Hazel McHaffie

thriller writing

The perfect thriller …?

Regular visitors will know I wrote a thriller myself pre-pandemic, and both before and since I’ve been fascinated by the structure of books in that genre. Maybe that makes me super-critical; I’m not sure. Maybe simply being a writer makes one extra-analytical.

But when I saw one labelled ‘the perfect thriller’ with yards of superlatives attached, it did at least warrant a second look. And that led to a purchase.

The Silent Patient by British-Cypriot author, Alex Michaelides, is the book in question.

Looking deeper I can vouch for the fact that it has certainly attracted accolades from famous names:
totally original, spellbinding psychological mystery
… masterfully plotted and brilliantly paced
… the definition of a page turner
… a real sucker punch of a twist
… an absolute jaw-dropper of an ending.

And it has won many prestigious awards. OK, I’m intrigued …

Alicia Berenson is 33 years old and her life is seemingly perfect: a famous painter married for seven years to an in-demand fashion photographer, living in a beautiful house in London. One evening her husband, Gabriel, 44, returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times pointblank in the face, using his own rifle. After which she never speaks another word.

Because of her new, more macabre notoriety, the price of her art skyrockets, but she herself is hidden away from the tabloids and the public, in a secure forensic psychiatric unit in North London, known as The Grove. She has been there now for six years.

Theo Faber, 42, and a forensic psychotherapist with plenty of emotional baggage of his own, is fascinated by her story to the point of obsession. He waits a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia, but eventually gets a post in The Grove, and becomes her psychotherapist. He wants to understand what drove her; something in her past must explain that moment of murderous rage. Was it her mother’s violent death in a car accident? Was it her father’s suicide? Was it her husband’s behaviour? Or what? It’s crucial that Theo understands what her life was like as a child, what happened to shape her, and he explores ancient classical Greek literature, works of art, literary allusion, seeking enlightenment. He begins to investigate her family, her colleagues, her friends. He is assaulted, attacked, the subject of official complaints … nevertheless he continues doggedly, unravelling a string of inconsistencies between the ‘official’ story and the facts he’s discovering.

The search is all-consuming, but alongside all this obsession with his patient’s history and fantasies, Theo is also dealing with the discovery that the wife he adores, Kathy, is being unfaithful to him. He is tortured by the awareness, but driven to continue seeking answers for his professional responsibility towards Alicia. Gradually, imperceptibly, the boundaries become blurred. We too are sucked into the dark spaces that allow horror to grow, where no one is what they appear to be, everyone seems to harbour sinister intent. Where disorder reigns. Where perceptions are distorted. Where lies cover truth.

When all Theo’s attempts at therapy draw a blank, he’s forced to abandon the mission. But then, out of the blue, Alicia hands him a lifeline. Her secret journal – her honest account this time. Now he has something concrete to work with. Now he has the respect of his colleagues who earlier doubted his methods.

The ending has been described as a sucker-punch. It is. Oh yes, indeed it is. And it’s only when you get there that you can truly appreciate the cleverness of the whole story. It’s a masterly twist indeed.



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Hold your Breath

Having written a thriller myself, I’m always now intrigued by their structure and component parts. One attribute is a capacity to make you suspend your breathing, just willing the protagonist to escape whatever horror lies in store. So Hold your Breath seems such an appropriate title for a book in this genre.

This one is by Barnaby Walter who dives into the disturbing world of mental illness – a world where things spin out of control, and people are scarily unpredictable. One key ‘character’ in this tale is the setting: a spooky forest, backdrop to shady night-time happenings.

Dark elements of child neglect and exorcism and witchcraft and disordered minds pile on the shivers. With the main action removed from the safety and scrutiny of suburban civilisation, events feel even more sinister, and the truth more elusive.

We know from early on that something dreadful happens, but so much is unknown and unknowable or half-understood because it’s synthesised through the young impressionable mind of the protagonist, Kitty Carlson. Adults are concealing the truth from her; she herself witnesses incomprehensible behaviours; we cannot be sure where fantasy ends and grown-up reality begins. As her mother’s mental health regresses we feel the approach of something dreadful, we hold our breath, fearful as to what form it will take.

Kitty is only 10 when the tragedy happens, but she’s already traumatised beyond her years. She knows that her family has secrets; they’ve always been different. It’s why her father took them to live in the woods during the half term holiday. It’s why unmentionable things are done in the haunted rental house, and why she’s sent to wander alone amongst the trees when the Catholic Father arrives.

As a young child she just buries her experiences.
She knows  …
that her mother ‘gets upset’ and ‘makes scenes’, that her paintings have become disturbing, that she says and does violent things, that she needs to be handled with care, that she needs psychiatric help.
She knows …
that her father has become more like a dictatorial school teacher than a loving parent, that he is liable to ‘flamin’ rages’, that he is involved with another woman.
She knows …
that she herself is mesmerised by small living creatures, that she resents having her innocent enquiries deflected, that she has learned early on to be self-sufficient, that she is a loner.

It’s only when she grows up that she starts to ask the most difficult questions, and delve into painful memories. The past has been buried for a reason. Eventually she’s driven to write a book, crafting something definite, something physical, out of her dreams, her nightmares, her memories. ‘It was probably the fusion of catharsis and hate that did it. Working through my issues by putting them onto the page, only to shoot them through with a strong dose of anger and resentment.’ She has a story crying out to be told.

Although Kitty insists it’s fictional, there’s enough fact in it to identify people, places and events, and the book triggers powerful reactions. Her father and his new wife are incensed by the revelations. Her stepmother takes actions that have massive consequences. And 33 years after the tragedy, Kitty is summonsed to Newcastle to a police station. She is under caution, not yet arrest. But what she has to say could change all that.

Walter captures the perspective of a young girl sufficiently authentically for me to be taken in. I believed her account of what happened … the narrative that found expression in Kitty’s book. Writing it was ‘an act of self-therapy’; it blows demons right out into open view. Kitty herself knows she couldn’t cope with the attention a true-to-life memoir would attract, but nor can she relinquish her personal take on events and injustices. As a young girl she attributed human emotions to spiders and beetles; her mind has been altered by the things she’s seen in her childhood, by the emotions she’s suppressed. Small wonder that her own behaviours and reactions fall outside the box of normality.

The ending is rather too neat for my personal taste, but I was relieved that Kitty survived the re-living of her past. I cared about the child turned woman, and that’s another key element in the success of this book.



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The Vanishing Year

Well, I can’t imagine many people will have been sorry to see 2020 vanish into the mists of history; some indeed are willing 2021 away now, given the dire statistics and predictions. A thousand deaths each day in the UK; a total now exceeding 80,000 – the worst statistics in Europe; 2 million lives lost worldwide. Our NHS struggling to cope; long term problems accruing with the overall health of the nation.

Watching this horror emerging, we’ve all had to find ways of keeping hope alive and maintaining mental well-being. Icy conditions make even outdoor exercise treacherous, another lockdown forces us to stay at home … Eeh dear! Not surprisingly, for me – as well as countless others – books have played a major part in this struggle. It’s well recognised they offer escape and a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Indeed, several people who took advantage of our pandemic bookcase went so far as to say books had saved their sanity.

Not surprising then, that one novel should pop into my head as we watched 2020 disappear in our rear view mirrors: this thriller, The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti. Apposite title, but nothing to do with the pandemic, so forgive the tenuous link.

Sometimes I feel as if I am made up almost entirely of secrets.‘ That pretty much sums up the main protagonist, Zoe Whittaker.

Outwardly, Zoe has an enviable life – not yet thirty, a fabulous Manhattan home, a rich and charming husband, influence, looks, wealth, connections. But untethered, with too little to do. She feels like a marble in a huge jar, suffocating under the sense that she is accomplishing nothing. Useless, apart from her charity work supporting orphaned and disadvantaged children.

What’s more, in spite of her privileged life, she is haunted by her past, living in fear of being recognised. Because five years ago, Zoe wasn’t Zoe at all. And even her husband Henry doesn’t know her real name. Nor that she was penniless, unable to afford to bury her own mother, until that is, she became a drug dealer, addicted herself to pills and drink, peddling her wares in the presence of children. Until she confessed all to the police, testifying against two human traffickers to a grand jury. Before vanishing.

And now an attempt has been made on the life of the reinvented Zoe. Her home has been ransacked. Her credit card is missing. Someone from her past has come back for her. Threats are being made.

The old classic trademarks are there – control, manipulation, layers of issues, rags-to-riches, fear for life. And the plotting is so devious that, once you know the truth, you want to go back and read it again to see all the clues you missed first time around. An excellent diversion. And a good illustration of how books can give us respite from the stresses of real life, transport us into a different world and time and place – an invaluable bonus during this time of national crisis and mental fragility.

Speaking of a different world and being transported … this opportunity to tramp in a winter wonderland does wonders for my own mental health, too. And yep, it’s well within the current rules of staying local!

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Misery: Learning from a master storyteller

OK, I know, I know, the one thing we don’t need when life is so out of kilter during a pandemic, is depressing literature. Certainly none of my ‘death’ and ‘tragic options’ stuff –  you’ll have noted I’ve been steering well clear. But long before we’d even heard of Covid-19, back in those halcyon days when there was nothing to prevent me poring over psychological thrillers, searching for the magic ingredients that keep you turning the pages long into the night, I read a cleverly constructed thriller that impressed me. Now I think about it, it puts a whole different perspective on lockdown; imagine not just being isolated and captive in a remote place, but being incarcerated with a violent maniac! So I thought I’d share its merits with you today, not just because it has parallels with our present situation, but because it’s the product of an exceptional mind and an impressive facility with words.

REPORTED MISSING: Paul Sheldon, 42. Novelist best known for his series of romances about sexy, bubbleheaded, unsinkable Misery Chastain; by his agent, Bryce Bell. ‘I think he’s fine, Bell said, ‘but I wish he’d get in touch and ease my mind. And his ex-wives wish he’d get in touch and ease their bank accounts.’ Sheldon was last seen in Boulder, Colorado where he had gone to finish a novel.’

Paul Sheldon is a writer of novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers. Annie Wilkes is his number-one fan. When he’s involved in a car accident during a violent storm, he comes to after being unconscious and delirious with the agonising pain of two shattered – no, pulverised – legs, and a horribly damaged pelvis, to find it was Annie who dragged him from the wreckage of his car, and took him to her remote mountain home in Sidewinder, Colorado. Having crudely splinted his legs, she is caring for him with large amounts of pain killers which have the side-effect of suppressing his breathing, necessitating occasional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

About ten days after regaining consciousness he discovers a number of things about his ‘nurse’. She is in possession of a great many drugs of a dubious nature; she has already managed to render him addicted to one of them, Novril. She is dangerously crazy. Everything she says comes out in the wrong key.  She’s also given to frequent episodes where her mind goes blank. She has a volatile temper; she is a woman full of tornadoes waiting to happen. She has previously had to take the stand for some major crime in a Denver court of law …

And she has told no one he is in her house.

As Sheldon discovers the hard way, Annie is seriously mentally ill – hovering on the murky borderline between ‘the Sovereign State of Reality and the People’s Republic of Paranoia.’ What’s more, she is much more than his carer; she’s a stern critic of his work. When she discovers he has killed off her favourite character, Misery Chastain, heroine of a string of romantic bestsellers … that he has then gone on to write a story full of profanities, 190,000 words of it … she exacts a terrible penalty. And Sheldon can only lie immobilised, his vivid imagination in overdrive, his present reality and his future destiny growing daily more horrific.

Misery is the perfect title – shared by the principal character in Sheldon’s book, a pig on Annie’s farm, and the total experience of Sheldon’s captivity and torture.

Master storyteller Stephen King has created a  terrifyingly grotesque character in Annie Wilkes, and devised a fearful form of entrapment for his hero, Sheldon. Both are so brilliantly realised they inhabit the pages and suck us into their reality. And having experienced the lengths to which Annie will go to punish him, we live in constant fear of still more appalling things happening to Sheldon. We can have no confidence at all that the hero will escape a terrible fate or even survive the story.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but I do want to draw attention to a few devilishly clever aspects of the writing.

First the stories within stories. Inside the whole tale of Sheldon’s captivity and Annie’s revenge are mini-tales – what Sheldon’s literary character Misery Chastain is up to; what Annie’s Memory Lane scrapbook reveals of her former life.

When Annie ratchets up the torture, Sheldon realises he is doubly cursed. Not only are his sensitivities acutely tuned to pain, but his writer’s mind is destined to remember every tiny detail of the horrors inflicted on him. And in his analysing, he reveals technical tips about creative writing – some in response to his lived experience, some through his writing. He’s acutely aware too that his captor understands certain truths about what writers can and cannot do, even though she is unable to enunciate them in writerly jargon. A few examples will suffice:

… resigned to the fact that he could not read stories as he had when he was a kid; by becoming a writer of them himself, he had condemned himself to a life of dissection.

… not being sure of things  ... was a charmless corner of purgatory reserved for writers who were driving fast with no idea at all where they were going.

a gothic novel … more dependent on plot than on situation.

The reason authors almost always put a dedication on a book, Annie, is because their selfishness even horrifies themselves in the end.

He felt as he always did when he finished a book – queerly empty, let down, aware that for each little success he had paid a toll of absurdity.

It gives an extra dimension of reality to what could be a totally unbelievable tale. Except that in the hands of Stephen King you believe it could actually happen.

An ancient manual typewriter is central to this book and indeed features on the front cover of my version. King’s description is wonderfully evocative: It was an office model from an era when such things are electric typewriters, color TVs, and touch-tone telephones were only science fiction. It was as black and as proper as a pair of high-button shoes. Glass panels were set into the sides, revealing the machine’s levers, springs, ratchets, and rods. A steel return lever, dull with disuse, jutted to one side like a hitchhiker’s thumb. The roller was dusty, its hard rubber scarred and pitted. The letters ROYAL ran across the front of the machine in a semicircle …  it already looked like trouble. The ribbon was a faded two-tone, red over black … A real antique … with a missing n … the missing striker like a missing molar in a mouthful of teeth worn but otherwise complete.

And there are 26 pages of the text of a new book Paul writes on that same typewriter with the n strangely skewed where it’s been inserted ‘by hand‘, reproduced in the book, giving a very clever ring of authenticity. And later, when the machine loses its t, that too is inserted by hand. T: the second-most-common-letter in the English alphabet. Imagine the labour involved. Imagine the implications even for someone writing this novel on a modern computer!! When the key hammer for e eventually falls off, there is nothing for it but to resort to longhand. An exercise that rendered Sheldon’s hand almost useless, so the last few pages are typed on the hated machine with ns, ts and es all filled in ‘by hand’. It’s a masterly touch.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and realised horrifying thriller, but I must confess I found the closing few pages which constitute Part Four disappointing. Indeed I read them twice, thinking I must have been too tired, too distracted, or missed the point. And of course, that realisation – when it’s found in a work by one of the best selling names in the world – teaches me something in itself. Which is what my endless reading is all about.


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Almost exactly 121 years ago to the day, February 1899, Lucy Beatrice Malleson was born in Victorian London. Better known as Anthony Gilbert or Anne Meredith, her two pseudonyms, she was prolific in her literary output but received limited sales and acclaim. It’s a refreshing change to read an autobiography that concentrates on ‘failure’. Even at the height of her success, when she slept with a glowing tribute from her publisher under her pillow, she mourned: ‘I was one of those unhappy authors who can please everyone except the public.’

Her memoir, Three-a-Penny, is like no other. And her motivation seems to be captured in Dorothy Sayers’ comment to her: ‘You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people.‘ Exciting enough, indeed, to justify a factual account of her life and ambition, but the author seemingly apologetic about her ‘mediocrity’.

From an early age Malleson made up stories. She began publishing articles and poems whilst still a teenager, and brought out her first crime novel aged just 28. In all, she went on to produce over 70 novels, as well as a number of plays for the BBC, before she died in 1973 aged 74. And yet, she never achieved the status of others of her generation. Nevertheless, she remained an incorrigible optimist;
‘… if you know in your heart of hearts that Providence intended you for a success and your main desire in life is to assist Providence to this end, why then you will never see a book with your name on the spine without the eager thought, “This may be it. This probably is.” And when the book sells no more copies than its predecessor, well, by that time you’re always neck-deep in another one, and this one, without doubt, will bring you that elusive fame and financial security that glimmer like distant stars on the far, far horizon.’ And I suspect her gritty determination to plough on despite modest sales, will strike a chord with us lesser writers far more than the success stories of the star-studded celebrity authors.

The beginning section of Three-a-Penny is the best, in my view. It might well be another novel! Her vivid snapshots of her childhood precocity and innocence, in particular, are utterly beguiling, not least because she refers to herself quaintly throughout as ‘one’ instead of ‘I’.

For example, she had her own clear and trusted theories about God. He was not above taking care of an unhemmed tablecloth, but he also kept an enormous ledger like the butcher’s. ‘God presented His bill when you died, and if you had done wrong you went to hell for ever. Hell was like a glorified nursery grate on which people lay, always, in imagination’s eye, decorously dressed in outdoor clothes, perpetually burning yet never consumed.’

Where babies came from exercised her for a long time. ‘One knew. They came in a doctor’s bag, each with a label round its neck. The doctor’s house resembled the giants’ larders of nursery days, crowds of infants in long clothes hanging on hooks awaiting delivery.’ When her own baby sister was imminent she was deeply troubled by the huge potential for the family to be given the wrong child.

On one occasion her mother insisted the nurse take her and baby outside to get fresh air in terribly inclement weather. Freezing cold, Lucy cried piteously and remorselessly, attracting the sympathy of ladies in fur. But not Nurse.
‘Nurse pushed the pram as though she were a machine. When we reached the Park she anchored it by some railings and went into a little house marked Ladies. She told me to come in too. My tears momentarily ceased. I had never been inside one of these little houses. But once there Nurse seated herself squarely on the wooden seat, plucked me over her knee, and went through the familiar ritual of lifting clothes and undoing buttons. Smack! Smack! Snack!
‘I’ll give you something to cry for, my lady,’ said Nurse.
I stopped crying in sheer astonishment. I had never realised they built little houses in public parks just for  this. I was so much surprised I made the rest of the journey in awed and crestfallen silence.’

Again and again Grown-Ups let her down. ‘You couldn’t believe them; they had a different truth from yours.’ She was forced to work out her own understanding of the world.

She was a precocious child, reading avidly, and romping home with full marks for her essays – her ‘only distinction‘. There was never any career other than writing in her sights and, aged 14, she applied to her father for £10 for a correspondence course to equip her to write for the press – for money. ‘Write! Under my roof! Never!‘ was his implacable response.

When the war started she was forced to a stark realisation. And by now the whole tone of the memoir changes to something much more prosaic and factual. One’s aunts became nurses; one’s menfolk did important war work. ‘… nobody thought it was proper to write novels and one was a little ashamed of reading them.’ Instead she went off to secretarial college and became an unpopular but diligent student, determined to make something of her life. Her first job was a sobering one, with the Red Cross, dealing with relatives searching for information about their missing sons and fathers. Against the nightmare of such raw emotion, a letter from the Family Herald accepting her poems came like a beacon in a dark world. Together with a postal order for three and sixpence. Success! But … ‘I hadn’t imagined I should ever be paid with anything less than a cheque’.

Work in a Government Department, increased her growing awareness that the war had robbed her, as well as the returning soldiers, of youth. She wrote regular columns and articles, subtly concealing political and sociological and economic ‘pills’ in a ‘lot of feminine jam’. She also sold some of her verse to august publications like Punch, the Sunday Times, the Observer, and certain literary weeklies. Buoyed up by this success she progressed to experimenting with novel writing, even taking time out from paid employment to do so.

Early efforts proved unsuccessful but two publishers eventually saw her potential. ‘One day you will write a good novel,  but this is not it.’ ‘You have the makings of a novelist, but you haven’t quite rung the bell this time.’ Those were the days when publishers gave feedback and Malleson benefited from their insights and advice. So, when a crime novel was accepted by Collins, she was wild with excitement. When it proved to be ‘a complete flop‘, failing to earn even the paltry advance offered to an unknown writer, she was devastated. To make matters worse, Collins subsequently declined to publish her next book, leaving her feeling permanently discredited by this double failure. ‘I no longer wanted to talk about books.’

Back to office life she went. The work was way beneath her skills and when she was alone she would cry with humiliation. ‘But I was like a dipsomaniac who cannot forsake his bottle. I began a new detective story …’

This time she decided to use a male pseudonym: Anthony Gilbert, and the book was comparatively well received, helped in some measure by the secrecy and speculation surrounding the author’s true identity.

During the next seven years she published no less than fourteen novels, many short stories, and a few poems. American contracts, second rights, and translation into six different languages followed. She felt sufficiently confident and socially conscious, to allow condemnation of the lack of support for the under-classes, to creep into the underpinnings of her writing: ‘What an opportunity they offered to a novelist!’  But she was not a fulfilled person. I was never more financially secure … but I was lonelier than I had ever been in my life.’ So much so, indeed, that when she found herself invited to join the Hiawatha Club for Women she couldn’t think of a single distinguished name to offer for a reference. ‘The women I know are all pure, home-loving people who don’t seek the limelight.’ 

When The Slump knocked the bottom out of the American market for English novels, Malleson’s agent recommended she concentrate on young romance as the most sure-fire bestseller. ‘That avenue being closed‘, she turned her mind to thriller-writing, naively believing there to be ‘no rules‘ and no need to pay attention to ‘psychology, probability, King’s English or logic‘. She allowed herself three weeks to complete the first one. But she soon realised she was sacrificing art on the altar of filthy lucre and abandoned this supposed shortcut to wealth. Instead she wrote and re-wrote and refined a new manuscript, a crime novel, and submitted it under the name of Anne Meredith. This one eventually appeared in 1933 where it attracted considerable interest and mixed reviews but reignited the interest of the Americans. And it brought her an invitation from Dorothy Sayers herself to join the elite Detection Club. Conditions for entry were exceedingly rigid; in no circumstances could a thriller-writer be admitted for instance! At the swearing-in ceremony, the candidates were reminded of the solemnity of their oaths: ‘… if you fail to keep your promises, may other writers anticipate your plots, may your Publishers do you down in your contracts, may Total Strangers sue you for Libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and your Sales continually Diminish’. Only a writer could, I suspect, feel the full power of such a curse!

Writing was an obsession with Lucy Malleson regardless of her public profile: ‘When I’m not writing, I am not more than half-alive. I am miserable, hopeful and dejected by turns. Then someone slowly emerges out of this mental fog …’ And this new character would quickly assume a full identity and drive her onwards again.

It was The Coward – about a man who accidentally commits a murder, the character with whom Malleson most identified – that precipitated her into the limelight amongst the literati. She had felt writing this story to be pure self-indulgence; no one would want to read it, but she couldn’t bear the thought of dying in an accident next day without finishing the one book she was most desirous of writing. To her utter astonishment it received rave reviews from the critics and fellow authors. But sadly, poor sales. It seemed she simply could not please the public.

It’s her very honesty that endears her to me. Her experience resonates.
‘… so many authors admittedly have these overwhelming qualms of self-distrust and a sense of their own futility’.
‘ … one reason why writing is such fun – it’s so chancy. And I wouldn’t exchange my one-chance-in-a-million for anybody else’s security.’
Rejection slips, poor sales figures, challenges to one’s sense of self-worth – these bedevil almost all of us; it’s how you react to them that matters. And Lucy Malleson shines through as humbly aware, doggedly determined, delightfully perceptive, entirely without pretension. The kind of person I should like to be placed next to at a dinner party.

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Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

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Death row drama

Fast-paced … action packed … unputdownable … chilling … compelling … well crafted … the reviews give Last Witness by Jillianne Hoffman plenty of hype.

Plus, the author has impeccable credentials for writing a book about criminal trials and police investigations. She was herself an Assistant State Attorney between 1991 and 1996, and a Legal Advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement until 2001, so she knows what she’s talking about. I set out with high hopes. But as I read, a little voice niggled. Is she perhaps rather too anxious to ensure the reader knows how everything works, what everything means. I was personally criticised for letting my academic background show through the mesh early on in my metamorphosis into novelist, so it’s something I’m specially attuned to.

Having said that, the book is centred on a fascinating premise: just how far should a person go to ensure justice is done? Is it ever justifiable to lie in the interests of the greater good, to protect innocent people? My kind of ethical challenges, huh? And Hoffman creates enough bad apples to make one suspicious of everyone in this story! She also challenges the reader to ask, What would I have done in these circumstances?  Could I live with a guilty conscience? OK, I’m listening.

A summary of the story:
Three years ago a serial rapist, William Bantling, was sent to death row by Florida’s Assistant State Attorney, CJ Townsend, for the torture and murder of eleven young woman.
Now three policemen closely involved in Bantling’s conviction have been brutally murdered in ritualistic killings conveying a powerful message. No gruesome details are spared in the telling! CJ knew all three victims. She also knows the shocking secret they took to their graves. Now she is the last witness to what they all conspired in.
Someone out there knows the truth and will stop at nothing to prevent it being revealed. Will she be the next to die? Who exactly is this second monster and what motive could he possibly have for such barbarity?
As new facts emerge, serious doubts are being raised about the safety of Bantling’s conviction, enough to demand he be brought from death row to the very court that convicted him, to face again the young woman who sent him to his death. A woman he once raped, terrorised and left for dead. He’s a man with scores to settle and allies in dark places. She’s a woman haunted day and night by the past and the future.

It’s a dark barbaric tale scraping the barrel of human depravity and psychological manipulation. Maybe it was because I read it during a ten-hour train journey, but I found it rather weighed down with technical detail which slowed the momentum of the story for someone not familiar with the American judiciary system.

In places too, I found the style of writing rather repetitive, and hampered by the density of the material. For me it needed space to breathe. But I loved the description of criminal defense attorney, Lester Franklin Barquet who ‘was old school himself, dressed to the nines in southern manners and a three-piece suit.’

It’s a thriller and part of my ongoing education in how to achieve suspense and tension, but this one doesn’t make it into my exemplar section.




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Thrills, chills and perils

As you know, I’ve been studying other people’s thrillers to try to pinpoint the magic ingredients; how to maintain suspense and build tension and fulfill expectation.

Part of the secret lies in the hooks offered from the outset – as with any book, I guess, but particularly with a thriller.

So how about this for a scene setter on the first page?
People on the island village understood there was some kind of psychiatric institution on their doorstep. Only a few who worked there knew it housed a handful of the most disturbed female juvenile criminals in the Netherlands.

You just want to know what heinous crimes these girls have committed, don’t you?

Well, orphaned sisters Mia and Kim, two of the Timmers Sisters triplet singing group, from a little fishing town called Volendam in the Netherlands, have been incarcerated there for ten years, forgotten for the most part. They were just eleven years old when they were detained. Why? For killing someone.

OK, what kind of a someone? A musician called Rogier Glas, savagely hacked to death with a kitchen knife, his penis cut off and rammed down his throat. Gee whiz! Can you picture eleven-year-olds this out of control?

And now those girls are twenty-one. Beautiful. Telepathic. Obsessed by the number three.

And that’s just chapter one of David Hewson‘s Little Sister!! Yep, I’m hooked!

Add in Pieter Vos, a ramshackle senior police officer in the serious crimes squad, who lives on a shambolic houseboat on the canal with his diminutive fox terrier Sam and you’re into classic crime-writing territory.

Track back into the history … the girls’ mother, father and sister all murdered … every investigative report into the atrocity – electronic and paper copies – mysteriously shredded. And you’re feeling the chill. The girls, tested and analysed and schooled to the nth degree, and now deemed ‘sufficiently normalized’ to be released under supervision, are freed into ‘a universe without boundaries, real form or substance‘ with no experience or real knowledge of the adult world. Only to vanish. The unsuspecting member of staff designated to drive them to a halfway house, also vanishes; his car, his clothes, discovered in thickly weeded slimy water.

The blood runs cold. We’re only at page 50! And I’m staying up way past my bedtime, transfixed.

A brutally murdered body is found not far from that psychiatric institution, yet no CCTV detected anything suspicious. Another body turns up in a deserted farmhouse. Threats, disappearances, malpractice, hush money … it’s all there, dragging us further and further into the murky depths.

What exactly has been going on at the psychiatric institution? what was the dead nurse doing? where are the girls? what exactly is the last remaining member of The Cupids band afraid of? are the girls a danger to others or are they in danger themselves? – the questions get increasingly convoluted as more and more dirt is dug up. And gradually all the pieces of the macabre and disturbing picture slot into place.

The sentences are oddly constructed and staccato at times, and occasionally I got lost in the Dutch names, but it was worth persevering. and I defy anyone to preempt the truth when it finally emerges, or to better the ending.

So, the verdict? For me, it’s a successful technique. A real thriller. And I’ve learned a lot in the process of reading/analysing it. Thank you, Mr Hewson.

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I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

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Thrillers and master storytellers

The Times once said of Harlan Coben‘s writing that it had ‘lighthearted lessons for life sprinkled throughout‘ but that it wasn’t ‘about preaching, it is about catching you by those short hairs on the back of your neck.

And that’s what makes a thriller. That elusive something that I’m struggling to identify and capture for my own current novel.

Given that over 70 million of Coben’s books are in print worldwide and the last ten consecutive novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I think it’s fair to say this is one author who definitely knows how to get a message across!

it’s actually weirdly appropriate that I’ve been reading The Innocent at the moment. It’s about somebody waiting nine years to exact revenge. I’ve been waiting rather a lot myself recently – for appointments, for test results, in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, for advice – not nine years certainly, but long enough to make an absorbing book a godsend. And long enough to know that a brilliant reputation and a sustained plot-line that keeps you turning the pages, can compensate for a lot.

OK, Coben’s relentlessly staccato sentences, his use of the second person POV, in-house American police jargon, mile-long list of characters, don’t exactly float my boat. And I’m not going for mass shootings and exotic dancers and police corruption. But what does grab me is this author’s ability to create suspense, to plant cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, weave an intensely complex but authentic series of connections, (the inside of his brain must be like an immense circuit board!) and make me really really want to know why someone is sending ex-con paralegal Matt Hunter incriminating video clips … what his beautiful wife is really up to … why a dead nun, Sister Mary Rose, is found to have breast implants … why the FBI are involved … and who is going to come out of this whole mess alive.

Yep, this is thriller writing. I can quite see how and why it works. Question is: can I do it myself? Only time will tell. But I’m going to persevere. And keep studying the experts. Six Cobens down, five to go.

And the way things are going right now I might be doing more reading than planned! Here in Central Scotland we’ve been on red alert (the highest level which includes danger to life) for the last two days. Siberian winds and snow, unbelievably low temperatures, air and land traffic at a standstill. It’s causing major disruption to millions (no exaggeration) but looks stunningly beautiful to those of us who aren’t stuck on motorways for thirteen hours, or skidding to work in a care home, or battling through drifts to reach an ill or vulnerable person. I dare not venture out on a photo-shoot to capture just how deep the snow is, so this snap of one protected corner of the garden must suffice.

Stay safe, folks.


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