What does it take to craft a compelling mystery? What must authors do to create a breath-quickening thriller? Brian Freeman has a few ideas. Freeman is an award-winning author of psychological suspense novels. We even named his latest book, Goodbye to the Dead, as a must-read new release. It features Detective Jonathan Stride working on a case that may be connected to his late wife. Here, Freeman shares the 10 most important traits of suspense novels, and the books that exemplify them best.
A sense of place: Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon
The best mysteries have a “you are there” quality. Every chapter feels as if you’ve been dropped down in the middle of the action, and you can hear, see, taste, touch, and smell everything happening around you. Many series succeed at this (Laura Lippman in Baltimore, James Lee Burke in New Orleans, etc.), but there are wonderful stand-alone novels with a great sense of place too.
Los Alamos captures not only where but when. Joseph Kanon’s novel is a murder mystery set in 1945 at the atomic bomb facility in New Mexico. His writing is equally vivid in bringing the arid but beautiful Santa Fe desert landscape to life and in capturing the culture, uncertainty, and fear of people living in the midst of war and secrecy. Reading Los Alamos is like going back in time.
A gripping first chapter: The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva
When I’m considering buying a book, the first thing I do is read page one. Does it grab me by the throat? Does it immediately conjure an atmosphere of suspense and drama? There are great novels that unfold slowly, but most of my favorite mysteries hook me in the opening pages.
Before there was Daniel Silva’s series hero Gabriel Allon, he wrote a brilliant debut, The Unlikely Spy. Here’s the first line: “Beatrice Pymm died because she missed the last bus to Ipswich.” Ten pages later, after back-and-forth sequences between the perspectives of Beatrice and her killer, I dare you to stop reading.
A human hero: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø
I don’t like to write about superheroes. The moral grayness of a mystery novel demands a hero who is human and flawed, with a determination to find justice in an often unjust world, sometimes at the cost of his or her personal happiness.
That’s why readers relate to a hero like Harry Hole (I love the name) in Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian crime novels. Harry is weighed down by personal loss, including the devastating murder of a colleague in The Redbreast, which Nesbø handles with great emotional depth. Harry ultimately rises above his own struggles to solve a wrenching mystery with roots from a distant past. This is a novel that shows how solving crimes takes a little bit of the hero’s soul with every case.
A page-turning pace: The Chancellor Manuscript by Robert Ludlum
I once had a reader tell me she’d been reduced to taking “illicit bathroom breaks” at work to get in another chapter. Great mysteries and thrillers give readers a story so unputdownable that you have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
I bought The Chancellor Manuscript as a teenager in the 1970s and could easily see why Robert Ludlum revolutionized the thriller genre. I started reading it as I walked out of the store, and I don’t think I stopped reading—or even took a breath!—until I finished it hours later. The story, about a novelist writing a political conspiracy thriller that may be too close to the truth, never lets up for a single page.
A sense of humor: The Charm School by Nelson DeMille
Most mysteries and thrillers deal with dark themes. People die. Things blow up. Serial killers lurk in every abandoned building. It makes you wonder how writers get up in the morning. So I love it when a writer tells dark, hard stories with a wink and a charming sense of humor.
Nelson DeMille may be the best novelist around in that regard. Most of his thrillers have a narrator with an ironic wit that makes them irresistible. You can’t really go wrong with any of his novels, but The Charm School is my favorite. It’s a Cold War novel about the Russians training moles to work their way into American society. Dark, right? But he manages to lighten this gripping thriller with a sly, charming hero.
A lot of clues: Suspect by Michael Robotham
Mystery readers are detectives themselves. They want to solve the case before the hero does, and that’s part of the fun. So readers expect the author to play fair by dropping in clues throughout the story that give them a shot at cracking the case. (Mind you, don’t expect us to make it easy!)
Australian crime writer Michael Robotham’s amazing debut Suspect features Joseph O’Loughlin, a psychologist who becomes a suspect in the murder of a former patient. The denouement has the perfect mystery quality: The clues stare you in the face throughout the book, but then you slap your head at the end and wonder how you missed them.
A spectacular twist: I Kill by Giorgio Faletti
OMG! Isn’t that the reaction we want in every mystery? We want to turn the page and have our breath taken away by a surprise we never saw coming.
The late Giorgio Faletti was one of Italy’s great crime writers. His bestselling novel I Kill tells the story of a serial killer who calls into a radio show to taunt a popular host. It’s a long and winding road to get to the heart of the mystery, but the whodunit in this whodunit is simply brilliant. You’ll never guess the killer’s true identity.
An elegantly simple solution: Blood Work by Michael Connelly
I love mysteries that are so multi-layered that they inspire what I call a delicious confusion in the reader. However, when you get to the end, they take your breath away because the solution is so simple. It makes perfect sense, and you wonder why you didn’t expect it.
Blood Work isn’t a Harry Bosch book, so it isn’t as well known as some of Michael Connelly’s other novels (despite a Clint Eastwood movie adaptation). But it’s my favorite Connelly book because the resolution of the mystery is so elegant. Along the way, the motive of the killer seems horrifyingly random—then you discover the gruesome logic underlying the entire book.
A sense of closure: 11/22/63 by Stephen King
Readers expect to solve the mystery at the end of the book, but a great thriller gives us more than that. The ending gives readers the last piece in the psychological puzzle and a sense of closure for the characters.
Stephen King won the Thriller Award for 11/22/63 (the year before I won for Spilled Blood). By writing a time-travel thriller about a man trying to stop the Kennedy assassination, he sets a high bar for closure, because we know he can’t really stop the assassination (Or can he?). King manages to have his cake and eat it too by bringing pitch-perfect emotional resolution not just for his hero, but also for the rest of us who live in a post-1963 world.
A story you want to read again: In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson
The best mysteries and thrillers aren’t books that you can’t simply put aside when you’re done. They linger in your heart. The stories are so compelling and the characters so richly drawn that you want to go back and experience it all over again. When you do, you pick up wonderful nuances and subtleties that you missed the first time.
Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season revolves around crimes in both the present and distant past. It has all 10 qualities on this list, which is what makes it one of my favorite mysteries of all time. And what a great premise: A World War II murder is discovered when a dry lake exposes the ruins of a small town that was flooded years earlier. I won’t tell you any more than that. Just read it.
A native of Chicago and longtime resident of the Twin Cities, Brian Freeman is an international bestselling author of psychological suspense novels. His books have been sold in 46 countries and 20 languages and have appeared as Main Selections in the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. He is the author of The Cold Nowhere, and Spilled Blood—which was the recipient of the Best Hardcover Novel in the annual Thriller Awards presented by the International Thriller Writers organization. The Burying Place was a finalist for the same award. The Bone House was a finalist for Best Audiobook of the Year in Thriller/Suspense. Brian’s debut thriller, Immoral, won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel.