Murder, Mystery and Mayhem—Why I love Suspense and Thriller
It all started when I was in fifth grade. A publisher in Taiwan, where I grew up, released a new translation of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories for young readers. I begged my parents for the whole set for my birthday and devoured them all within the month. Next came the entire collection of Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin mysteries, which I bought with my own savings. I was hooked for good.
I consumed every mystery and suspense novel I could get my hands on after that: anything by Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Georges Simenon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Philip MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, and John Dickson Carr, all before I turned fourteen.
For years I knew Edgar Allan Poe only as the creator of the world’s first detective, C. Auguste Dupin, Gaston Leroux as the author of The Mystery of the Yellow Room (until I discovered he also wrote Phantom of the Opera after seeing the musical fifteen years later), and my ideal man was a composite of the charming gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, Leslie Charteris’ suave adventurer Simon Templar (a.k.a The Saint), the hyper-intellectual professor Ellery Queen, and S. S. Van Dine’s bon vivant sleuth, Philo Vance.
Come to think of it, this explains my youthful attraction to mild-mannered guys with glasses (Johnny Depp), sophisticated older men in tailored suits (Pierce Brosnan), and wise-cracking bad boys with a dry sense of humor (Robert Downy Jr.).
My parents started to worry when I began to talk about how death by carbon monoxide would leave one with rosy cheeks, how pure nicotine was colorless and could kill in an instant with no trace, and how movies never portrayed death by hanging realistically since the dead man’s tongue should have been sticking out of his mouth in reality. They decided to send me to a boarding school so I could learn to socialize with other girls and live in “the real world” for a change.
As I grew older, my reading list expanded to include horror, science fiction and fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction, but mystery/thriller/suspense is still my first love and favorite genre. Reading about murders is a great escape from my otherwise very ordinary life. No matter how gruesome they are—whether the victims are stabbed, shot, poisoned, bludgeoned, drowned, hung, burned, frozen, gassed, buried alive, or mawed by an animal—they are as comforting to me as lullabies.
The violence and blood do not bother me because I know they are not real (I can never read true crimes unless they’re about events far removed from recent history.) I see them as great intellectual exercises, separating clues from red herrings and solving the intricate puzzles before the truth is revealed by the author the ultimate satisfaction. Many of my clients tell me I have a very analytical brain, which helps them see the holes and flaws in their books. They have my mystery novels to thank.
Another reason why I love suspense fiction is that the best of them are all about character and motivation. What makes people kill? Do certain situations people find themselves in force them to take drastic measures, no matter who they are? Given the same circumstances, why are some people driven to destruction and not others?
Character and motivation are the foundations of any good novel, but they are especially important in mystery and thriller. Not only must the plot make sense, the motive behind the crime also has to be convincing. No matter how tangled the plot, if the motive is weak, the whole thing will fall apart. More than any other genre, a good crime novel must lay each building block just right to achieve the domino effect, and one misplaced tile will be the premature end of the game.
After I became an agent, I realized that this fascination with understanding what makes us tick must have been the reason why I majored in psychology and sociology in college and later went on to pursue a Ph.D. in social and personality psychology. While I never discovered the answers in grad school, I found them once and again in every good crime fiction I’ve ever read.
Here are a few of my favorites--some are richly atmospheric, some dazzle with evocative prose, some inject new life into a tired set-up, and some might not even be considered crime fiction in its strictest sense—but all of them introduced vividly complicated and damaged characters who haunted me long after I turned the last page.
Max Barry Lexicon
Dan Brown Angels & Demons
Caleb Carr The Alienist
Lee Child The Killing Floor
Michael Connelly The Poet
Jeffrey Deaver The Bone Collector
Bret Easton Ellis American Psycho
Gillian Flynn Gone Girl
Frederick Forsyth Avenger
Tana French In the Woods
Robert Galbraith The Cuckoo’s Calling
Robert Harris The Ghost
Mo Hayder Birdman
Rupert Holmes Where the Truth Lies
Dennis Lehane Shutter Island
Laura Lippman What the Dead Know
Laura Lippman What the Dead Know
Jussi Adler-Olsen The Absent One
Marisha Pessl Night Film
Jed Rubenfeld The Interpretation of Murder
Scott Smith A Simple Plan
Tom Rob Smith Child 44
Donna Tartt The Secret History
S. J. Watson Before I Go to Sleep