June 24 – 30: “What classic thriller novel would you recommend to new generations of readers, and why?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we discuss the classics…classic thrillers, that is. Join ITW Members Meg Gardiner, Jeanne Mathews, Annamaria Alfieri, J.M. Leduc, Lisa von Biela, Sean Lynch, Rick Anderson  and Michael Pocalyko as they answer the question: “What classic thriller novel would you recommend to new generations of readers, and why?”


Meg Gardiner is the bestselling author of thrillers that include the Edgar Award winner CHINA LAKE and the 2012 Audie Award winner THE NIGHTMARE THIEF. THE SHADOW TRACER is her eleventh novel.

Lisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short storyappeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. THE GENESIS CODE is her first novel.

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press, including Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, Bonereapers, andHer Boyfriend’s Bones. Like her anthropologist sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust and she sets each of her books in a different part of the world. Originally from Georgia, she currently lives in Renton, Washington.

Mark Adduci, writing as J. M. LeDuc is a native Bostonian, who transplanted to South Florida in 1985. He shares his love and life with his wife, Sherri and his daughter, Chelsea. Blessed to have had a mother who loved the written word, her passion was passed on to him. It is in her maiden name he writes. J.M. LeDuc’s first novel, CURSED BLESSING, won a Royal Palm Literary Award in 2008 as an unpublished manuscript in the thriller category. It was published in 2010. He has subsequently written CURSED PRESENCE and CURSED DAYS, books two and three of the Trilogy of The Chosen, as well as a novella, PHANTOM SQUAD. He is a proud member of the Florida Writers Association (FWA) and the prestigious International Thriller Writers (ITW).

Richard Craig Anderson started out as a fire fighter in 1971, became a highly decorated Maryland State Police trooper, and went on to accept a position as a counter-terrorist operative. An accomplished aviator and world-class scuba diver, Rick has enjoyed a life well-lived, thanks to the relationships and friendships he’s made along the way–and that includes Kobi, his Rhodesian Ridgeback.

WoundedPrey-72dpiSean Lynch grew up in Iowa, and spent nearly three decades as a municipal police officer in the San Francisco Bay Area. During his Law Enforcement career Sean served as a Sector Patrol Officer, Foot Patrol Officer, Motorcycle Officer, Field Training Officer, S.W.A.T. Team Officer, Firearms Instructor, S.W.A.T. Team Sniper, Defensive Tactics Instructor, Juvenile/Sexual Assault Detective, and Homicide Detective.

blood tango final LOWAnnamaria Alfieri is the author of BLOOD TANGO, which takes place in Buenos Aires in 1945 and imagines the murder of an Evita Perón lookalike. KIRKUS REVIEWS said of her INVISIBLE COUNTRY, “Alfieri has written an anti-war mystery that compares with the notable novels of Charles Todd.” DEADLY PLEASURES MAGAZINE called her CITY OF SILVER one of the best first novels of the year. The WASHINGTON POST said, “As both history and mystery, CITY OF SILVER glitters.” A world traveler, Annamaria takes a keen interest in the history of the places she visits. She lives in New York City.

THE NAVIGATOR by Michael PocalykoMichael Pocalyko is CEO of Monticello Capital, a boutique investment bank. He’s been a combat aviator, Navy commander, political candidate, venture capitalist, and global corporate chair. He has degrees from Muhlenberg, Harvard, and Wharton, and lives in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

  1. My first impulse was to choose Stephen King’s “It,” because lurking beneath the menace are the relationships readers make with the children. King made me connect with them so strongly that a few times I literally wanted to shout, “Look out!” But . . . “It” is not a thriller. It’s a horror story.

    Then I wanted to point to LeCarre’s “Little Drummer Girl,” in part because I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, but also because he’d obviously done his homework, and the story smacked of authenticity. But while “Little Drummer Girl” thrills readers, it is an espionage story.

    But there is one thriller – a classic thriller – that cannot be confused with horror or espionage and that’s “Seven Days in May,” by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. This political thriller about a military coup to topple the U.S. president is essential reading not only for its inventive intrigue, but because John F. Kennedy himself thought the scenario was so plausible that he encouraged its adaptation to the big screen.

    “Seven Days in May” was written at the height of the cold war, when suspicion and fear reached far into our lives. These were the days of backyard bomb shelters and “duck and cover” drills. But suspicion and fear live on in different forms today. Now it’s all about government eavesdropping and endless conjecture concerning what “really happened” at Benghazi.

    I think the essence of the book’s premise, that of misguided power at the highest levels, is no less compelling today as it was when “Seven Days in May” was written in 1962. The passage of 51 years has shown that citizens cannot blindly follow those who are supposed to lead them, and that we must in fact scrutinize them with greater focus and, it is hoped, objectivity

  2. “The first time I ever laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk outside the terrace of The Dancers.” From the first line of THE LONG GOODBYE, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe narrates a haunting, weaving, genre- and shape-shifting thriller noir. It’s the last, greatest, and maybe least-read of Chandler’s books, sometimes considered more mystery than thriller. I disagree with that assessment. The book is a true thriller and true literature.

    Unlike THE BIG SLEEP or FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, this was a book written as a novel rather than as the aggregation of related short stories. THE LONG GOODBYE is also the only first-person narrative thriller I know with such a overriding sense of dramatic irony—where the narrator and the reader perceive the small universe of the story differently from its characters. This is an incredibly difficult trick to pull off. That’s what makes this a thriller rather than a mystery, and what surprisingly makes it great literature. Chandler writes magnificently in this book, with pathos, deep pain, and rugged poetry in almost every descriptive passage. It’s also well known among us Chandler fans that he wrote this book while his wife Cissy was slowly dying (she was 81, he was 63) and he needed the money. Poignantly difficult circumstances and motivations combined to give us this story awash in the author’s personal sorrow.

    Great thrillers today aspire to be real literature—not just roughing around tough guy stick figures—because of Raymond Chandler’s groundbreaking achievement in this book. In THE LONG GOODBYE, he took writer’s risks in almost every way, especially for 1953. Alcoholism is fundamentally at the story’s core, along with psychological descent (including Marlowe’s), murder of course, suicide, the publishing industry facing its watershed (plus ça change . . . ), sexual promiscuity in multiple dimensions, characters’ personal pasts intruding on their real-time lives, identity theft, spiritual decay, societal decadence, income disparity, class stratification, and above all, questions of moral equity—like who gets to get away with murder and who gets to have, well, a long goodbye.

  3. Well, I can already see this week’s Roundtable is going to add to my TBR list. I take a pretty broad view of the term “thriller,” and so I don’t automatically exclude those works with horror elements. I’d like to offer up PSYCHO. Back when I first began trying to write short stories, I was so steeped in technical and business writing that I’m afraid my style was pretty much as you’d imagine Joe Friday/Jack Webb’s. Just the facts. This happened, that happened, more happened. The End. After a couple of rejections, a very wise and patient editor advised me to read PSYCHO to learn how to add atmosphere and suspense. At that time, I’d seen the movie, but had never happened to read the book.

    I’m surprised I didn’t burn dinner that night. I remember being physically unable to put the book down, and cooking one-handed while reading. Not only was it a compulsive read, but all manner of light bulbs went on for me in my own work.

  4. Great choices so far. And Rick: you picked the same book I did.

    SEVEN DAYS IN MAY put a stranglehold on me that has never let up. It was the first political thriller I was exposed to. I initially watched the terrific film—starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Ava Gardner, and scripted by Rod Serling—on TV when I was a kid. It chilled me. I loved it. When I found the novel, I felt incredibly lucky. And the book, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, exceeded my expectations.

    The Cold War gave SEVEN DAYS IN MAY a frightening edge of realism. The impending coup is led by a charismatic general; the desperate attempt to stop it, by the President and loyal military officers. As the clock ticks down, the tension ratchets up relentlessly. The stakes couldn’t be higher: first the end of constitutional democracy in the United States, then nuclear armageddon. Because, if the coup succeeds, the U.S. will fall into the hands of men who think they can win an all-out thermonuclear war with the Soviets.

    The amazing thing about this thriller is that there’s not one single gunfight, not one car chase, but the suspense is incredible. The villains are calculating, self-righteous, and utterly ruthless: people whose fear and arrogance combine to justify their lust for power. The heroes are flawed but noble. They fight back while trying to hold onto their honor—because preserving the Constitution is deeply honorable, and worth risking their freedom and their lives for.

    For a junior thriller reader, it was nailbiting, inspiring stuff.

    (And since we’ve both come up with the same book, I’ll offer a another choice tomorrow.)

  5. I am so glad you asked this question.

    The ‘classic’ thriller i recommend to everyone, both readers and writers, is “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky. I do so because it’s written in so many dimensions. On the surface we have what would e classified today as a police procedural. But then there is an underlying love story that pervades the plot, and even deeper is the true genius of the novel.

    Dostoevsky has stitched a tapestry of a psychological thriller at the foundation of the novel. Raskolnikov, the main character duels with his conscience throughout this masterpiece. He has pulled off the perfect crime, but his conscience and new found love won’t allow him live with himself.

    I recommend this book because it demonstrates how much action and tension can be built through internal thought.

  6. The classic thriller novel I would recommend to today’s generation of thriller fans is Anthony Hope’s 1894 tale, A PRISONER OF ZENDA.

    A blockbuster in its day, A PRISONER OF ZENDA contains all the ingredients of a top-notch thriller. Exotic locale, (the fictional European country of Ruritania), an evil villian, (Black Michael), a diabolical henchman, (Rupert of Hentzau), a princess in distress, (Flavia), a worthy, reluctant hero, (Rudolph Rassendyll), and the hero’s sage mentor, (Colonel Sapt).

    Add a smart and inventive plot with plenty of twists, kinetic action sequences, (including sword and pistol fights, and the horseback equivalent of a modern-day car-chase), and the drama of forbidden and unrequited love, and you have the template for what many contemporary thrillers today strive to be.

    I first read A PRISONOR OF ZENDA in junior high school, and delighted in its original and unabashedly action-oriented story line. I re-read it every couple of years, to remind myself that thrillers, even dark ones, are supposed to be fun to read!

    Like many of today’s best thriller writers, Hope was bashed by literary critics of his day but adored by continuing generations of readers. I genuinely believe that any true fan of thriller fiction could not in good faith read A PRISONER OF ZENDA and not recognize the pioneering nature of the novel.

    If there was ever a book to read on a dark and stormy night by the fire, it’s A PRISONER OF ZENDA.

  7. Hi, Everyone,

    I can see I’m in the company of connoisseurs. Some of my favorites have been named already. I’d like to add to the list of classics, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth. Published in 1971, the book opens with a failed attempt on the life of the French President, Charles de Gaulle, by a terrorist group (OAS) that regards him as a traitor because he has granted independence to Algeria. The French Secret Service are able to infiltrate the organization and prevent it from operating, but its leaders remain determined to kill de Gaulle. They decide to hire a professional assassin from outside its ranks, someone completely unknown to the French. The Jackal, as he is code named, is an Englishman who is utterly ruthless and consummate in his preparations for the hit. He even does a psychological study of his victim, who is so arrogant and reckless that he refuses to alter his routine or take any precautions for his safety.

    The French authorities discover the plot, but have no idea when or where the assassination will occur and no clue to the identity of the assassin. They assign the case to the best detective in France, Claude Lebel. Lebel investigates and learns The Jackal’s real name, but an OAS mole in the French government alerts The Jackal and the chase is on as the two men — each the best as what he does — match wits. The extraordinary thing about THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is its ability to keep the reader on the edge of his seat even though you know for a fact that Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated. Even after the manhunt has ended and The Jackal has been stopped, Forsyth plants a delicious little twist that leaves the reader wondering. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL won the Edgar in 1972 and remains a classic.

  8. What Jeanne said – THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. Absolutely. And I would follow that with THE ODESSA FILE, and then another of Forsyth’s works, THE FOURTH PROTOCOL. I’ve read THE DAY OF THE JACKAL 2-3 times and am always amazed by the author’s inventive mind. I recently finished reading THE ODESSA FILE again, with its enduring sense of humanity in both the opening and closing scenes. Yep, Mr. Forsyth never fails to engage me as a reader.

  9. I’m loving these suggestions. Chandler, Dostoevsky, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL and more: so excellent.

    And I promised another choice, so here it is. JURASSIC PARK.

    This ambitious, sweeping novel is Michael Crichton’s signature book. If you’ve only seen the movie—and I bet you have, at least three times—pick up the original. It contains more of everything you love. There’s a primordial threat, and the inevitable lesson: Nature cannot be controlled. The humans act like humans, with hubris, greed, selfishness, shortsightedness, and stubbornness even in the face of evidence. They wield great power without wisdom. As a result, they set off a disastrous chain reaction. Whereupon the dinosaurs act like dinosaurs.

    The science is worked masterfully into a thrilling tale of survival. There’s DNA sequencing, chaos theory, paleontology. And then comes the roaring, and the running, and the screaming, and the dying.

    There’s no human supervillain. But the velociraptors serve terrifyingly well as the Big Bad.

    This novel has become part of our culture. My daughter read it—secretly—at age eight. We’d told her she was too young to see the movie, so she hid under the covers with a flashlight to devour the book. As a result, last year she went to Kauai because that’s where the movie was filmed, and she could take the JURASSIC PARK tour. Then there’s my son’s online pseudonym… “You Bred Raptors?”

  10. This discussion just triggered a memory for me. Back in the early 80’s, I went through my Robert Ludlum phase. Couldn’t get enough. I started with THE BOURNE IDENTITY, then I read one after the other–until they started to all sound alike. I remember BOURNE just grabbing me and not letting go.

  11. Glad to find someone who likes Forsyth as much as I do, Rick. One of the influences on him was Geoffrey Household. His most famous and successful book was ROGUE MALE, but I’d like to put in a word for DANCE OF THE DWARFS. I was on tenterhooks from page one. Has anyone else read Household?

    I’ve been waiting for someone to mention Lee Child. My husband is addicted to his Jack Reacher series and who could not be drawn in by an opening paragraph like the one that kicks off GONE TOMORROW? “Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.”

  12. Jeanne: Lee Child writes primo, A+ stuff. Reacher is going to be a classic series. It’s just that for the purposes of this roundtable, I’ve been sticking to books that aren’t part of a series currently in progress.

  13. Well, then, sticking to the time-honored classics, I would have to say that THE MALTESE FALCON is a must-read. I once had a writing teacher who defined “character” as desire and “conflict” as the difference between what the character wants to happen and what actually does happen. THE MALTESE FALCON is the quintessential novel about desire — what it means to want something badly enough to kill for it, what it means to want a lover and have to decide whether you value your self-respect more. That was Sam Spade’s dilemma and he keeps us guessing to the last page. A great detective story with a serious moral edge.

  14. Day of the Jackal is definitely one of the classics I’d recommend. I would also suggest Ken Follett’s ‘Eye of the Needle’ & Jack Higgins’ ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ as two formative thrillers that can teach a lot about how thrillers should be laid out.

    More recent, Forsyth’s ‘Fist of God’ & ‘The Afghan’ are terrific examples of how to do what we do.

  15. Basil: Excellent call on EYE OF THE NEEDLE. One of the tautest thrillers ever written. Ken Follett pulls off the same virtuoso act as Forsyth does in THE DAY OF THE JACKAL–he keeps readers on the edge of their seat wondering if the heroine will stop the Nazi spy from revealing the Allies’ plans to invade Normandy. We all know the D-Day assault succeeded, yet we’re biting our nails with every paragraph.

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