The Best Fiction Books » Thrillers (Books)

The Best Thrillers

recommended by Simon Kernick

Plot is king, says bestselling thriller writer Simon Kernick of his chosen genre. He lists five of his all-time favourites

Buy all books

Before we start with your five books, I would love to know what you think makes something a thriller as opposed to a straightforward crime novel.

Although you’ll get different answers from different people, for me I think that a thriller is more plot-related. Characterisation is important but I think less so than the plot. Pace is also essential in a thriller, whereas it doesn’t have to be in a regular crime novel. Clearly there are crime novels which have pace as well but the mix tends to be more focused towards characterisation.

Why did you start writing thrillers?

Mainly because I like reading them, and I figured that I wanted to write something that I, as a paying punter, would want to read. And there aren’t that many thrillers out there. I think the UK has more crime books than thrillers. The narrative tends to centre round detective protagonists, and I wanted to do something a little bit different. I do love to read pacy, fast books, so that is what I try to write. These days people want a quick fix, so short chapters and a plot based over a short period of time work well for me.

Your first book, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse by Lawrence Block, is all about the sex for sale in the underworld.

Yes. I have to say, despite what I just said about thrillers, that this is probably less of a thriller than some of my other choices. Lawrence Block is an American writer who is very much influenced by earlier crime writers like Raymond Chandler, and he has written a number of different books. But the series that I really like, and that has always been a great influence on me, has been his New York PI series about a guy called Matt Scudder. Block started writing them in the 70s and he is still writing them now, and Matt Scudder has gone from a boozer in his late 20s/early 30s into a wiser, more laidback coffee drinker in his 60s.

The book that really stood out for me in this excellent series is A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, in which Scudder is hired to find out whether a guy has murdered his wife or not. Basically the man and his wife were supposedly ambushed in their apartment by a couple of burglars who they disturbed after a night out. The man was beaten and his wife was murdered. The wife’s brother suspects that there is something amiss and thinks that the husband is responsible, so he hires Scudder to look into it and we soon find ourselves in the real dark underbelly of New York.

He stumbles across a snuff film and the possibility that there’s a group of killers out in the city hunting down people and filming their deaths for their own sexual satisfaction. It really is a dark, dark book that is very pacy and stayed with me long after I had read it. The sign of a really good thriller is that you want to read it again, and I’ve read this one three times even though I know exactly what happens. In fact, talking to you reminds me that I’m due a read of it again.

Tell me about your next book, Tell No One by Harlan Coben, which sounds like a very tense thriller and is all about a doctor losing (or is it finding) his wife?

This is one of those classic thrillers, and it’s brilliantly plotted. It starts with a husband and wife celebrating the anniversary of their first kiss in their lakeside holiday home. The wife is kidnapped and murdered by a known serial killer and the husband is beaten and left for dead. And then we fast-forward eight years to the present and the man is a doctor who, although still traumatised, is getting on with his life. And then out of blue he gets an e-mail message which seems to be from his wife, and it appears she’s still alive.

Because the e-mail uses specific language which he associates with her?

Yes, exactly. He can’t be one hundred per cent sure because, like everyone else, he’s convinced she’s dead, but he looks into it more deeply and he opens up a real can of worms, finding out first that she is still alive (although in hiding), and then that he’s being set up for her murder. People around him start dying and he finds himself on the run. It’s a hugely pacy book, with short chapters and a whole load of twists and turns. You always think you know what is going to happen but then Coben produces another twist and once again you don’t know where you are. And he manages to carry this on right the way through the book, which is no mean feat.

It all sounds very film-like.

Yes; the French made it into a film which was very well reviewed, but for me it wasn’t as good as the book. What I really love about the book is that you get straight into the action. I don’t want a story where for the first 100 pages the author’s slowly setting the scene. I want to be hooked immediately.

What about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s book The Pledge, which is set in a small Swiss town?

This is a brilliant book because it turns crime fiction on its head. It is a story told by a retired detective to a crime writer who has just given a lecture on crime writing at a police conference. The detective is talking about one of his former colleagues and how he became obsessed with this case about a little girl who was found murdered in some woods on the outskirts of a small Swiss town in the 1950s. The detective who finds the girl was just about to leave his job to go and work overseas, but he makes a promise – a pledge – to the girl’s parents that he will find her killer and bring him to justice, and that pledge takes over his life. It is an immensely moving scene when he talks to the girl’s parents, and very difficult to read.

Although I don’t want to give too much away, the story’s very interesting because the crime writer to whom the detective is telling this story to thinks, like most crime writers, that crimes can be solved through logic – Sherlock Holmes style. But in The Pledge this doesn’t happen. It turns out that a lot of what happens in the story is based purely on chance. And if something had happened slightly differently, then everything else would have changed. Dürrenmatt’s trying to show that that crime fiction simplifies crime solving, and The Pledge, where chance takes such a large role, is more typical of what it’s really like.

You often talk to police officers as part of your research – so do you agree with the book’s theory?

Oh, totally. I don’t think crime fiction can be realistic. It can be authentic, but that’s very different. I like to think that my books are authentic insofar as I give the reader the correct information about police procedures. However with my books – and a lot of other crime books – everything is summed up very neatly at the end. Your main detective protagonist solves the crime and catches the killer. It’s always a killer who isn’t very easy to spot, whereas the reality is totally different. Usually with police work, who you think did it usually did do it, and when you get them in the interview room, rather than spilling the beans Hercule Poirot style, they call for their lawyer and say nothing but a litany of ‘no comment’s. And when you finally do get the case before a court, months and reams of paperwork later, the lawyers often get them off!

Which wouldn’t really make a good thriller, would it?

It would make a bloody awful thriller! So that is why it is so hard for crime fiction to be realistic. The Pledge, which is almost like a novella at 140 pages long, emphasised this point, but at the same time it still made a fantastic story. The detective who’d made the ‘pledge’ of the title ended up turning into a nervous wreck and not actually technically solving the case, which was eventually solved completely by chance. The story works precisely because it’s so different.

Your next choice is by one of the queens of this genre, although perhaps she is more about crime than thrillers… This is Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

I think this is a thriller, like all of her books, because plot is king in them and characterisation takes more of a back seat. This is probably the most famous of all her books, and certainly, for me, the cleverest. It was written in 1926 and it’s original because the twist at the end is stunning. How much can I give away with something like this?

Well, it is so well known that most people will already know the twist, and those who don’t can skip this paragraph [SPOILER ALERT]!

All right. Well, the narrator is a village doctor who acts as Hercule Poirot’s assistant throughout the book because Hastings is away in Argentina. All the way through, the doctor’s working hard alongside Hercule Poirot to solve the murder and it turns out right at the very end that he is the murderer. And it’s brilliant because it catches you out completely. People have tried the same formula – that of the so-called unreliable narrator – many times since, but Agatha Christie was the first to use this technique. And if you read the novel again, you can see how beautifully she sets it up. There’s nothing forced in the writing and there are no devices set up to mislead you. To have that original idea is just genius, and she was a genius.

Your final book is Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane.

I love this book; this really is a thriller, and a beautifully written one. For me, Dennis Lehane is one of the best American thriller writers alive today. This is one of his early books from his Kenzie and Gennaro series – a male and female partnership of private investigators based in Boston. He wrote five books featuring them in the 1990s.

They are very much fast paced books with a lot of action. Gone Baby Gone is the fourth in the series and to me the best. They made it into a film which had great reviews. It’s about the disappearance of a four-year-old girl who’s abducted from a house without a trace. After the police search reveals nothing her uncle and aunt hire Kenzie and Gennaro to try and find the little girl. It all takes place over about a year but the tension is really built up. Another child goes missing in similar circumstances a few months later, and after this things move very rapidly.

Kenzie and Gennaro end up uncovering both worrying police corruption, and a ruthless nest of paedophiles. What Lehane does well is move the plot along but not always in a straight line. Kenzie and Gennaro end up involved in very different investigations as part of their search for the little girl. There is one superb action scene which is the best action scene I have ever read. I won’t go into too much detail but it takes place in the middle of the book and the tension and the way it is put together is amazing. You have a heart-stopping 25-page scene in this old dark house, and you just have to read the book to appreciate how good it is.

It’s also a very moving book. I won’t say what happens, but at the end, Patrick Kenzie has to make a huge decision, and as a reader you are desperate for him to make the right one – so much so that I actually found myself shouting at the book! This is what Lehane can do; he can drag you into the book so it feels almost like a true story, and you are desperate for justice to be done. For me, Gone Baby Gone ticks all the boxes. It’s brilliantly written, with a brilliant, twisting plot, and superb characterisation. I have read it about three times, and it is probably due another outing.

March 3, 2011

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 [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Simon Kernick

Simon Kernick

Simon Kernick is a British thriller writer. His highly acclaimed debut novel was The Business of Dying, and his big breakthrough came with Relentless, the bestselling thriller of 2007. As part of research for his books he talks both on and off the record to members of Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist Branch and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, to hear first-hand what actually happens in the murky world of UK crime. You'll find a full llst of his thrillers here.

Simon Kernick

Simon Kernick

Simon Kernick is a British thriller writer. His highly acclaimed debut novel was The Business of Dying, and his big breakthrough came with Relentless, the bestselling thriller of 2007. As part of research for his books he talks both on and off the record to members of Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist Branch and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, to hear first-hand what actually happens in the murky world of UK crime. You'll find a full llst of his thrillers here.