January 14 – 20: “What is the primary job of a thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Entertainment? Escapism? To provoke thought? This week ITW Members Jess Montgomery, Larry Loftis, L. A. Starks, Peter James, William L. Myers, Jr., Cathi Stoler, Samuel W. Gailey, Uri Norwich and Martin Roy Hill will discuss the question: What is the primary job of a thriller? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along – you won’t want to miss this!


Jess Montgomery is the author of the Kinship Historical Mystery series, inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff and published by Minotaur Books. THE WIDOWS, the first book in the series, is set in 1920s Appalachia and follows two women who investigate murder and fight for their community. Jess is also a newspaper columnist, focusing on the literary life, authors and events of her native Dayton, Ohio for the Dayton Daily News.


Larry Loftis is the international bestselling author of the nonfiction spy thriller, INTO THE LION’S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov — World War II Spy, Patriot, and the True Life Inspiration for James Bond.



William L. Myers, Jr. is the No. 6 bestselling author for Amazon Kindle in 2017 for his debut. Once you pick up his legal thriller and bestselling novel, A Criminal Defense, it becomes obvious he is not new to the intricacies of the legal profession. Open A Criminal Defense and you’ll find yourself lost in a labyrinth of deceits and hidden agendas, a world where everyone has a secret. You never know what is going to happen next or when the plot is going to take another unexpected turn.


Samuel Gailey was raised in a small town in northeast Pennsylvania (population 379) and now resides on Orcas Island with his wife, author Ayn Gailey, and daughter. The Guilt We Carry is his second novel, following the critically acclaimed Deep Winter (Penguin). Gailey’s novels are intriguing studies of human nature and portray how the simplest act of fate can alter and shatter lives. Before writing novels, he wrote and developed shows for Showtime and Fox.


L. A. Starks is the author of the three-book Lynn Dayton thriller series and an energy investor. 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy, first in the series, received 5-star ratings. Strike Price, the second, is also well-ranked by reviewers and won the Texas Association of Authors’ First Place Award for best mystery/thriller. Just-published THE SECOND LAW is the third book in the series. Starks is also multi-published in short stories and nonfiction. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She grew up in Oklahoma, earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Tulane University in New Orleans and an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and now lives in Texas. Prior to her investment focus she worked in the energy business directly in engineering, finance, and marketing. Her favorite recent international destinations include Denmark, Spain, and Switzerland. She has run fourteen half-marathons.


Peter James is a U.K. No. 1 bestselling author, best known for writing crime and thriller novels, and the creator of the much-loved Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. With a total of 13 Sunday Times No. 1s under his belt, he has achieved global book sales of over 19 million copies to date, and has been translated into 37 languages. Synonymous with plot-twisting page-turners, Peter has garnered an army of loyal fans throughout his storytelling career – which also included stints writing for TV and producing films. He has won over 40 awards for his work, including the WHSmith Best Crime Author of All Time Award, Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger and a BAFTA nomination for The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, for which he was an executive producer. Many of Peter’s novels have been adapted for film, TV and stage.


Cathi Stoler is an award-winning author. Her new Urban Thriller, BAR NONE, A Murder on the Rocks Mystery, featuring The Corner Lounge bar owner, Jude Dillane, will be published this October by Clay Stafford Books. A new series, with Blackjack player Nick Donahue, it includes the novel Out of Time and the novella Nick of Time. Both will be published next year by Black Opal Books. She is also the author of the three volume Laurel & Helen New York Mystery series, which includes Telling Lies, Keeping Secrets and The Hard Way, and a three-time finalist and winner of the 2015 Derringer for Best Short Story, “The Kaluki Kings of Queens”. Very involved in the crime writing world, Cathi serves as Co-Vice President of Sisters in Crime New York/Tri-State, and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.


Before starting to write his novels, Uri Norwich attained his knowledge in various fields of expertise. His formal education consists of a Master of Science degree in Engineering and MBA in Economics, leading eventually to the career in investment and money management. Wall Street is a main backdrop where his characters operate, make illegally their profits, and put them into evil schemes to advance their goals. The author has been traveling the world extensively. His experiences reflected in his novels conveying to the reader a sense of being present at the time and place he is reading about.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. His latest Linus Schag thriller, The Butcher’s Bill, was named 2017 Best Suspense Thriller by the Best Indie Books Awards, the 2017 Clue Award for Mystery and Suspense from the Chanticleer International Book Awards, 2018 First Place for Adult Fiction from the California Author Project, and the 2018 Silver Medal for Thrillers from the Readers Favorite Book Awards.



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  1. “What is the primary job of a thriller? Entertainment, escapism, to provoke thought?”

    I think a thriller can—and should—provide elements of all three but primary among them is entertaining.

    Merriam Webster defines a thriller as “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense.” A thriller must entertain readers or it simply would not be read. That entertainment provides the readers with an escape from the mundane concerns of everyday life.

    But that does not mean the work cannot be thought provoking. David Morrell’s First Blood, the novel that gave us Rambo, is more than a shoot-’em-up thriller. It is a story about father-and-son relationships, as was his western thriller, The Last Reveille.

    H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is, on the surface, a sci-fi thriller. Yet Wells wrote it as a commentary on Britain’s colonial imperialism. Joseph Conrad’s African adventure, Heart of Darkness, also carried a message about colonialism. His novel, Lord Jim, while another colonial adventure story, also explores the meaning of character.

    In all my novels, I try to leave the reader with some thought-provoking message. The Killing Depths, for instance, is a murder mystery that takes place on an American submarine with a joint male-female crew. It explores how the military must change as more women join up. Both The Last Refuge and The Butcher’s Bill—my last two thrillers—are commentaries on how commercial interests profit from war. My sci-fi thriller, Eden, delves into the meaning of religion.

    Of course, your message will be lost, and the reader will find no escape from the daily hum-drums, if the book isn’t first and foremost entertaining.

  2. Hi Dear Thriller Writers and Readers,

    First, Happy New Year! It’s still January, so there’s still time to say that. I hope
    you all enjoyed your holidays.

    As I thought about this week’s question and what the primary job of a thriller entails,
    I realized that there’s one thing that every crime fiction novel, whether a thriller or a cozy, should have in common and that is first and foremost, it has to be a really good entertaining story.

    I think most people read for entertainment. It’s often the story line that gets a someone to pick up a book in the first place and keeps them enthralled enough to read to the end. Creating an entertaining thriller encompass many things: a super smart plot filled with well-drawn characters readers become invested in, lots of suspenseful twists and turns, plus high stakes and an exciting resolution. If that’s not entertaining, I don’t know what is.

    For my latest urban thriller, BAR NONE A MURDER ON THE ROCKS MYSTERY, I set my story in a bar, and used all the elements I just mentioned to entertain my readers.
    At least, I hope I did.

  3. I agree, Martin. Le Carre’s The Night Manager is a spine chilling foray into the big business of illegal/under the counter international arms dealing and because it’s real and still happening right now makes it all the more horrifying. I prefer thrillers with a basis in reality. Of course Le Carre adds a ripping tale of dangerous undercover work as well but the basis is real and is something that affects millions of people whether they know it or not.

      1. Martin– yes, he sure has an advantage there 🙂 . I just read The Little Drummer Girl and watched the new TV series which is a very good adaptation, I think. it distills the thriller essence of the story. Le Carre does a brilliant job of presenting both sides of the Israeli/Palestine conflict as it was in the 70’s. Still a tragedy all round with apparently no end in sight.

  4. Hello everyone.
    Elisabeth brought up an interesting point. Oddly enough, I had suggested it to the Roundtable organizer last May for a discussion “How realistic a thriller is…”
    I constantly get questions on “…if that really happen?”
    It was my choice to base my novels not only on verifiable facts and places where the action had taken place, but shed some light on little-known consequences that changed lives of millions in our country and around the world.
    The latest spy novel “The American Dossier” is no exception. It is as realistic as a novel can get.

    The war is in the Cyberspace now. The payouts are in Crypto Currency. But a good, old assassination cannot be replaced by anything. Russian Election Meddling is here again. There was no need for the meddling. It has been going on much longer than most people realize.

    1. I agree, Uri. All my plots are centered on historical facts. My novel, The Killing Depths, was inspired by a real life USN ship that deployed to the first Gulf War with a joint male-female crew, and returned with half of the women on board pregnant. The Last Refuge was inspired by reports that American corporations secretly negotiated to rebuild Iraq’s war machine while our troops were still fighting Hussein in Kuwait. The plot to The Butcher’s Bill was inspired by the real life theft of $8.9 billion in US cash from Iraq during the second Gulf War – the biggest heist in history and it’s never been investigated. In each of my books, I include an author’s note revealing what parts of the plot actually happened.

    2. Uri, I too am often asked “did that really happen?” about the plots ins my novels. My answer is, “yes, in some form.” My books have dealt with the subjects of looted Nazi art, stolen identity, weapons of mass destruction, and my latest coming this year, takes on the subject of serial killers. These are things that are part of the world we live in, and while I’ve fictionalized them, they are real problems that are unfortunately a part of modern living.

      1. Dear Cathi,
        I believe that somewhere in this discussion I had mentioned that I go into “trouble” to create Footnotes with reference to real facts and sources. It may seem strange for a work of fiction, but it certainly delivers credibility to inquisitive reader.

      2. I am reminded of an author’s note Jack Higgins wrote for his novel, The Valhalla Exchange, which is based on WWII’s strangest battle. He concludes the note with: “As for the remainder of this story, only the more astonishing parts are true – the rest is fiction.”

        I remembered that when I wrote the author’s note for my thriller Polar Melt, which came out this month. The novel is a sea adventure mixed with sci-fi, and includes a lot of unusual sea lore which in the note I point out is actually fact. I conclude the note with: “Altogether, this just proves that fact is, indeed, stranger than fiction.”

    3. Uri, You have mined a good vein here: as thriller authors the real and the authentic are so important to us–I included Cherokee syllabary and history in my second book, Strike Price–because what goes on around us can be so extraordinary, especially once we, to quote the inestimable Elmore Leonard, “leave out the boring parts.”

      1. Laura,
        I chose to right politico-economical espionage thriller novels.

        Wall Street is a main backdrop where my characters operate, make illegally their profits, and put them into evil schemes to advance their goals.

        Each and every event, its date, and people who were involved are traceable and can be verified.

        I constantly asked by readers (listeners of audio-books) if they correctly “guessed” a character’s real name. I suppose this is in line with our discussion to provoke thought…

  5. It’s the ‘little known’ aspects that I find interesting but I don’t want to read an academic tome on the subject–if I did I’d do that. The last Jack Reacher I read was about prescription drug dealing although when I started reading I didn’t know the subject matter. It was particularly interesting to me because my 96 yr old Dad has those heavy duty painkiller patches that featured in the book. They’re changed weekly and we can only get 2 weeks worth per prescription, so heavily controlled. The addicts cut them up and chewed them amongst other things! I was intrigued to learn how the drug dealers got around the supply chain security which seemed just as strong in the US as here in Aus.

    There are so many horrible things going on in the world it would be very difficult to invent something never before done but bringing the subjects to to light disguised as entertainment is a good way to make our readers think. Or relate.

  6. Hi Everyone and Happy New Year! For me the very definition of a thriller in comparison to a so-called “literary” novel is a book that utterly compels to you to turn the pages, right from the very first line to the last, rather than a book you have to struggled and persevere with, to read. But it is far far more than just that:

    People who read are smart – by the very nature of the fact that they actually read, and I believe that when we read, we don’t just want to read a great, compelling story, we like to learn something at the same time. Some about the world in which we live, about human nature and why people do the things that they do. Great, intelligently written thrillers in my view make the most satisfying of all fiction to read.

  7. Good morning thriller writers and readers,

    For me, a thriller author’s co-equal responsibilities are to speak with our own authentic voices yet also to engage readers. While provoking discussion and thought motivates many of us, fiction is a fast, light vehicle that can’t bear the weight of serious policy advocacy. Nor should it.

    I write and enjoy reading characters I seldom see covered like the scientist in Give Me Your Hand, by Megan Abbott. I appreciate the verve of Sara Paretsky, the relationship characterizations of Michael Connelly, and the thoughtful plot density of books by authors such as Patricia Cornwell, Michael Crichton, Joseph Finder, and Daniel Silva. My books are set in the global energy business—the latest one, The Second Law, focuses on cyber-security in IIOT (industrial internet of things). It aligns all too well with last week’s news about Russian hacking of the U.S. electrical grid. The global energy framework is extremely high-stakes, providing perfect settings for cross-cultural conflict, treachery, and international espionage.

    Our job as thriller writers is also to entertain—not necessarily with jokes, but with the above-noted engagement. Who are our characters? Why do our readers care about them?

    Providing escape—even if the fictional world is a serious one–is a worthy goal for authors. How many times have we as readers put ourselves in the place of a book’s protagonist and imagined ourselves fighting their battles?

  8. Maybe I read to much into the phrasing of the question, but I would say the primary job of a thriller is to make me believe and to make me care about the characters. Entertainment and thrills follow that.

    As to making me believe, I don’t care if it is a werewolf detective, if it is grounded in enough details to place me there in the story, I believe.

    One of the big stumbling blocks I run into in terms of believability is when an author makes an error in a subject I know something about. If it is an egregious error or part of a crucial plot point, it gnaws away at my mind all through the story and sometimes after I have finished. (Maybe I’m too unforgiving. I’m sure I’ve screwed up some facts along the way.)

    If I care about a character, I care about what happens. If I care enough, even a small event can seem cataclysmic. If I don’t care about a character, life-and-death matters become noise.

  9. Dear Martin,
    Very good point.
    Just for that reason, I go into “trouble” to create Footnotes with reference to real facts and sources. It may seem strange for a work of fiction, but it certainly delivers credibility to inquisitive reader like Martin.

    1. My formative reaction when I read “primary” was “first” not “foremost.”
      First: make me believe and care.
      Then I will be entertained and thrilled.
      Lastly: I will wish I wrote that.

  10. What is the primary job of a thriller?

    Entertainment? Absolutely. When a reader picks up a book, no matter the genre, they want to be entertained. A reader sticks with a story if the plot is compelling, the characters richly drawn, the dialogue crisp and consistent in the voice of each character, the description of the setting vivid, and that onion layers are slowly being peeled back, revealing a little more insight into the characters that fill the story.

    Escapism? Yes. I believe that a reader embraces a well-told thriller because they want to be drawn into the world in the pages. They want to be on the journey that the protagonist is experiencing. When I sit down to read every night, I want to put aside the clutter bouncing around inside my head and be completely absorbed in whatever thriller I might be reading at the time. I think it’s the same reason we sit down in a movie theatre, or attend a concert or musical, or watch a program on television…for a brief period of time, we simply want to escape.

    To provoke thought? I do. Perhaps not the ‘primary’ job of a thriller, but without provoking thought in the reader, I think that would be a missed opportunity for the author to subtlety leave a lasting mark in the reader’s mind. In my favorite thrillers—books that have stuck with me long after I completed the last page—I have been challenged and transformed in my way of thinking by some degree.

  11. The Reading Agency in the UK, a charity I support, encourages literacy in UK prisons, where the average reading age for over 50% of the inmates is below 11 years of age. Their motto is a great Neil Gaiman quote: “Because when we read, everything changes.” As Samuel Gailey says above, they books that have stuck with him are the ones that have challenged and transformed his thinking in some way. As George RR Martin said, “The person who reads books lives a thousand lives. The person who never reads lives only one.”

    I don’t think there can be any rules about thrillers beyond making you turn the page and it is a wide genre, from the supernatural, through police, to espionage and much more In my view the very best thrillers are those that expand my horizons and challenge what I have always taken for granted.

  12. Good afternoon!

    “What is the primary job of a thriller? Entertainment, escapism, to provoke thought?”

    Entertainment–definitely. Readers come to thrillers with the expectation of meeting interesting characters who have a lot at stake in the outcome of the story, and of experiencing that story unfold in a page-turning manner that concludes in a satisfying way. I know that as a reader, I want to gasp with surprise, and think ‘what’s next, what’s next!’

    That said, provoking thought can certainly be part of a thriller, and honestly, for me, the best thrillers certainly do that. Any page-turning story that can weave in social issues or questions about human nature–without stopping to present a lecture–is my kind of novel!

  13. Afternoon thriller readers & writers:

    Happy to be here with all of you.

    Whats the primary job of a thriller?

    The primary job of a thriller is to grab the reader and transport them to a world where characters they can root for and against are battling for high emotional and physical stakes. A thriller teases the reader into trying to figure out whodunnit, and why. A thriller churns the reader’s stomach with the ups and downs of the courtroom, leaving the reader, in the end, either buoyant that Justice has been done or enraged that the system has failed yet again.

  14. The biggest compliment from a reader is: “I stayed up way too late because I couldn’t put your book down.”

    There are many forms of provocation, and many are good–a sharply-observed scene, dialogue that is just so, or characters that we may have met in real life but are seeing for the first time represented in fiction.

  15. Good morning all,
    The primary job of a thriller?

    If to put it in one word, I suppose it is to THRILL.

    I also aim to provoke thinking, to make a reader curious to look beyond the pages they are reading. As an example, I used this opening line and as a theme of my first espionage novel “The America Deluge” released in 2014.

    “If one cannot tell a difference between fantasy and reality, it is either that one or a society around mentally ill.”

    This line had provoked many emails, discussions on FB, and some other forums. Eventually, it led to reader’s curiosity to find more. It also caught attention of Audiobook producers and TV series makers.

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