February 23 to March 1: “Do you remember your first thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The first time you discovered thrillers as a genre … do you remember which book and how it landed in your hands? This week, ITW Members Ryan Quinn, Sandra A. Block, Lisa Von Biela, Trisha Leaver, J. H. Bográn, Jean Heller and Bob Van Laerhoven will discuss their introduction to the thriller genre.


Blockbuster coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels The Genesis Code and The Janus Legacy, as well as the novella Ash and Bone.

End of Secrets by Ryan QuinnA native of Alaska, Ryan Quinn was an NCAA champion and an all-American skier while at the University of Utah. He worked for five years in New York’s book-publishing industry before moving to Los Angeles, where he writes and trains for marathons. Quinn’s first novel, The Fall, was a finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards. For more, please visit his website.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


TreasureHunt_Ebook_2J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild, Crime Writer’s Fiction and the International Thriller Writers. He lives in Honduras with his family and a “lucky” dog.


Little Black Lies by Sandra BlockSandra A. Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan, and lives at home with her husband, two children, and impetuous yellow lab Delilah. She has been published in both medical and poetry journals. “Little Black Lies” is her first novel.


CREED cover 2Trisha Leaver graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Social Work. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband, three kids and one rather irreverent black lab. She is a member of the SCBWI, the Horror Writers Association, and the YA Scream Queens. Publications include:CREED YA Psychological Horror/ Thriller (Flux/ Llewellyn); THE SECRETS WE KEEP, YA Contemporary, coming April 28, 2015 with FSG/ Macmillan; SWEET MADNESS, YA Historical Horror, coming August 2015 with Merit Press, and HARDWIRED, YA Sci-fi Thriller, coming fall 2015 with Flux/ Llewellyn.

Baudelaire's Revenge by Bob Van LaerhovenFlemish author Bob Van Laerhoven made his debut in 1985 with NACHTSPEL- NIGHT GAME. He writes colourful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. As a freelance travel writer, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from 1990 to 2004. In 2007, he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best mystery novel of the year with DE WRAAK VAN BAUDELAIRE. The English translation BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE was edited in the US in 2014. His novels have also been translated in French.

  1. In 1998 I had around eighteen published literary novels in Holland and Belgium under my belt. I didn’t exactly suffer from a writer’s block, nevertheless I got the feeling that my literary pen was becoming blunt and I searched for new sources of inspiration.
    In Belgium, my home-country, the thriller was, at that time, considered a genre with less literary quality than mainstream novels. Because I travelled a lot in those days, I had bought thriller novels now and then in airports and I had to admit that, stylistically, they often were inferior to literature. On the other hand, they frequently – not always – were more, eh, thrilling than many literary novels.
    In Brussels airport, too early – for once – for my plane to Sudan, I ransacked a bookshop that also had a collection of novels in English. Was it coincidence of Fate that my eye fell on the pocket version of Archangel by Robert Harris? One of the excerpts of the many reviews on the cover stated that Harris was the “leading current exponent of the intelligent literary thriller.” I looked more closely and saw that this conclusion was published in The Times, so I decided to give the novel a try.
    Was I in for a surprise. Harris’ novel swooped me out of the plane to Sudan into the icy, vast forests surrounding the White Sea port of Archangel where Stalin’s shadow still haunted the nineties. I hardly noticed the plane landing at Samir airport. Archangel was such an intelligent mixture of suspense, mystery and political analysis of Russia’s present and past. The atmosphere of doom, deeply felt Angst and the chaos of the Russian society was terrifying and haunting. The novel was constant in my mind during my assignment in Sudan which in itself was dangerous enough because of the violence between the South and the North and the famine that ravaged the country. Still, in all that tumult and danger, the novel remained on the forefront of my mind. What an intense and classy prose, what an absorbing story! It was there, amidst the chaos and the suffering, that my solipsistic writers-brain started to spark.
    I decided I would attempt to write literary thrillers. I didn’t know if I had it in me, so I started prudently with the Declerq and Duchène series and published five books about this duo, a half-breed South African commissioner and a Flemish female inspector, solving crimes in locations like Congo, South-Africa, Algeria, Burma, Israel and Gaza. With each book I tried to mature in the craft and after the series came the true cross-over novels between literature and the crime novel.
    But more than 10 books later I’m still aiming to reach to the knees of Robert Harris’ Archangel.
    Keep on trying, Bobbo…

  2. I see it’s going to be hard to top Bob’s story!

    I’ve been a pretty voracious reader all my life, and am having a hard time remembering specifically when I picked up my first thriller. I’m pretty sure my first was Coma, by Robin Cook. It was so long ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember enjoying it thoroughly.

    That was long before I started writing, but I can see its influence in the types of novels I write now. I definitely tend toward the medical. He’s an actual doctor, though–I just pretend to be one when I write. (Although, to give myself a little credit, I was pre-vet at UCLA and worked for a vet for quite some time back in the day, so I do have some medical background despite not having M.D. after my name!) My handwriting is certainly hideous enough that I could fake being a doctor.

  3. I don’t remember the name of the book actually, but it was a Carol Higgins Clark thriller.

    I was in seventh grade and avoiding studying for finals. Lying on the floor (I still remember the shag, lime-green carpet) I inhaled every word, breathlessly following the heroine as she tromped through the snowy night, searching for the killer.

    I was shocked, shocked, when it turned out the villain was none other than her dependable, handsome (and in retrospect far too-perfect) husband! I will never forget the glorious, gasp-provoking sensation of that big reveal.

    I was on a Carol Higgins Clark binge for quite a while, before expanding my horizons to other thriller and suspense authors as well. I’ve been hooked ever since…

  4. Walter Farley’s 1941 novel, “The Black Stallion,” had been a classic for decades when it first fell into my hands. I adored horses back as far as I could remember, which was2 about when I was two years old and living on a ranch in Tyler, Texas. When I was in the third grade, my parents bought Farley’s book for me. It drew me in like a raccoon to a garbage can. I read the book so many times if finally fell apart.

    While not strictly a thriller by today’s standards, it worked back then, until I was old enough to discover Nancy Drew (I read every last one of them for a decade). The single book that sealed my destiny to be a thriller reader for the rest of my life was “Shibumi,” by Trevanian. My imagination soared as I read that book, to the extent that I vowed one day to have a Japanese garden of my own, complete with sounding stones in a rippling creek. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hoping. I don’t recall how “Shibumi” fell into my hands; I’m just glad it did.

    Since then, I’ve gone in stages. Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Alan Furst, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Stephen King, the too-often-overlooked George MacDonald Fraser, Jonathan King, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Donald Harstad, Dennis Lehane and way, way too many more to list here.

    If I join a series late, I tend to binge read what I missed, in as close to chronological order as possible. That happened with John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers series. Right now it’s happening (for the third time) with the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle’s stories fall much more into the mystery category than the thriller genre. No matter, I love them all.

      1. As I said, it was a thriller to me. But I was in the third grade. I wouldn’t describe it that way now. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that I was reading was key.

        1. 😀 I started reading at an early age, too. Can’t IMAGINE not reading and I don’t understand those who don’t care to read. They don’t know what entire worlds they are missing.

          I was a squeamish kid. I remember reading a gory (for me as a small child) part of “Old Yeller” right before class was supposed to start for the day. I shut the book promptly because the bell rang and we were supposed to start up, but I felt myself nearly black out. Eeek!

  5. I was about ten, and I shared a room with my sister. She was teasing me, as sisters often do, about my nightly ritual of checking under the bed for monsters. I was crouched down, had the bed skirt pulled up and was about to check for whatever evil lurk beneath when she said, “What, exactly, are you going to do if you find something under there?”

    Rather than process what she actually meant, I did what most ten year olds do and ran to my older brother, complaining that my sister was teasing me. He, in all his wisdom, replied with a simply and ohh so true, “it’s not the monsters under the bed you need to worry about, rather the ones that live in your closet.”

    If nothing but predictable, I moved on, went running downstairs to complain to my Aunt—who was babysitting us that night—that my sister and brother were teasing me. She took my hand, led me over to my parents’ bookshelf, pointed out my Dad’s collection of horror books, and said, “If you can make your way through one of those, then whatever you ‘think’ lives under your bad or in your closet will never frighten you again.”
    On that shelf resided some classic horrors by Robert McCammon, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz. I made my way through most of them by the time I hit my freshman year in high school and still find myself drawn to them today.

  6. Like Lisa, I too was introduced to thrillers by Robin Cook’s Coma. I was in my early teens, I think, and must have picked it up while browsing at one of the pre-B&N chains at the local mall. It was definitely one of the first books I remember choosing to read on my own, separate from the required reading for school. And I got completely lost in it. I spent the next few years reading all of Robin Cooks other medical thrillers.

    It’s funny though, I read those thrillers way before I considered being a writer myself and I have no idea what I would think of them now.

    The first thrillers I read that made the writer light bulb go on in me came from Robert Ludlam and Tom Clancy. And then the first thriller that made me think: “That’s the kind of thriller I want to write” was probably Robert Harris’s The Fear Index. So I guess my evolution from thriller reader to thriller writer came in stages.

  7. Jean, you’re a horse lover? Nice, me too. We have four horses here at our house, paddocks, barns, paddock paradise etc…My wife Caroline is an equine therapist and our 4 darlings are often a blessing for physically or psychically challenged clients. When a horse is loved and respected it has the uncanny ability to “mirror” people. Our “great queen” Bruja (Criollo), our “lady” Archimeda (Arabian purebred), our “tomboy” Trigger (quarter) and our “giant” Onida (paint)are soulful companions, comrades and spiritual guides….

  8. Lisa, Ryan — I forgot about COMA. That came very early in my thriller reading, too. Thanks for reminding me. I also forgot Stephen King’s DEAD ZONE, another early thriller that pushed me toward my current writing path. I even have a list of mystery writers as long as my desk whose fascinating work influenced me, but that’s a whole ‘nuther forum question: How do mystery — everyone from Conan Doyle to Christie to Chandler to Parker — influence thriller writers?

    Bob, I envy you your horses. I’m sure I would have one, but I live in a condo in downtown Chicago and the place has no stable. Can you believe that?

    1. Jean,

      I was deliberately trying to exclude Stephen King as more horror, but I’ve read many, many of his books. The Stand is beyond awesome. So much so, I’ve read it twice: the regular and the longer version. It was in my King phase that I first started thinking, “Hey, I want to write books like this, that people can’t put down until they’re done!”

      1. Lisa, I sort of feel that horror can be a subset of the broader thriller genre, but that’s just my opinion. I completely agree with about THE STAND, and I thought the longer version was better. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything new from him, but I do have a few backed up on my Kindle that I’ll get to as soon as every other writer in the world takes a sabbatical so I can catch up.

  9. Hi folks.

    Sorry to be late to the party, but didn’t want the week to pass by without adding my comment.

    For me, the first thrill came from a novel that has been overshadowed by the movie: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
    I read it for the first time during my teens, than about once every two years for the next twenty.

    I’d go as far as claiming I’ve read the book more times than I’ve watched the movie, and bear in mind I am a big movie fan.

  10. Jean, sorry for reacting so late, was in Paris for the press release of one of my in French translated novels. Paris is getting more noisy and, well, more grimy, with each year it seems.

    And I admit I had to look up the meaning of the word “condo” :-). It’s an appartment, right? So I surmise that your mentioning of a stable is a fine piece of irony…. 🙂 Yes, I’m blessed with our darlings. I pray every day that they will outlive me. I would be devastated if I had to loose one of them….

    That said, Ryan, I’m very pleased that you like Robert Harris’ novels too…What a writer…(jealousy, jealousy, jealousy 🙂 🙂 )

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