The following is a list of words used by author friends of mine to describe certain thrillers: popcorn, candy-floss, anaesthetic for the brain, Netflix in book form. The inference being thrillers – and crime fiction in general – is entertainment, not really literature. When reminded that I am a crime writer the responses are predictable, not to mention patronising: technically I suppose, but your books are different, I wouldn’t say you’re crime crime though. They might mention Peter Temple at this stage, or the fact Eggshell Skull and This Mortal Boy both won major literary prizes as well as crime awards, failing to acknowledge these books were found in the respective autobiography and literary sections and not in the crime section like my books. In my mind a number of questions rise from these exchanges: ‘Is there some literary threshold when a crime novel “transcends” the genre?’, ‘What makes a book a crime book?’, ‘Can the lowly crime novel do more than entertain?’
To answer the first two, you need only consider the following: Is Lolita a crime novel? Is The Great Gatsby a thriller? Would In Cold Blood win a crime fiction prize? Like everything, context is important. There are, of course, no set rules for where a book ends up in the library or bookstore, but savvy marketing departments recognise crime sells, and so everything is marketed to crime readers. This means the crime genre causes microgenres to sprout up helping differentiate between the Lolitas of the world and the Jack Reachers. My debut, Call Me Evie, was marketed as a ‘literary thriller,’ a microgenre that might have seemed absurd 15 years ago. I have my own definition of a crime novel: the focus of the book concerns investigating a crime; Lolita, The Great Gatsby can stay in the literary aisle. In Cold Blood is coming to the dark side.
For me I’m drawn to stories that deal with the brain. I have always been fascinated with the quirks and biases of the human mind, in particular what causes ‘normal’ people to do awful things.
And so, I’m drawn to psychological thrillers and suspense novels. The very best of these pass my litmus test of what makes a book great: one, I can’t stop reading, and two, I am deeply affected when I close the last page.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
If you’re wondering why psychological thrillers are beginning to dominate the crime section in your local bookstore, you can thank Gillian Flynn. I, like many young writers, was completely enamoured with Flynn’s world building, characterisation and her twists but perhaps above all else it was the strong voice she employs. It’s impossible not to connect at some level with Nick and Amy Dunne, despite their many many flaws.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
I wonder how Evie Wyld would feel if she were to discover her book on a list of my favourite thrillers. She is after all a firm fixture on literary panels at writers’ festivals and has accumulated accolades and praise from reviewers around the world not to mention the 2014 Miles Franklin award. All the Birds, Singing remains one of my favourite books of all time – the prose is exceptional and it’s a masterclass in narrative structure. The way Wyld merges cause and effect keeps a piano wire tension throughout, and the conclusion is devastating.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Months before my second novel In the Clearing was published, I read another book about a cult called The Incendiaries and was blown away by the subtlety of the novel. Kwon pulls a trick on the reader; you don’t even realise you are reading about a cult until the protagonist is radicalised and in this way the reader feels radicalised too. There are also great insights to find here into class divides, and what the human mind is prepared to believe if the information is packaged in a palatable way.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
This isn’t a book I would ever recommend. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more divisive thriller. Readers familiar with the genre will be frustrated by the rambling pace and the unformulated narrative arc. There appears to be nothing tightly plotted here, no clever reversals or hidden motives. It’s not entirely clear what the threat is or even if it’s real. What we have instead is a psychological profile of a character told via Lynchian surrealism including a second narrative entirely detached from the first and with no clear relevance until the last few pages of the novel. I know many readers who gave up on this novel halfway through, but if you trust the author and follow without expectation you will be rewarded when it all miraculously comes together.
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
When you’ve read enough thrillers, you begin to recognise patterns. The earlier you recognise the pattern of the story and begin to eliminate potential outcomes, the more predictable the story becomes and the less satisfying the conclusion. This effect is compounded by the habit publishers have of promoting the ‘big twist you won’t see coming.’ Which inevitably makes readers look out for it. To the savviest readers the majority of crime novels are reasonably predictable, which is why Behind Her Eyes was so exciting. No-one sees the twists coming and like all good twists, they fundamentally change the story giving everything else context. It’s a middling psychological thriller until it’s not, then it’s brilliant and utterly original.
The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart
One of the benefits of writing books is publishers will often send you other books before they come out, while reviews are still embargoed and the reading experience is uncontaminated by expectation. The Silent Listener may not be hitting shelves until February 2021, but it’s a book that should be atop everyone’s reading list when it does. Yeowart’s prose is spectacular, and the characters are so richly imagined. This is a novel about inherited violence and redemption packaged as a cracking psychological thriller.
Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham
I envy those who haven’t yet discovered the work of Michael Robotham. If you pick up Good Girl, Bad Girl which recently won The CWA Gold Dagger, you’ll find yourself ripping through his backlist as I did. Robotham’s work in the past has sold better abroad than in Australia but in recent times his popularity here has been on the rise. It’s unsurprising, he’s a master plotter at the top of his game and this is his best novel yet.
The Night Swim by Megan Goldin
Another Aussie who has flown under the radar at home, despite mega success abroad is Megan Goldin. She’s an author that writes ambitious, socially conscious stories in the most compelling way. The Night Swim has real heart, it’s a gripping read from page one and captures the nuances, the challenges and the generational tension we face in the aftermath of the #metoo movement.
The Shining by Stephen King
My two favourite film adaptions both happen to star Jack Nicholson. The first being One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the other being the 70s classic The Shining. There are few scenes more iconic than the “Here’s Johnny” moment but disappointingly it never happened in the book. Likewise, those iconic twin girls, Kubrick added them in along with the famous shot of blood flooding from an elevator bank. In the absence of Kubrick’s distinct aesthetic and those long tense tracking shots, King employed a great deal more supernatural details to heighten the tension. The threat in Kubrick’s The Shining is ambiguous until the late stages, it’s not clear what drives John mad but King makes it clear early on that the hotel is haunted and the ghosts are affecting our protagonist. Plants come to life and the female lead has much more agency – it’s a much different experience to watching the film. The book in this case isn’t necessarily better but it’s definitely worthy of your attention in its own right. The one thing they both nail is the atmosphere. King is brilliant at building upon the creepy premise; The Shining is his masterpiece.
J.P. Pomare is the bestselling author of the psychological suspense novels In The Clearing and Call Me Evie. For the past four years J.P. has also hosted and produced the podcast On Writing. Originally from New Zealand, he now lives in Melbourne with his wife. His books are available via Hachette.