I’ve been sent an advance copy of Safe House, a new book by Chris Ewan, to be published by Faber as a trade paperback in August. This novel represents something of a departure for Chris – who is one of the most interesting of the younger generation of crime writers. He’s best known for a series of light-hearted entertainments in the “Good Thief” series which have been short-listed twice for the Last Laugh award.
Safe House, however, is an action-packed thriller, set on the Isle of Man. The opening is suitably dramatic. A young heating engineer is called out to a rather mysterious house to undertake a job, and offers an attractive young woman whom he meets there a ride on his motor-bike. He is involved in an accident – but when he recovers consciousness, the woman has gone missing, and the police tell him that he was found on his own. A good start to a book, and a new stage in his career, which I hope will bring Chris Ewan a good deal of success.
Reading the book set me thinking about the thriller form. Thrillers may overlap in style and content with whodunits, police stories, novels of psychological suspense, and other branches of the crime genre. But, although the boundaries between the different types of book are fuzzy, stories which fall into one category rather than another do have distinctive features.
So what are the key features of a good thriller? Needless to say, the first point is that the story must set out to thrill the reader. And this means there has to be plenty of action. What is more, the pace can never be allowed to drag. The sort of old-fashioned detective puzzler where many pages were devoted to minute analysis of alibis based around train timetables (yes, Freeman Wills Crofts, I have you in mind!), for all their virtues, could not sensibly be classed as thrillers.
A credible hero or heroine is another must. Lee Child, among the best of all modern thriller writers, hit the jackpot when he created Jack Reacher, the tough, transient loner who puts his experience in the US Military Police to such effective use time and again. Reacher is prepared to kill, and does so, but in order to mete out his own particular brand of justice, so that reader sympathy is not sacrificed.
One fascinating feature of the Reacher novels is the way Child shifts from first person to third person viewpoint from book to book. The former offers more constant, and easier, reader involvement, the latter allows for more complex plot development. The choice between first and third person viewpoint is one of the key decisions for a thriller writer – and sometimes compromises are made. Simon Kernick, another best-seller, has shown a willingness to jump from first to third person within the same book, and Chris Ewan makes the same switch from chapter to chapter in Safe House. It’s a way of trying to get the best of both worlds which, if handled carefully, can be highly effective.
The hero does not have to be a professional cop or ex-soldier. Some of the best thrillers feature an ordinary guy trying to fight supremely powerful forces. This was the template for John Buchan’s classic The Thirty-Nine Steps, which introduced Richard Hannay, and Hitchcock, who filmed the story twice, used the same device in several movies, perhaps most brilliantly in North by North West.
A dramatic setting is a big help. In North by North West, the crop-dusting rural scene and the confrontation on Mount Rushmore are what stay in the mind. Hannay’s journey through the wilds of Scotland in The Thirty-Nine Steps was equally memorable. Nowadays, exotic backdrops are commonplace, but the best thrillers are those which integrate the locale into the story-line, rather than just using it as a gimmick.
Another classic thriller, The Mask of Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler, illustrates the point. Charles Latimer’s hunt for the truth about the elusive villain Dimitrios is conducted in shady bars and alley-ways in dark corners of continental Europe in the time just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the story gains immeasurable power from the convincing way Ambler evokes strange, fascinating and dangerous places.
The thriller has an enduring appeal, and one of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the emergence of a number of female thriller writers – E.V.Seymour is just one example – in what had previously tended to be a male preserve. It will be fascinating in the coming years to see whether women writers can add a brand new dimension to this type of writing. I wouldn’t bet against it.
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)