Recently I was asked about my recommendations for books in the mystery/thriller category since I have been reading a lot in that genre the last few years. This post is a response to that question.
Before I get into what I like, it might be helpful to explain why I am like I am. Not in a psychological sense, that question would give psychologists nightmares. For now, I am just specifically talking about why do I read so much of this particular type of book. There are really three main reasons.
First, my love of reading comes largely from growing up on Hardy Boys books. As a child I read everything Franklin W. Dixon ever wrote. Imagine my shock when I grew up and discovered that he didn’t exist. Those books opened up the world of reading to me, and I loved the adventure and the suspense. No doubt if I went back and reread one, which I will surely do with my kids one day, I wouldn’t find them as enthralling, but back then they were amazing. The kids and I already read this one so we’ve got a head start.
Second, when I graduated from Dallas Seminary in 2008 I was incredibly burned out on deep, heavy, topical books. At times in seminary I didn’t read much other than what I was required to, which was admittedly an insane amount. All that changed one summer when I decided that I needed to read some books purely for the joy of it. Some people enjoy lengthy tomes elaborating the pros and cons of supralapsarianism, transubstantiation, and consubstantiation. I am not one of those people, and those books were wearing me down. That summer I read Friday Night Lights, Band of Brothers, and Seabiscuit among others. I got my love of reading back. Interestingly, I went back and did a little research about how much of my annual reading is composed of the mystery/thriller genre. I had forgotten when I started tracking my reading, but I’ve been tracking my reading since May of 2008, when I graduated from seminary. Here is a summary of the percentage of my reading that I have categorized as Mystery/Thriller by year.
Third, I have persisted in making the mystery/thriller genre a large part of my reading because it makes me a better writer. Good mystery writers capture your interest, maintain your curiosity, and deliver something of interest (preferably with some twists along the way). This is what people often miss about Dan Brown. Brown’s writing isn’t that great, his historical research is dreadful, and he follows the same template in most of his books, but what he does is put you on a roller coaster from the first page. He keeps things moving so well that it compensates for a lot of his shortcomings as a writer. Reading these books gives me a greater understanding of how best to write no matter the genre. More than a few history writers could use an infusion of the style of the thriller.
There is something that you have to realize about this genre, it isn’t always the cleanest. By its very nature it generally involves some sort of murder, at times rather graphically described. The bad guys are well, bad. The good guys are the ones trying to stop the bad guys, and they rarely share my worldview. Every reader has to decide what they are and aren’t willing to put up with. So if I like a book and you read it and there is a gruesome murder, a rather villainous villain, or a hero who uses language you don’t approve of, you have been warned. Also, I am a conceptual person, not a detail person. What that means is my brain sums things up, files away the summary, and throws out the details. This means I might remember, “That book was worth reading,” but I might not remember a lot of off-putting details. Just not how my mind works. If I remember details they were very obvious or dramatic.
Now on to the books.
O, and by the way, for some reason every analogy I came up with for these books was food, so I just finally decided to embrace it.
Far and away my favorite author in this genre is David Baldacci. I like to think of a Baldacci book as a nice comfort meal. The book may not be the best you’ve ever read, it might not be the most intellectually stimulating, but they are consistently worth the time and a good read. Every series he writes is solid, and I generally read a Baldacci book in just a few days, no matter how busy life is at the moment. As my wife just summarized, “A Baldacci book is like a trip to Chilis.”
The Former Favorite & The Biggest Disappointment
The first six books of the Baker/Llewellyn mysteries by Will Thomas were some of the most fun I have had reading a book. The seventh book was a disaster of epic proportions in my opinion. I haven’t read book eight because after book seven I am not sure if I want to or not. This probably deserves its own post, and at some point I might do that. For now, let’s just sum up my disappointment with book seven by saying the plots went from original to gimmicky, and the characters were not true to the characters they had been. My lovely wife had pretty much the same reaction so I know I am not completely crazy. Like I said, probably should make this one into its own post.
There’s a barbecue restaurant close to us that my wife and I tried, and we really liked it. We thought we might have found a new favorite eating spot. We went back a second time and it was good. We went back a third time and it was awful. We’ve rarely gone back since because we don’t like playing brisket roulette to see if it is going to be amazing or dreadful. This is the kind of disappointment book seven was to me.
The One I Can’t Explain
The Odd Thomas novels are some of the strangest and most gripping novels I have ever read. The main character is appropriately named, and the first-person writing is so in line with the character that it is just perfect. They are supernatural thrillers which is not something I am usually interested in, but they are just so well written that even the sheer strangeness of the book’s concepts reels you in. I just finished book six, and have one left which I will definitely read this year. It is hard to describe these books to someone who hasn’t read them, and the only way you would understand that is if you had read them. I started reading them when I read this post by Hunter Baker and I have a feeling that I will need a support group when I am through with the last book.
Odd Thomas is like the merging of Bacon and Maple. It shouldn’t work, it doesn’t really sound like a great combination, but if somebody gets it right, man it is great. The local donut shop makes a maple and bacon donut that doesn’t get it right, but there is a brand of kettle chips that hits the right spot. Odd Thomas is a bag of those chips.
The Series I Started and Stopped, But Might Start Again
The Billy Boyle Series by James R. Benn
This series checks two important boxes for me: mystery and World War Two. They are decent books, but outside of the first book they are a little forgettable. I am eight books in and book eleven has been released. As much as I love the era I am not dying to finish the series. This series is like Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. Good, not great, it doesn’t really seem that different day after day, and eventually you tire of the taste.
The Scott Harvath Series by Brad Thor
I ready the first book in the Harvath series and was pleasantly surprised. The plot was intricate, and the characters were likable, if a little two-dimensional. Then I read the second book and found myself really tired of the hero. I don’t need my protagonist to be brooding, conflicted, or to question themselves, but a little bit of reflection never hurt anybody. I might go back and read another one at some point, but right now I am not terribly motivated to do so. For me this is like Applebees. There is one right by our house, and I guess their food isn’t bad, but I just don’t see myself eating there anytime soon.
The One I Haven’t Made My Mind Up About Yet
After a movie came out about Jack Reacher I thought it might be worth reading some of the books. The first one was good, the second one wasn’t quite as good as the first, and I was not a fan at all of the third book in the series. Here’s the thing, there are 21 Jack Reacher novels. A bunch of them have won awards of one type or another, but the third novel isn’t one of those. At some point I’ll probably read some more to see if there is a difference. Everyone is allowed a mulligan I guess. Reacher novels are like a tasty taco with a lot of kick to it. They are good if you like a lot of spice and heat. Reacher is a larger than life character who is probably going to throw about a thousand punches over the course of a novel. He will use his brain too, but by and large he is the unstoppable object that takes down the bad guys.
Brad Meltzer is possibly one of the best writers I have ever read at creating twisting plots. Earlier I said that Dan Brown put you on a roller coaster, but that isn’t actually true. Dan Brown is like one of those rides where you fall forever and then finally stop just before you hit the ground. Meltzer is the roller coaster. Having said that his characters in the Culper Ring series aren’t all that engaging, and I could do without some of the moral and ethical directions he takes some things. His books are like trying chili for the first time at a new restaurant. It might be great, it might be a disaster, even as you are eating it you aren’t totally sure how you feel about it.
The Holmes Cottage Industry
There is a mountain of Sherlock Holmes fan fiction that has been
written. I would guess that the vast majority of them are awful, but
occasionally I will see something in this vein that I find interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be the greatest fictional character ever created. I am probably not an official Holmes nerd, but I might be able to play one on TV. Because the one constant in my diet since I was a child has been the cheeseburger each of these books will also get a cheeseburger comparison as part of the evaluations.
The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon
It isn’t technically about Holmes, but the main character is clearly Holmes. Chabon has the reputation for being a fantastic writer, but this one was just ok to me. I think I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads. Reading this was kind of like eating at In-N-Out. You feel like you should like it more than you do, but deep down inside you really aren’t that impressed.
The Sherlockian by Graham Moore
This one was fun, if a bit nerdy. If you really like things involving Sherlock Holmes you will probably like this. If not, you probably won’t. It has a very unique approach in that the chapters alternate between present day and events in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The two timelines eventually intertwine, and it makes for an interesting and educational Holmes story.
There is a local restaurant named Smoke that has a great burger called the EB&D Loaded Up & Truckin Burger. It is good for a number of reasons, and I could do without the frittered egg, but it just has a very unique taste. That’s The Sherlockian.
House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
Horowitz was the writer of an excellent television show, Foyle’s War. He also has the advantage of having written a Holmes novel sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, something as rare as Sherlock Holmes failing to solve a case. The crime in this one makes you want to crawl into the book and carry out an execution yourself, but it is a worthy Holmes book. This audiobook version of this novel got me through the flu a couple of years ago so it will always be near and dear to my heart. Consider this the Whataburger of mystery novels.
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
This novel doesn’t actually involve Holmes as a main character, but fits great in the story of Holmes. The way it fits into the Holmes mythos is like the Rogue One of Holmes stories. Interestingly enough Horowitz has also been commissioned to write new James Bond stories by the Ian Fleming estate. When I die maybe he can be commissioned to take over my work too. This is the Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich of this genre. It isn’t actually a burger, but it is really good so you are going to enjoy it anyway.
These aren’t the only mystery/thrillers I’ve read, but they are a pretty good representation. I might have been a bit hungry when I wrote this. No mystery there.