Growing up in a dying mill town in western Pennsylvania was an oppressive experience. And in our blue-collar home, there were few windows that opened to a world of wider possibilities.
That wasn’t my parents’ fault. Their lives had been brutally tough, their own horizons painfully limited. My dad was born on a nearby farm and never made it to high school. For many years, he worked with his hands—stone mason, soldier in WWII, carpenter, railroad brakeman. Mom never finished school, either. She displayed early signs of musical talent, but there was no money for piano lessons. She spent her young adulthood on the assembly line at the “the pottery”—the local china factory.
After the war, they met, married, and settled in a tiny ranch house. Later, they bought and ran a local tavern, to help put my brother and me through college. They worked like mules; there was little time for anything else. So, culture was an unknown. There were no books in our house. We didn’t go to plays or concerts. The local radio stations featured farm reports and Patsy Cline.
Like most parents of that generation, they desperately wanted their kids to have more than they did, so they valued education. But the local offerings were limited. Each morning, I rode an old yellow bus with bad shocks to a school where the biggest club was the Future Farmers of America. I was eternally lucky that the school had a quirky librarian with political passions, an art teacher who played classical recordings during class, and an unforgettable history teacher who opened my mind to the world of ideas.
But the cultural inspiration of my youth came from the TV action heroes of the 1950s.
As a toddler, I became addicted to TV. Mom would park me in my little walker in front of our massive Philco. She told me that somehow I figured out when my favorite shows would come on, and I would scoot the whole walker forward to change the channels. That small screen introduced me to the concept of heroes—appropriately, in black and white.
Action thrillers present an extravagant, open-ended, no-limits vision of human potential.
My earliest imprinted images of manhood included Roy Rogers, Robin Hood, the Range Rider, Hopalong Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, “Lash” LaRue, “Cheyenne,” and Tarzan. There was a Saturday serial cliffhanger featuring the adventures of an amazing guy with a “jet pack” on his back, “Commando Cody.” Meanwhile, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club served up a regular diet of Zorro, Davy Crockett, and “Texas” John Slaughter.
And then there was Superman. Boy, did I love Superman.
Later, I discovered comic book heroes. Not just Superman, but Batman (still my favorite), the Flash, the Green Hornet, Aquaman, the Phantom, and Spider-Man. Novels—especially science fiction and action thrillers—came along later, during adolescence.
I can’t tell you how important such experiences were to a lonely little kid with a big imagination, growing up in that four-room ranch house. Those heroes told me that life didn’t have to be a series of boring, empty routines. That there was more to the world than the claustrophobic rural township where I grew up. That the universe was a huge place filled with adventure and romance, open to infinite, exciting possibilities.
And, most importantly, that you always had to stand up for what was right.
Like millions of other kids of that era, I took all this very seriously.
I still do.
I offer this personal preamble to my survey of great thriller novels because such fare is universally dismissed as the literary equivalent of junk food. Certainly, almost no one takes thrillers seriously or believes that they have anything important to impart to readers. They are pure “escapism,” it is said.
Well, all works of fiction transport the reader to another time and place. And, yes, a mental journey into an imaginary world can offer a few hours reprieve from boring routines and unhappiness. Call that an “escape,” if you will.
However, for the ambitious soul, fiction offers more: the fuel and the road map to set out on his own real-life journey to a different place. For the morally ambitious soul, it can provide a lot more: the inspiration and insight to become a better person.
Of all genres of popular fiction, action thrillers are my favorite precisely because they present an extravagant, open-ended, no-limits vision of human potential. And just as TV, film, and comic-book heroes can spark passion and idealism in children, thrillers can keep the fires of that passion and idealism burning in adults—at least, in those adults who have not surrendered to cynicism.
For example, many of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan love the novels of thriller writer Vince Flynn, which feature the heroic adventures of CIA agent Mitch Rapp (see below). They identify with and are inspired by Rapp’s stoic, determined, take-no-prisoners approach to fighting the War on Terror. Similarly, as proof of fiction’s inspirational power, Pentagon brass recently visited the set of Fox TV’s hit series “24” to complain about the tough-guy exploits of fictional counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer. It seems that soldiers who are fans of Bauer are resisting official military training about treating and interrogating captured terrorists respectfully, preferring Jack’s more, shall we say, “direct” approach.
Moreover, almost without exception, thriller heroes are exemplars of individualist values and virtues. They think for themselves and stand by the judgments of their own minds. They take great risks for their highest values. They stand alone against obstacles and opposition that would overwhelm ordinary people. They are resourceful and relentless, creative and courageous. Though they are hard-headed realists, they’re invariably principled, committed to some private, inviolate code of honor.
Today’s morally rootless world needs such images and examples.
The Top Rank
Here are some contemporary thriller writers who, to me, stand out as the best of the current lot. I’ve recommended these authors many times to friends, and I’ve always received their undying gratitude in return. For your convenience, I’ve provided links to author websites, when available.
Stephen Hunter. In my opinion, this writer is simply in a class by himself. A Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic for the Washington Post, Hunter is the grand master of the thriller genre today.
Quite a long time ago, I ran across his Cold War–era nuclear nightmare novel The Day Before Midnight and found myself hijacked onto the best thrill ride in memory. For some unaccountable reason, I didn’t try another Hunter story for years. Eventually, though, I read Point of Impact, which introduced me to one of the most original and compelling action heroes ever to stride across the fiction landscape: a lean, stoic, former Marine sniper with the unlikely name of Bob Lee Swagger. Once again, Hunter told me a story of matchless excitement. (A screen adaptation of Point of Impact has just been released under the title Sniper, starring Mark Wahlberg.)
After that stunning introduction, I plunged into Bob Lee’s further adventures. Then, I took up the ingeniously interwoven adventures of his equally heroic state trooper father, Earl Swagger.
Point of Impact introduced me to one of the most original and compelling action heroes ever.
Now, “ingenious” is a vastly overused word. But Hunter’s creative imagination and writing skills are simply breathtaking. The wealth of detail he provides for period and place; his refined ear for dialogue and dialects; the psychological depth and originality of his characterizations; the serpentine twists of his dazzling plots and their unbearable suspense; the furious, frenzied action sequences that he renders so palpably; and, above all, his majestic heroes—hard, driven men of almost mythic stature. What more could any reader possibly want?
This guy writes scenes so scary-real that you want to run away and hide. From Point of Impact
, just after Bob Lee has
been double-crossed and shot:
It was winding down on him. His breathing came with the slow, rough transit of a train that had run off its tracks and now rumbled over the cobblestones. His systems were shutting down, the wave of hydrostatic shock that had blown through him with the bullet’s passage upsetting all the little gyros in his organs. He felt the blood in his lungs; there was no pain quite yet but only the queer sensation of loss, of blur, of things slipping away.
Then something cracked in him.
No you aren’t going to let it happen
You been shot before
You can fight through it
You be a Marine
He took a deep breath, and in the rage and pride he found what would pass for energy and without exactly willing it, he stood up, again surprised that there was no pain at all, and with a strange, determined gait began to move toward the door.
As the various Swagger novels unfold, Hunter brilliantly interweaves their characters in startling, often poignant ways. The stories enrich and inform each other, elaborating on the backgrounds of the heroes and villains and their complex, unexpected interrelationships. Soon, all these wonderful tales reveal themselves as individual threads in a grand, overarching, multigenerational adventure tapestry.
You can certainly read any of the Swagger novels and enjoy it on its own. But to fully appreciate the author’s genius, try them this way. First read the Bob Lee Swagger trilogy: Point of Impact, Black Light, and Time to Hunt. Then read Dirty White Boys, a novel that bridges the stories of the Swaggers, father and son. Follow up with the Earl Swagger tales: Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming, and Havana.
After that, perhaps you’ll want to sample his earlier, stand-alone tales. Only The Day Before Midnight rivals the best of the Swagger stories, but even a lesser Hunter novel is, by any measure, a very fine thriller.
Lee Child .
In the bookstore one day, I picked up a paperback titled Persuader.
It was the seventh outing for Lee Child’s big, tough, clever action hero, Jack Reacher. And it knocked me out. I immediately bought and devoured the first in the Reacher series, Killing Floor
, his stunning debut novel. I was hooked.
Child himself is a remarkable fellow. Born in England, he served many years as a presentation director for Grenada Television when, as a result of corporate restructuring, he was fired abruptly in 1995, at age forty. Viewing this mid-life crisis as an opportunity, Child bought six bucks worth of paper and pencils and sat down at his dining room table to write a novel in longhand. The result was Killing Floor—an instant bestseller.
His literary inspirations were John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, and the seminal thrillers of Alistair MacLean. As he explained to an interviewer for January Magazine, he also knew what else he wanted to put into the larger-than-life Jack Reacher: a bit of himself.
I was a tough guy in a tough neighborhood, and I grew big very early, so I ruled the yard—never scared, never intimidated. At elementary school I was a paid bodyguard. Kids gave me cookies and lunch money to watch their backs. Some bully stepped out of line, I was waiting for him on his way home. I never started a fight, but I was in plenty. I broke arms, did damage. But I felt I was on the side of the angels. I wanted to recapture that feeling and update it into adulthood.
He also knew what he didn’t want: a postmodern anti-hero. “I didn’t want another drunk, alcoholic, miserable, traumatized hero…I just wanted a decent, normal, uncomplicated guy…I wanted him to have flaws and faults and edges, but to be personally unaware of them. Thus he’s interesting, but he’s not always gazing at his own navel.”
A former U.S. Army M.P., Reacher is ferociously tough, honorable, and as memorable as the late Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. The classic drifter-hero, he’s a knight-errant without apparent roots or ties who stumbles into trouble wherever he goes and won’t leave until he’s set things right.
Like Stephen Hunter, Lee Child simply does everything right: great dialogue, devious plotting, terrific suspense, vividly colorful settings, and white-knuckle action scenes. Here, near the end of Persuader, Reacher is trapped under icy, pounding surf, with killers above shooting at him to keep him beneath the waves:
Thirty seconds. I was drowning. I knew it. I was weakening. My lungs were empty. My chest was crushed. I had a billion tons of water on top of me. I could feel my face twisting in pain. My ears were roaring. My stomach was knotted. My left shoulder was burning where Paulie had hit it. I heard Harley’s voice in my head: We never had one come back. I kicked on.
Forty seconds. I was making no progress. I was being hurled down into the depths. I was going to hit the seabed. I kicked on. Clawed at the tide. Fifty seconds. My ears were hissing. My head was bursting. My lips were clamped against my teeth. I was very angry. Quinn had made it out of the ocean. Why couldn’t I?
I kicked on desperately. A whole minute...
This scene of Reacher fighting the surf goes on for an unendurable six pages. Unendurable, because the reader finds himself unintentionally holding his own breath as he reads. Nobody, not even Stephen Hunter, writes better action scenes than Lee Child.
While the Reacher novels can be read out of sequence, I still recommend that you start with Killing Floor. I guarantee that you’ll soon adopt the label that his many fans bear proudly: Reacher Creatures.
Robert B. Parker .
Decades ago, I read Parker’s outstanding early thriller, Wilderness
. But I never dabbled in his famous “Spenser” detective series, put off by the TV adaptation starring the late Robert Urich. Big mistake. Boston-based private eye Spenser—no first name ever provided—is a first-rate action hero, and his bullet-fast stories have set the standard for contemporary detective fiction.
Parker is peerless when it comes to dialogue. The banter between Spenser, long-time girlfriend/psychiatrist Susan Silverman, and intimidating thug-pal Hawk is always clever, often hilarious. Spenser and Hawk shatter tough-guy stereotypes: though they are hulking brutes, they are also highly (if self-) educated, often playfully trading arcane literary references, mocking each other over the use of some fancy word, or quoting poetry while bashing bewildered, chromosome-deficient bad guys.
Which brings me to Parker’s other great strength: characterization. Nobody does a better job of working complex human and romantic relationships into action stories. Parker admits that he draws on the ups and downs of his own long-time marriage in crafting Spenser’s ageless romance with Susan Silverman. And it is a grand romance: they have remained head-over-heels in love for decades—which no doubt explains why the Spenser stories appeal as much to women as to men. My wife, no fan of thrillers, nonetheless got hooked on the Spenser novels and raced through them all in a month-long gallop.
The long, complex evolution of Spenser’s relationships with Susan, Hawk, and an ongoing cast of quirky cronies mandates that you read the series’ thirty-odd installments sequentially from the beginning, starting with The Godwulf Manuscript. That was a fairly mundane detective tale, but the introduction of Susan and Hawk in subsequent novels quickly raised the Spenser stories far above the competition.
Though the series has lost some oomph in recent years, Spenser will never bore you: these are very fast reads and always rewarding. As an added bonus, at least once per novel you’ll be treated to an enticing new recipe as gourmet cook Spenser prepares himself dinner while sorting out clues. Finally, if, like me, you’ve ever lived in or near Boston, Parker’s guided tours through its familiar haunts will feel like a homecoming.
In recent years, Parker has launched a couple of other detective series—one about a small-town New England police chief named Jesse Stone, the other about a female detective, Sunny Randall. I haven’t sampled Sunny’s adventures yet; but for my taste, the Stone stories, while engaging, don’t have the same flair as Spenser’s. My main problem with Stone is that he is far more flawed a man than Spenser, and for this kind of reading, I prefer my heroes...well, heroic.
Robert Crais .
For a writer of detective fiction, about the most complimentary comparison would be to liken him to Robert B. Parker. Robert Crais has more than earned that comparison—and I think he has even surpassed his predecessor.
Crais conjured a tough, smart-mouthed L.A. detective hero enamored of rock music, Disney collectibles, and the martial arts, and saddled with the unlikely moniker of Elvis Cole. Like Reacher, Swagger, and Spenser, Elvis is a man with an inviolate code of honor: a paladin traversing a dark, dangerous world, setting things to right for those deserving vindication, bringing righteous wrath down upon those deserving vengeance.
To accompany him on this quest, Crais gave him a deadly, steel-cold partner named Joe Pike. An ex-cop and former Recon Marine, Pike speaks in monosyllables and hides his ice-blue eyes behind mirrored sunglasses, 24/7. His rare attempts to smile come across as mere facial tics. In addition, Crais puts on parade the entire menagerie of La-La Land creeps and weirdos, Hollywood stars and shysters, crooked cops and loose ladies—everything you could want in a detective novel, and more.
The dialogue and sense of place in Cole stories ring as true as they do in the Spenser novels. Elvis’s witty mouth runs like an open faucet, exasperating those around him but endlessly amusing himself (and the reader). His L.A. landscape becomes its own character, just as important to the series as Boston is to the Spenser novels, but the plots are more clever and complicated.
Once again, the lives and relationships of Cole, Pike, and the other inhabitants of their world evolve over time, so you’ll want to start with the first stellar novel in the series, The Monkey’s Raincoat. If you like Spenser, you’ll love Elvis. (And also Pike: Crais has just published the first novel featuring Joe. I’ll have much more to say about Crais in the near future.)
Vince Flynn .
Thrillers tend to follow the preoccupations of the times, and the world after 9/11 has provided new fears for action-oriented authors to confront. Perhaps the most successful of these authors is Vince Flynn.
Flynn launched his literary career pre-9/11 with the outstanding debut novel Term Limits, a violent tale of high-level political and military skullduggery. He followed up in 1999 with the sensational Transfer of Power—a frighteningly plausible page-turner that has a group of Middle Eastern terrorists take over the White House. In that novel, Flynn introduced an iconic hero for the Age of Terrorism, CIA agent-extraordinaire Mitch Rapp.
Rapp is a one-man army, America’s secret weapon in the fight against terrorists. After his debut, his adventures continued in a rapid-fire burst of stories filled with furious action, political intrigue, and astonishingly realistic “insider” knowledge of government agencies, operations, and machinations—a level of detail that easily rivals that of Tom Clancy. Flynn seems to have the blueprints for every top-secret building in Washington, from the White House to the Pentagon to the CIA—plus private access to their security cameras and microphones. His depictions of Secret Service procedures, Special Forces operations, CIA interrogations, and the arcane tradecraft of counterterrorism give you the sense you’re peeking into keyholes in the corridors of power. Clearly, this man has cultivated sources.
To his impressive research, Flynn adds excellent characterizations, good dialogue, and fascinating intrigue. But the glue holding the series together is the character of Mitch Rapp. Flynn’s values and politics are emphatically right-of-center, so it’s no surprise that Rapp is a hot-tempered, unapologetic American patriot. To save his country from its enemies, he plows ahead with the unrelenting force of a bulldozer, demolishing every obstacle and opponent in his path. You find yourself wanting to jump up and cheer.
In every novel, his enemies include cowards and traitors at the highest levels of American politics and media—people whose leftist ideology or venal ambitions prompt them to sell out their nation’s security. But there’s also a regular cast of supportive good guys: former SEAL team pals; dedicated agents of the White House Secret Service detail; and the female head of the CIA—Rapp’s boss, mentor, and protector, who accepts his outrageous violations of rules and laws with stoic patience and boundless loyalty.
If Rapp sounds a bit like the Jack Bauer character from TV’s “24,” it’s no accident: Flynn actually has been called in as a consultant to the show in recent years. And like Bauer, Rapp is a kind of Lancelot figure, enduring the terrible scars of a lonely battle, but soldiering on with courage and dedication. There are also interesting differences between Bauer and Rapp, but revealing them here would spoil your fun.
My only gripe about the series is that its author and publisher desperately need to hire a good proofreader to catch the egregious grammar and spelling mistakes that recur in each book. But that’s a minor distraction. Unlike many novelists who run out of steam over time, Flynn has only gotten better. Once again, Mitch Rapp’s saga grows from book to book, so the novels are best read in order of their publication.
Nelson DeMille .
Here’s another thriller veteran who for years has served up big, well-researched, solidly character-driven novels with clever plots and plenty of action. DeMille’s stories have ranged from The General’s Daughter
, a cunning murder mystery in a military setting, to The Charm School
, a Cold War spy thriller, to Plum Island
, a story of deadly intrigue set on Long Island.
Plum Island is written in first person from the point of view of NYPD homicide cop John Corey, another wise-cracking maverick who’s so appealing that he’s broken out to become an ongoing series character. Corey is crusty, independent, very smart, and very funny. His best adventure to date was The Lion’s Game, a chilling novel about terrorism published in 2000—made especially scary because DeMille was stunningly prescient about the kind of terrorist attacks that were to come in New York only a year later.
Nelson DeMille's The Lion's Game seemed to predict 9/11.
Strictly in terms of literary quality, DeMille shines. The Lion’s Game, for instance, alternates in viewpoint from that of Corey, presented in the first person, to that of the terrorist, narrated in the third person. It’s extremely difficult to write that way without distracting the reader. For example, Robert Crais has employed the same device in several recent novels and I don’t think he’s been entirely successful. But DeMille somehow makes it work without calling too much attention to itself.
The man is a master, well worth your time.
Jack Higgins. That’s the pen name for Harry Patterson, an Irish-born writer who also published under the pen names James Graham, Hugh Marlowe, and Martin Fallon. A prolific writer for more than four decades, Higgins crafts engrossing, suspenseful plots with great heroes and villains characterized by a devil-may-care gallantry in action. Years back, he and I corresponded a few times, and he explained the core of his appeal: “The Higgins hero will always go back for the girl.”
You always feel a sense of nobility and grandeur in Jack Higgins’s protagonists. Even many of his bad guys aren’t all bad: even some of his professional assassins, IRA terrorists, and Nazi officers frequently reveal a redemptive sense of honor.
Unlike most of the other novelists I’ve mentioned, Higgins has a style that is much more impressionistic—spare and stripped down to strong nouns and verbs, providing characterization and local color in a few bold, broad strokes of the pen. (Literally: he still writes long-hand.) But his plots are strong, fast-moving, and dramatic.
Among the best of his scores of books: The Eagle Has Landed (his breakthrough novel), A Game for Heroes (my personal favorite), Solo, The Run to Morning, East of Desolation, The Khufra Run, The Savage Day, Night of the Fox, and the haunting A Prayer for the Dying. These are mostly older titles; the books he’s written during the past decade or two are often disappointingly derivative, with recycled ideas and even character names. But at his best, Jack Higgins is a wonderful thriller writer.
John Clarkson. Here’s a thriller author that almost nobody knows about, and I’m delighted to bring him to your attention, for he’s become one of my favorites. Clarkson’s first novel, And Justice for One, introduced Jack Devlin, an action hero best described as a cross between Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. It’s a brutal, violent tale of revenge that stays with you a long time. And you’ll love Devlin.
Clarkson followed this with One Man’s Law, a Devlin novel almost as good as the first, then One Way Out, which for me was a disappointment. But try the first one, and I’ll bet you want more. Clarkson also has written a couple of other thrillers in recent years without Devlin as the hero. A fascinating, gripping, and totally unconventional one is Reed’s Promise, a mystery thriller whose tough-guy hero is an amputee. Improbable? Clarkson pulls it off brilliantly, offering a remarkably fresh and rich character study along with plenty of thrills.
Matt Reilly .
This young Australian is a recent discovery for me, and I’ve only sampled a few of his books—but I’m sold on reading the rest.
Reilly is a brilliant storyteller whose strengths are larger-than-life heroes; furious, headlong action scenes; ingenious plot premises; and exotic settings, authentically rendered by means of exhaustive research. His weaknesses are a certain crudeness in writing style and superficiality in characterization; but he propels his stories along at such a breathless rush that you won’t even care.
So far, I like best his novels featuring an indomitable, Joe Pike–like Recon Marine (sunglasses and all) named Scott “Scarecrow” Schofield. Reilly introduced him in the white-knuckle Ice Station and continues his exploits in Area 7 and Scarecrow.
Wilbur Smith. For decades, Smith has been a master craftsman of macho adventure. Best known for several long series of sprawling, multigenerational historical adventures set in his native South Africa, he’s also penned some fine contemporary action masterpieces.
A memorable story set in the early days of international terrorism was The Delta Decision (also titled Wild Justice), a tale so suspenseful that I defy anyone to put it down during the first hundred pages. My personal favorite, however, is Hungry As the Sea, which, though not a shoot-’em-up sort of thriller, has one of the best heroes and some of the most exciting action sequences you’ll ever read, packed into a rich, romantic story. You’ll love its sense of life.
David Morrell. A fine contemporary thriller writer, whose First Blood gave our culture the immortal Rambo, Morrell handles characterization very well and creates dazzling action scenes. I’m especially a fan of his earlier works: The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog. However, some of his stories are tinged with downbeat, even cynical tones. Let the buyer beware.
Vintage Thriller Writers
Today’s first-rank action authors stood on the shoulders of giants. If you’re not familiar with the great thriller masters of the past, I urge you to go online and haunt second-hand paperback shops to rediscover the brilliant work of the following writers from decades past.
Alistair Maclean. In 1955, this late Scottish writer made his memorable debut with a classic wartime naval adventure, H.M.S. Ulysses. Before long, Alistair Maclean set the standard for modern thriller writing. He was the pioneer of heroic, man’s-man action stores, and he’s been a seminal influence on countless other authors. Maclean’s justly famous titles—especially his earlier ones—remain as compelling and entertaining as when first published. You just can’t go wrong with The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, The Golden Rendezvous, When Eight Bells Toll, and Night Without End. And if you’ve seen some of the exciting film versions of these, let me assure you: the books are even better.
Desmond Bagley. Another terrific Brit thriller author, Bagley was a lot like Maclean in style, but with plenty of intrigue. Running Blind, The Golden Keel, and The Spoilers are among his best.
Mickey Spillane. Yeah. The Mick. Founding Father of hardboiled, private-eye thrillers. Punchy dialogue. Scenes that whiz by like tracer bullets. Vintage, mid-twentieth-century male chauvinism that will make you laugh ... alas, nostalgically.
Mickey’s break-the-mold, tough-guy hero, Mike Hammer, became a cultural icon in the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you’ll see why if you pick up the first in the series, I, The Jury. Mystery. Beautiful, voluptuous dames. A shocker ending that will blow you away. And a two-fisted hero who’s often imitated but rarely equaled in modern fiction.
The first half dozen or so of the Hammer stories were all very good, with One Lonely Night being perhaps the very best. A word to the wise, though: Mike Hammer has never been properly rendered on-screen, see? So hey, pal, don’t let those cheesy TV and film versions stop you from giving Mike a fair shot.
Donald Hamilton. I urge you to sample this author’s “Matt Helm” series. Like Mike Hammer, Matt Helm, a ’60s-era spy hero, has been vandalized and satirized on the big and small screen. In the novels, he’s a mature, tough-as-nails agent as far removed from the persona of bon vivante Dean Martin as is Uma Thurman from Rosie O’Donnell. The first novel in the series, Death of a Citizen, remains one of the finest, most gripping spy thrillers you’ll ever read, and I’m confident it will hook you on Helm. Incidentally, author Hamilton is a gun expert and even penned a volume On Guns and Hunting, so the gunplay described in the novels bears the stamp of authenticity.
Ian Fleming. What can I say about the creator of James Bond that hasn’t already been said? No list of thriller authors would be complete without him. Plotting was not Fleming’s strongest suit, but his delightfully original characters, led by 007, have rightly become immortal in our culture. I was delighted when the impressive new adaptation of Casino Royale, the first Bond story, made it to the screen last year, giving the film franchise a new lease on life, and perhaps bringing new readers to this classic series.
Let me conclude with a few recommendations of stand-alone thrillers that merit your attention.
One of the finest tales of international intrigue I’ve ever read was The Red Fox, the debut novel of Canadian novelist Anthony Hyde. I liked Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, but I confess I haven’t yet gotten into Clancy that much. Though I find Clive Cussler a crude writer, I enjoyed his Raise the Titanic! more than hero Dirk Pitt’s subsequent adventures. Mystery writer Dick Francis writes a lot like Jack Higgins, tight and lean; a standout in my memory was his early thriller Nerve. I also enjoyed early Ken Follett novels, especially The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca.
Okay, I’ve given you enough reading assignments for many years of armchair thrills. I don’t pretend that this list of great thrillers is exhaustive. How could it be? Who could keep up with all the new entries? The good news is that as long as the human spirit craves adventure, self-assertion, and romance, fresh new talents skilled in the art of storytelling will always come along to try to satisfy those appetites.
I say “try,” because I know that they’ll never quench my own thirst for thrilling stories of man at his best.