By Dawn Ius
When Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl hit bookshelves in 2012, few could have predicted the massive impact it would have years later. Like Dan Brown to religious/archeological-inspired thrillers, or the increased interest in European-based thrillers post The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, this mystery had major influence. The bestselling novel-turned-movie featuring two unreliable narrators not only catapulted Flynn to an author of highest status, but created an entire sub-genre—the domestic thriller.
And, as with many trends before it, debut and established authors alike successfully jumped on board for the ride. Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train stayed at the top of the New York Times bestselling list for a whopping 13 weeks. Throughout the past couple of years, these kinds of success stories have continued to pile up, giving this sub-genre an indefinite expiration date.
Its staying power may be further compounded by the fact, that unlike previous years, 2017 failed to produce a breakout book—BookScan reports that no new title reached the million-copy mark, in any genre.
Despite these factors, many in the industry still assumed that in 2017, the domestic thriller would begin to lose steam, making room for a new—or re-invented—sub-genre. It may be the struggles of the publishing business that have kept editors from turning in a new direction, as some admit to being more conservative than ever before in their acquisitions, preferring to stick to tried-and-true authors and plotlines.
Or it could be, as Jason Pinter, author and publisher of Polis Books notes, the ripple effects of Gone Girl are still strong.
“I think there’s still a lot of gas in the domestic thriller genre,” he says. “The Woman in the Window by A. J. Flynn just came out and has spent several weeks at Number One on the New York Times list—pretty remarkable for a debut.”
Pinter anticipates domestic thrillers will continue their reign for a while, but in the wake of a politically charged 2017, he also predicts an uprising in Manchurian Candidate-style political/paranoid thrillers. William Gibson’s next novel, for instance, takes place in an alternate future where Hillary Clinton won the presidency, he says.
“And I wrote one of my own in The Castle, which re-imagined the 2016 election as a thriller with a Trump-like character in billionaire Rawson Griggs,” he adds.
No question politics has become fodder for thriller writers, but also not surprising given the nature of the genre in which the term “ripped from the headlines” seems to go hand in hand. Alafair Burke’s new thriller—The Wife—offers a take on the events that led to the #MeToo and Times Up movements, and as millions of people take part in feminism marches across the world, the publishing industry saw a considerable rise in fiction featuring female protagonists who are kicking butt. Action heroes like K. J. Howe’s Thea Paris, for example.
As Quercus Publisher Nathaniel Marunas said in a previous The Big Thrill interview, it’s a trend he thinks will continue into 2018—and he welcomes it with open arms.
“Particularly in an age when women in this country are still fighting so hard for equal pay, control of their bodies, meaningful maternity leave, subsidized daycare, and so many other things that are givens in many Western democracies.”
Readers will certainly see books with action heroines like Thea Paris—Howe’s second book, SkyJack hits shelves April 2018—and that’s not just good news for fans of Howe’s debut, but also for readers who gravitate to series characters.
“Great series are like comfort food, every book a dinner party with old friends,” says Pinter, who confirms that editors and publishers are always on the look-out for characters with multiple book potential. While readers may relish series, the business realities are tough. “I do think the consolidation of the industry, and increased expectations due to increased competition for shelf space, has made it difficult to truly nurture a series.”
Polis points out that even authors three to four books deep can face the unexpected reality of their series being dropped, and it rarely has anything to do with the writing. Bad timing, poor marketing, lack of relevance—all factors that can kill a beloved character despite his or her fans.
That said, Pinter says Polis Books is looking forward to some of their 2018 series releases, including the latest in Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez series, a Rob Hart Ash McKenna book, and new novels from Terrence McCauley and Steph Post, to name a few.
Series continues to be strong for authors of romantic suspense, as well. What has changed—and will continue to evolve throughout 2018—is the face of the hero, the method of suspense, and a greater emphasis on family. Guns—a controversial issue in the real world—are giving way to other “weapons” in romantic suspense novels, and while men in uniform remain a staple, industry professionals have seen a shift toward bodyguards and military heroes.
“There is so much danger in the world, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone guarding your every step?” says Harlequin senior editor Patience Bloom.
That doesn’t mean editors are looking for damsels in distress, and there’s certainly not a push toward increased violence. In fact, a new prize for the thriller genre advocates for the exact opposite—the Staunch Book Prize opens to entries next month, but to qualify, your thriller can’t involve violence against women. Period.
Violence is certainly a common trope of the horror industry, though, and while that’s likely to remain, the genre continues to feel the impact of Stephen King—for better and for worse. The 2016 remake of King’s classic, IT, reminded everyone why they’re terrified of clowns, and spawned new properties like the wildly popular Stranger Things.
However, as Rue Morgue Magazine books editor Monica Kuebler notes, “The latest adaptations of (King’s) work, and the works of his progeny, are drowning out a lot of other horror titles in the mainstream media at the moment.”
Nonetheless, there’s hope for a new, or re-invented voice in the genre, authors unafraid to go up against the genre giants.
Pinter says he’d be thrilled to see some of those manuscripts come his way. “I’d love to publish a big, juicy horror novel,” he says. “The genre has been among the most influential ever—Jaws, The Exorcist, Anne Rice, Thomas Harris. But for some reason it seems to be struggling to create new superstars. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens, especially if horror starts tackling important social issues with the humor and ingenuity of a Get Out.”
And while we’re on the topic of important social issues, Pinter says he hopes that one of the trends for 2018 is an increase in diversity. While it’s a common theme for young adult literature—with books like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give giving voice to often underrepresented cultures—adult thrillers haven’t quite caught up.
“I’d love to find a Walter Mosley,” Pinter says. “A fantastic new series with an African American protagonist, or an LGBT character.”
Authors, it looks like you have your marching orders. Write on!