I recently read, somewhere, that in houses/apartments with the fewest books, there is likely to be at least one James Patterson novel. If it's true, it's a telling indicator of how well Patterson has figured out what the "average" reader wants.
I know that I get on Patterson's case, probably too often, mostly because I resent his stranglehold on the industry and on readers. There are other great thriller writers out there who don't get nearly as much as ink (or generate nearly as many sales), so - for those of you who like thrillers - I would like to present my list of Five Thriller Writers Who Are Better Than Patterson.
I have to preface this list by saying that I evaluate thrillers on different criteria than I use for "crime fiction" or mysteries. For me, the key elements in a thriller are pacing, plot twists, and quality of writing. I don't expect heavy characterization or moments of transcendence; I do expect a fast, fun read that keeps me guessing while not insulting my intelligence. All thrillers require, for me, a massive suspension of disbelief; otherwise, why bother reading them? With all the writers I'm about to discuss, I find myself drawn into their webs and gladly ignoring reality.
1. BLAKE CROUCH. For those who like their plot twists to come at a fast and furious rate, I have to recommend Blake Crouch, a Colorado-based writer who has a solid backlist and, I think, some rabid fans. I can see why: These books grab you and don't let you go. Here's one of the reasons I like him better than Patterson. Patterson's plot twists/surprises are almost always of the Grand Guignol school. You're meant to gasp out loud when you encounter them; there are always one or two biggies. But in Crouch's books (a good example is Snowbound, cover shown at left), there are not only some big surprises, but also many smaller ones. This relentless exposure of secrets and surprises makes the pace breakneck. Like Patterson, Crouch is a master of the "I'll read just one more chapter" phenomenon ... and before you know it, you've read another 50 pages. I take these books on trains and airplanes, knowing that I'll get sucked in (and that people sitting next to me won't bother me, because they can see how immersed I am).
2. WALLACE STROBY. A former journalist, Stroby is a master of packing a lot of action and a lot of meaning into a small amount of space. Stroby's books are some of the tightest, most no-nonsense thrillers I've ever read. Particularly good is Cold Shot to the Heart, the first (and one of the best) in the Crissa Stone series. These are hardboiled books in which everyone's a bad guy, but with a twist: There are good bad guys who are professional criminals committing mostly victimless crimes, and there are bad bad guys who gives the good bad guys a really hard time. Like Vachss, Stroby has a strong moral compass. His writing is direct and forceful; it makes you pay attention, but it does so subtly. Here's the marvel of Stroby for me: When I'm reading at a rapid clip, I may end up skimming because I'm so involved in the plot. Stroby makes me want to read every word. The prose isn't show-offy, but it's confident and articulate. This guy is terrific - give him a shot.
3. BRIAN FREEMAN. Freeman is a Minnesota-based novelist who has turned out one twisted, fast-paced thriller after another. If you like to follow series characters, you'll find a well-developed cast here, including the very cool Jonny Stride (I want to be him) and the complicated Serena Dial. Freeman does something better than anyone else I can think of: He sets up his plot twists magnificently. When reading a Freeman book, I often get to a surprise that exasperates me because it seems to come out of nowhere. By the end of the novel, that twist has been fully explained, and I see the author's artistry in plotting. The Minnesota landscape is realized extremely well (it's testament to Freeman's talent that these books make me think about living in that icy-cold state). My only regret is that the books often have those generically thrillerish titles, like Stalked and In the Dark (shown above). The titles position the books properly but don't do justice to Freeman's prose and characterization.
4. JOSEPH FINDER. Finder has found a large audience, I think, largely on what I think of as the basis of all novelistic talent in this genre: The man knows how to tell a story. He has a series featuring Nick Heller, special ops guy; he's also done some very good standalones. Power Play, shown at left, is particularly good. It features Jake Landry, tough guy with heart of gold. A quality that I see in Finder's books -- and, admittedly, it is difficult to define this term with any specificity -- is fun. They're just incredibly entertaining and ... well, fun. When I read any manuscript or book, it's always obvious to me when the author has had fun writing it (while also taking the task of entertaining readers seriously). This is the sense I get from Finder: I think he takes great pleasure in being a story teller, and it shows in the books. Like Stroby, Finder makes me read every word, even as the pace keeps me turning the pages.
5. SEAN DOOLITTLE. Being smart is a requirement for any good thriller writer. You've got to do a lot of things well, keep all those balls in the air, keep the reader engaged and surprised. Doolittle's great at all these things. But, of the writers I've included in my list, Doolittle has the most edge, and that's what I like about him. He brings an intellect to his stories and narratives that tickles my fancy, because I love his take on things. (Think Quentin Tarantino, though more intellectual and much less profane.) He's quite hardboiled in Rain Dogs (shown at left); a less hardboiled, but equally twisted book is Safer, in which Doolittle does so many things right, it's hard to enumerate all of them. Here Doolittle takes chances with a narrator who's a little hard to like (see - it had been done before Gone Girl, and just as effectively), pitting him against a nosy neighbor in a game of psychological one-upsmanship. There's a cleverness in these books that goes above and beyond what I see in the typical thriller. Give Doolittle a try; he deserves a larger readership.
I give an honorable mention to Douglas Corleone. I haven't read much of his earlier work, but he's recently launched a new series featuring Simon Fisk, who makes a career of finding children who've been abducted. The debut is Good as Gone, and I think the series has legs. I'm looking forward to the next installment.