Edge of Your Seat Reading in the 21st Century

9 Aug

If reading influences what we think and believe, it’s little wonder that so many of us have a jaded view of government, business, media, and society in general. Just look at your typical best seller list from the New York Times or USA Today and you’ll find them chock-o-block with thrillers and mysteries, more than any other genre. Anyone familiar with these cousins of fictional style knows that nothing in life is what it appears to be; there’s always an agenda or conspiracy in play; and the truth exists merely to be suppressed.

Reading these books teaches you not to trust institutions of any sort. Politicians, bureaucrats, CEOs, journalists, and probably your next door neighbor are all up to no good. These genres feed a worldview nourished on cynicism, doubt, suspicion, and dread. Perfect books for our time.

I enjoy a gripping thriller or a taut mystery as much as (often more than) great literature. But the key to a top-notch one is not the plot, but the people in the plot. That’s where the thriller and mystery writer can match the literary artist. If they can engage you with characters at the level of, say, Edith Wharton’s Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence or Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, you’ve found yourself a winning writer.

Here’s a selection of character-driven thrillers and mysteries from the first decade of the 21st century that stayed with me because the people in them were complex, interesting, and even profound as well as fun to spend time with, if only on the page.

The Falls (2000) by Ian Rankin. Almost any Rankin novel of the last ten years is worth your time. Resurrection Men would be an excellent alternative. But the plot in The Falls is more subtle and satisfying. Inspector Rebus is, as ever, an exceptional antihero worth getting to know.

The Good German (2001) by Joseph Kanon. Set immediately after World War II in the ruins of Berlin, the story is a character study of a man trying to square his pre-War life with post-War realities as the foundation for the new Cold War is being laid. Conspiracy. Greed. Murder. Femme fatale. What’s not to like?

December 6 (2002) by Martin Cruz Smith. Not one of Smith’s better known works, probably because it’s not part of his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, et. al.), but it is his most intriguing. Plus, Smith introduces his most engaging and likable character, Harry Niles, who is caught up in a 24-hour whirlwind of events the day before the “date which will live in infamy.”

Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002) by Philip Kerr. If there’s a mystery/thriller writer with a higher IQ than Kerr, I haven’t read him or her. His novels make you think and none more than his quirky mystery involving Newton and his erstwhile assistant sidekick. However, if you’ve never read Kerr before start with The Shot or Dead Meat from the previous century. They’re better still.

A Place of Hiding (2003) by Elizabeth George. Most of George’s mysteries center on her Inspector Thomas Lynley. This one, however, takes two minor characters, Deborah and Simon St. James, from her other Lynley novels and puts them front and center in solving a knotty conundrum.

Bangkok 8 (2003) by John Burdett. Although I’ve read other Burdett novels with his delightful detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, this is the one that started it off. And it’s the best of the bunch.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson. Mysteries involving bad things that happen to children generally leave me cold. They deliver cheap thrills, building our interest around threats to the utterly innocent. Atkinson’s approach is much different, building the plot around the characters more than the crime. An exceptional story.

The Lighthouse (2006) by P.D. James. This is another excellent novel with the stiff, eloquent, and poetic Commander Adam Dagliesh. Almost any James novel will satisfy (such as 2001’s Death by Holy Orders), but this is particularly illuminating as her main character deals with issues as his career sputters towards its close.

The Book of Air and Shadows (2007) by Michael Gruber. A wonderful tale with a handful of characters who are all well-drawn, unique, and oodles of fun to follow through a fascinating plot that spans centuries. None of Gruber’s other books come close to this gem.

The Spies of Warsaw (2008) by Alan Furst. Everyone is spying on everyone else and everyone knows it. But our favorite spy is the best character of the bunch, Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon. Gallant. Brave. Thoughtful. If you’ve never read Furst, here’s the place to start.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009 in English) by Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth Salander. Mikael Blomkvist. Need I say more, except this is the best of the trilogy.

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6 Responses to “Edge of Your Seat Reading in the 21st Century”

  1. Mark Everett Hall August 9, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    Two things. I corrected the famous FDR quote. Sorry for being sloppy. Second, I’d like to suggest a 12th author/novel, The Prisoner of Guantanamo (2006) by Dan Fesperman. A murder mystery is only part of the intrigue that takes place in a realm few of us know about, let alone comprehend.

  2. Lee Fowler August 9, 2010 at 9:54 pm #

    I’ve got my reading cut out for me. The summer is almost over, I wish you had done this in June!

    • kathleen mazzocco August 10, 2010 at 7:21 am #

      You’ve got to read “The Exception” by Christian Jungersen and “Out” by Natsuo Kirino. Creepy, intelligent, original.

      • Mark Everett Hall August 10, 2010 at 7:31 am #

        I read “Out.” Her “Grotesque” is even stranger. As a stylist, Kirino is a genius. But I must say, reading her makes me very nervous about my fellow human beings who I think are “normal.” In Kirino’s world, all normal people are just a step away from madness or doing something utterly crazy…and not in a healthy way. I have not read “The Exception” but it’s now on my list.

  3. Atul August 11, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    I concur with your perspective that a thriller with good characters make for a great reading.

    I loved the Good German. As well as the Stieg Larsson trilogy.

    Great reading list, Mark. Gives me enough fodder for the rest of the summer.

    • Mark Everett Hall August 11, 2010 at 11:41 am #

      Do you have great thrillers/mysteries you can share? Always looking for new authors.

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