reading postmodern novels, any time the author puts themselves in the text it just works for me. At one point, he gives a false name, and the name he gives is that of the author. That always makes me smile. It’s something I do in A Lonely Man, too, but it isn’t just for fun. I think it’s a way of pointing out that the borderline reality and fiction is a porous one – both are constantly leaking into the opposing space, stealing things from one another for their own purposes. The name thing is an honest acknowledgement of that slightly dishonest procedure.

And a little knowing wink to the reader. The title is a quote from Richard III, I think. And the book is delivered as a sort of soliloquy, is it not?

I guess so. A massively long soliloquy. I think all of Marías’s titles are from Shakespeare plays, and many of them are written in the same style—first person interior monologue. The typical Marías narrator is self-analysing and self-critical, and tends to cycle exhaustively through the possible reasons behind something that happened, or the potential outcomes of something they might do. Near the beginning of this book he’s thinking about the most embarrassing ways to die: slip in the shower, lightning bolt, a cigarette setting the bed alight, wearing a barber’s smock, dying in the middle of shaving with one half of your face covered in foam. It goes on and on. It’s very maximalist, which is quite different to how I write. It works so well, I think, because he has such an interesting mind. You want to stay within this person’s thought patterns.

He strikes a great balance between a person thinking about things at length, and then these powerful and mysterious and compelling sentences. He’s great at generating tension. And he’s fascinated with spies. After this he went on to write a trilogy about a Spaniard working for the British secret service. He’s got a fascination with spy novels but his own are very idiosyncratic, a little like Modiano—who we’ll talk about later—who uses tropes of detective fiction and mystery novels without actually writing detective or mystery novels.

Let’s talk about 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, as translated by Natasha Wimmer. I remember when this book came out—it was quite a global event. The Guardian has described it as “a novel of stupefying ambition.” Can you tell us more about it?

It’s one of the most incredible reading experiences I’ve ever had. Recently I was writing a piece about his most recent book—there have been all these posthumous releases, scraped from his hard drive which probably shouldn’t have been published, but that’s another conversation—and was like, ‘I’ll just dip into 2666 to remind myself, because it’s been eight years since I read it.’ I wound up reading the whole thing again.

Which is quite an undertaking.

Well, it was during lockdown, so I had the time. It’s 900 pages long. But it’s really thrilling. And not just in subject matter—although some parts are very grim, it centres on this huge wave of femicide that struck Ciudad Juárez, a city in northern Mexico that borders the US. In his version the city’s called Santa Teresa. There were 400 unexplained killings of women there throughout the 1990s, leading up to him writing this book. In the book, there are 109 murders and a suicide described in very methodical clinical prose. That’s a 350-page section of the book, and it’s hard to read. It will affect you for days and weeks, and you never really forget it. Which is as it should be, because you’re made to fully confront, and feel, the horrible bleakness of the situation.

There are five distinct sections; each one has got a different cast of characters and a different tone, and they all centre on these murders. But I’d forgotten how funny parts of the book are. It comments on its own construction in a sort of metafictional way. It talks about “a chaotic assemblage of dark cubes stacked one on top of the other”, and numerous other references which feel like the book unconsciously describing itself.

The first part is about four academics who are obsessed with this German writer with an Italian name – Benno von Archimboldi. They’ve made careers by studying and writing papers about him. He’s still alive and is whispered about in terms of getting the Nobel Prize, but no one knows where he is. They get tipped off that he’s been seen in Santa Teresa so they go off on a hunt for him, and things rapidly go south. So the first 100 pages is sort of a social comedy: Bolaño sort of makes fun of the academics and their sexual peccadilloes, and it’s really enjoyable, but the tone shifts when they’re in Santa Teresa and they meet a professor of philosophy, who becomes the main character in the second part.

“It’s one of the most incredible reading experiences I’ve ever had”

So there’s a mystery at the heart of it, or several mysteries. First of all, you’re wondering if they’re going to find this Archimboldi they’re all obsessed with. You, the reader, actually meet him in the final section of the book—‘The Part About Archimboldi’—which is about 100 pages long and covers his entire life from 1920s Germany through an extended period on the Eastern Front in World War Two, where he finds a Red Guard’s memoir that forms a book within the book. It covers his whole literary career and explains what eventually leads him to Santa Teresa in the modern day.

Bolaño loves creating works of art that only exist in his books. He gives Archimboldi a whole backstory—his real name’s Hans Reiter, another name joke I guess—and a whole bibliography and they’re books you really want to read: The Endless Rose, Rivers of Europe, The Leather Mask. He makes them sound incredible. I’m writing a novel about a playwright at the centre of it, and I need his plays to be like that—plays that, when you read about them, people wish they could see then. Bolaño does this so well across all his work.

2666 is a vast book and there are so many ways to talk about it. Primarily people talk about it as being incredibly grim and that it’s some sort of badge of literary machismo to read it. I hate that attitude and I think it puts off a lot of readers who’d really love it. I guess that reputation comes from the ‘Part About the Crimes’ section, which dominates discussions of the book and in fact dominated my memory of the book until I read it again. When I did, I rediscovered not just how amazing the book is, but how varied—it has so much humour and outrage and, yes, horror, but so many things you don’t find anywhere else. In the World War II section Hans even stays at a castle in Transylvania that appears to be Dracula’s castle. Bolaño crunches all these genres together and throws them into the mix. Like: who cares? What’s literary fiction and what’s thriller? What’s this, what’s that? He blends it all and makes it feel really urgent and important. It operates on every level. For the length of time you’re reading it, it feels like the most important thing in the world.

That’s got to be one of the most fulsome recommendations I think we’ve ever had! Wonderful. Your third literary thriller book recommendation is Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon, as translated by Barbara Wright. Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature. Why do you pick Honeymoon in particular?

Honeymoon was the first Modiano I read. I think I heard Rupert Thomson talking about it on the Backlisted podcast, and I thought it sounded incredible. And it completely lived up to it—not always the case when you hear someone raving about a book. I guess it sets an additional bar for the book to get over because it’s not taking you by surprise.

I love the atmosphere—he’s an incredibly atmospheric writer. It’s crepuscular; a word I would never use in my own fiction. It describes a beautiful, sad twilit Paris. There’s a moment when the narrator talks about his favourite time of day being the borderland after the sun has gone down but the sky is still blue and the streetlights haven’t come on yet. He talks about it being “the moment to lend an ear to echoes coming from afar,” which is, I think, a stunning image. And much of Modiano’s work is about the echoes that the past makes in the present. A lot of it is tied up in France’s wartime history, and its complicity—in certain ways—with the Nazis, certainly when it came to the Jewish population and the Holocaust. That’s certainly represented in Honeymoon.

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It’s about a guy called Jean B., a documentary filmmaker. He says goodbye to his wife, as he’s off to Brazil to make a film. In fact, he’s planning to drop out of his life, partly because his wife is having an affair with his best friend. He says goodbye but doesn’t get on the plane. Instead he moves into a hotel in an outer arrondissement of Paris. He’s got a plan to spy on his wife, but he reads a newspaper story about a woman’s suicide in Milan and realises he knows her: it’s a woman he met in the 1960s while he was hitchhiking in the Côte d’Azur. It gets quite complicated to explain. It’s a very thin book, but the first 30 pages I never remember clearly because it’s quite intricate.

Basically, she’s Jewish, and during the occupation of Paris she says goodbye to her dad one day, goes out and just doesn’t come back. She dropped out of her life in the same way that Jean, decades later, drops out of his. Then she meets this guy and they go down to the Cote d’Azur to keep her safe. There’s an element of tension there, and a sort of Gestapo figure looking for Jews on the Côte d’Azur.

The novel plays out in these different timelines: the 1940s and 1950s, and the novel’s present day, when Jean is thinking about why she killed herself and what happened to her between now and the time he met her. As I said it’s got this very intricate structure, but it’s not a big book. Modiano writes with what I’d call complex simplicity. The sentences are straightforward and seem to progress in a kind of logical and orderly manner, but as you read you get this creeping sense that something’s missing here. There’s some kind of mystery. Almost like a floor plan of a house that doesn’t show all the rooms.

It’s perhaps not what people might first think of as a literary thriller, because Modiano’s mysteries are often unresolved. Some would say that once revealed, the reason this woman killed herself is a predictable, sorrowful reason, rather than a twist you never saw coming. That’s true. But at the same time, the book leaves you with so many questions and thoughts about human nature and how people try to escape their pasts.

We’re going to discuss John le Carré in a moment, but this is certainly true of his fiction too. There are long periods where there’s not necessarily a huge amount of action, but the thrill is in the layers of secrecy and uncertainty. That’s an important element of the thriller. It plays on your mind. It puts you in a situation where you’re not quite sure where you can step.

Let’s talk about Fernanda Melchor before that. This is Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. I came across this book when it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize a couple of years back. Ted Hodgkinson, who was chair of the judges at the time, described it to me as having “a torrential flow.”

It does. It’s almost like free jazz or something—at its most discordant. It’s wild. I’ve just reviewed Paradais, her new one. The first time you read her, and certainly with Hurricane Season, you are just swept away, blown away by it. It’s a kind of assault. But when I read it for a second time, I was better able to see how skillfully and carefully it’s put together. She writes these long, long sentences with one clause after another after another, conveying a sort of breathlessness that’s difficult to sustain. You don’t know where to put it down. There’s no natural rest stop, other than the numbered sections.

I think it shares a few links with 2666. Obviously both books are set in Mexico, but there are also huge levels of misogyny. And structurally it’s also a sort of cubist portrait of a crime and its aftermath. There’s this local witch, maybe a transvestite, maybe non-binary, it’s left uncertain, who is a healer for local women and an abortionist—someone people go to because the local medical system is not functioning or somehow not available to them. It’s set in Veracruz, where Melchor is from, which is almost wholly given over to the narcos. There’s corruption, murder. She was actually going to write about a real-life murder—it was originally to be a true crime book—but ended up fictionalising it because it was too dangerous to go to any of these narco-controlled villages to interview people. She had to give up.

In the acknowledgements, it says:

To the journalists Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz and Gabriel Huge, murdered in Veracruz under the government of the vile Javier Duarte de Ochoa

—who was the governor of Veracruz while she was writing the book. During that time, Veracruz was one of the top three most dangerous places for journalists on Earth. It was lethal.

I think her drive to write it and the way it’s written conveys her anger and disgust at the social situation in Veracruz without her ever preaching. It’s a series of first-person narrations, so she’s not getting on a soap box at any point, you’re just living this experience through the characters and these characters are both violent abusers and those who are abused. They’re at the ugly end of the same system we live in. Their cruelties and inhumanity emerge as a sort of product of it, you can see where it comes from and so there’s never any question of outright evil, although evil deeds take place. She’s able to make you empathise with people who do terrible, terrible things.

In terms of reading experience, it’s like being on a rollercoaster. It’s darkly exhilarating and utterly consuming. She achieves this at the level of the line—you strap into one of these narratives and there’s a sharp descent for 40 or 50 pages until you switch character. Then there’s a brief respite to make a cup of tea, or have a stiff drink, and then it’s straight back in.

Thrilling. I did think it was interesting that of this list of five books, four are works in translation. Do you make an explicit effort to read a lot of fiction in translation?

No. I just always have done, since I was a tragic 15-year-old with a Milan Kundera obsession. That’s how you say you were a teenager in the 1990s without saying you were a teenager in the 1990s. I’ve never really differentiated between fiction in translation and homegrown stuff. I can’t intellectualise it beyond that.

Your final literary thriller recommendation is a John le Carré book, A Perfect Spy.

A Lonely Man got quite a few comparisons to John le Carré, which I was humbled by. It actually made me go and read more le Carré, because I hadn’t really read much—he’s one of those writers who everyone’s read a few of, right? This one particularly appealed to me, although I don’t really know why – I can’t recall ever having talked to anyone about it, or even read much about it. As soon as I opened it, I just loved it. It’s very knotty. You talked about layers—this is mille feuille.

I think of a traditional thriller as the sort of thing you buy in an airport and read over a single long flight, as I did with a le Carré once, The Mission Song. But I don’t think that would work with A Perfect Spy, and not just because it’s so long. It’s a book that almost pushes you away. It takes some concentration and digging to get into the story and understand what’s happening. It’s about this spy called Magnus Pym who is undercover at the British embassy in Vienna. He leaves, and his wife doesn’t know if he’s a traitor. His MI6 handler thinks he is. They’re trying to track him down, but meanwhile he’s hiding out at a B&B in Devon, where he’s writing a memoir addressed to his son.

These remembrances build up throughout the novel to encompass his later career and why he’s done what he’s done. He’s also very obsessed with his own father, Rick, who lived the highlife, but it becomes apparent it was all based on criminality and being a con man who betrayed everyone he ever knew. Later, le Carré wrote a memoir of his own and it emerged that Rick was very heavily based on his own father, so it has an autofictional element to it that I didn’t suspect when I picked it up.

I guess it’s become apparent that I enjoy books that contain further books within them. That Russian doll effect. And I find it really interesting that such a big book by a bestselling author is so strange and slippery and evasive in the way it tells itself. I think it’s fascinating, although I haven’t read enough le Carré to say it’s definitively his best. There’s an outrageous quote on my edition from Philip Roth, who says “it’s the best English novel since the war.” I can’t go that far, but I do absolutely love it.

I read it a number of years ago, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but the thing that stuck in my mind was this sense of, like, dissolving identity. There were so many levels of truth and untruth that the man at the centre no longer seemed to know who he really was. I find that very true of le Carré’s writing in particular, and spy novels in general—it’s a disquieting reading experience, and they will put me in a strange headspace for quite a long time after reading.

That’s interesting. A Perfect Spy spoke, in a number of ways, to my experience writing A Lonely Man. In fact, if I were able to edit my own existence I’d like to say A Perfect Spy was the biggest influence on A Lonely Man. The only reason I can’t is that I wrote my novel before I read his.

Did you find writing A Lonely Book disturbing in that way?

I didn’t. Bolaño talked about literature establishing itself in “the territory of risk”, and often played up to this romantic idea of the writer, which I can’t really subscribe to. He was partly joking, but also Bolaño’s case is very different: his country suffered a military coup and dictatorship. But for me, in my situation, being a writer seems the safest way to do dangerous things, in terms of your own psyche. There might be fear when it comes to other people reading it, because you perhaps are exposing regions of your personality you would otherwise keep hidden – and writing is always, one way or another, an exposing. But just as you’re exposed, you’re also barricaded by the form. You can say, ‘that’s my novel, not me.’ Which might be because you’re dishonest, or deluded, or because what you’re exposing is too painful to be confronted outside of fiction. So when I said, at the beginning of this answer, ‘I didn’t’, perhaps I meant, ‘I did’.

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But in terms of feeling exposed, or that I’m risking something at the moment of writing, I tend to write pretty instinctively, as a lot of writers do. Even if I have an idea I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and even a scene-by-scene outline, the moment I’m actually putting one word after another, sentence after sentence on a page, is often a disembodied experience, like I’m not making entirely conscious decisions. When I come back to edit, which will ideally be several weeks if not months later, I’m in a different space to where I was when I wrote those lines, so there’s an inherent mystery.

Javier Marías, in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, has an amazing passage about how evanescent every moment of a life is – “everything is forgotten and invalidated… how little remains of each individual, how little trace remains of anything”. Life rushes through you and is gone. Writing enacts this same process because when you come back to it, it’s already become something that someone else did; a gap has opened between you and the work. You can call it perspective and use it to do the necessary work of making the writing better and pushing it in the direction you want it to go. But at the same time, something has gone that you can’t ever recapture.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Chris Power

Chris Power

Chris Power is the author of Mothers, a short story collection that was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His first novel, A Lonely Man, was released in 2021 and selected by The Washington Post as one of the best mystery and thriller books of the year.

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Chris Power

Chris Power

Chris Power is the author of Mothers, a short story collection that was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His first novel, A Lonely Man, was released in 2021 and selected by The Washington Post as one of the best mystery and thriller books of the year.