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
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
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, technothriller, 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 enagaging – it’s 2 am and you have to work the next day…go on, just one more
How do you get your thrills from novels?