In a Thrill-a-Minute Fiction
A voluptuous coed sashays down a dark corridor armed with nothing more than a string bikini, while a masked killer skulks about. This mass-market fare routinely packs theaters with testosterone-addled adolescents, but foolish people making irrational decisions in ridiculous situations do not play well in thriller fiction: aficionados expect a lot more. And while unique spins on familiar themes—highlighting the latest technologies and exotic locales—still capture readers’ attentions, characterization is king. Here we have five innovative page-turners, each with protagonists that render them damnably difficult to put down.
In Adrian McKinty’s Falling Glass (Serpent’s Tail, 978-1-84668-783-9), a retired fixer, Killian, is pulled back into “the life” after he botches a real-estate investment. More than a common leg-breaker, he is highly educated, intelligent, and makes seemingly smart decisions that nevertheless go spectacularly awry. After he signs on to find an airline magnate’s ex-wife and daughters, he finds himself embroiled in intrigue much grander and more dangerous than he imagined.
McKinty’s last novel, Fifty Grand, won the 2010 Spinetingler Award, so it’s no surprise that his newest offering carries on in that stellar tradition. The author’s wit and lyrical style lend a noir ambiance to this modern story, as if he were channeling the ghost of Mickey Spillane. In many novels of this ilk, were readers to ignore the names and simply scan the dialogue, it would be difficult to tell one character from the other. Not so here. While the plot points are prosaic, driving the story are characters so real you expect them to walk off the page and smack you upside the head. Genuine emotional connections for the reader’s taking make for a memorable, hard-hitting tale.
Brian Peters’s To Wander the Labyrinth (AASP Press, 978-0-9838572-0-4) packs a poignant punch as well. It spotlights Clay, the man who wrote the Agency’s interrogation manual and spent his career carrying it out. He was very good at his job and convinced himself that torturing suspected terrorists was his patriotic duty, yet the price for his actions includes a failed marriage, estranged son, and feeble mental health. Barely functioning without a potent drug cocktail, Clay is haunted by institutional smells and the sounds of his victims. Only when the Agency turns against him, sparking a race to uncover the mystery of what is truly going on, does he get a chance to regain a small piece of his humanity.
The antihero on a quest for redemption is not an easy theme to tackle in a first novel, yet Peters manages it in style. His brilliantly edited, minimalist approach shows the value of sticking to one viewpoint and trusting the reader’s intellect to figure things out. Extraordinary pacing pulls us into the story, while gritty realism keeps us there. All in all, it’s an unforgettable saga with an unexpectedly satisfying (albeit dark) ending.
Company Orders (Allium Press, 978-0-9831938-5-2) by David J. Walker is another powerful, character-driven tale that overcomes a been there/done that/got the t-shirt plot. Paul Clark, now a Catholic priest, unknowingly fathered an illegitimate child as a young man prior to joining the military. Years after his ordination he is contacted by the boy’s grandmother, who tells him that his former girlfriend has passed on and that their son is being held in a Mexican prison on drug charges. Desperate to save the child he’s never known, Father Paul makes a deal with a mysterious woman who claims to represent an agency of the federal government.
Unsurprisingly, the arrangement doesn’t end well, leading to a globe-spanning adventure that tests his fortitude, faith, and integrity.
Every character is magnificently realized, yet Father Paul, whose soul-searching struggle is tinged with subtle humor throughout, is unforgettable. An Edgar Award-nominated author of a dozen novels, Walker has worked as a parish priest, police investigator, and attorney, eclectic experience that helps inject realism into his prose.
While remarkable characters can certainly drive memorable tales, the setting oftentimes enhances their plights. Cooper’s Promise (Owl Canyon Press, 978-0-9834764-3-6), by Timothy Jay Smith, takes place in the fictitious African country of Lalanga, yet the horrific conditions he describes are all too real. Illicit diamonds, slavery, corruption, and human trafficking are the backdrop for the tale of Sergeant Cooper Chance, a former US Army sharpshooter turned renegade after a failed affair with his male CO, Rick. Struggling with his sexuality, Cooper meets a handsome diamond merchant, Sadiq, and falls in love, only to become entangled in political intrigue when massive oil reserves are discovered in the country and the military strongman falls out of favor with the US government. Offered the possibility of forgiveness for deserting the army, Cooper must decide if the consequences of pulling the trigger once more are worth a chance to go home again.
Smith’s first play won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award. Cooper’s Promise continues to showcase his skills with stellar characterization, meaningful drama, and powerful messages. Original plot? Hardly. Brilliant insight into the human condition that resonates page after page? Categorically, yes.
Those first four books thrill readers while examining weighty issues, but Hook and Shoot (Medallion Press, 978-1-60542-521-4), by Jeremy Brown, is just plain fun. Aaron “Woodshed” Wallace is a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter with a sordid past who is caught up in a Japanese mob’s attempt to take over the MMA promotion company he works for. Together with Burch, an enigmatic ex-SAS bodyguard who tricks him into helping, he must find a way to take on the yakuza and prevail. Sure, a gazillion B-movies share the same plot, yet Brown’s irreverent style marks a fresh approach. Solid characters, extraordinary dialogue, realistic action, and phenomenal pacing elevate his book far beyond the ordinary fare. Take this exchange between Burch and Wallace: “‘You ever fought in an elevator before? It’s more fun than it sounds.’ Burch split time watching me and the elevator doors on the way down. ‘I was just teasing,’ I said. ‘Next time I hit you I’m not gonna warn you first. So relax.’”
Brown trained in Jeet Kune Do, MMA, and close-quarters combat, and became an author when he realized that it hurts less to write about such things. His experience lends a refreshing air of realism to warrior personae, honor codes, and fight scenes.
A martial arts instructor with twenty-six years of security experience, Lawrence Kane has written nine books and numerous articles on self-defense and related topics, and consults with other authors to ensure realism in their novels.