I’ve been reading thrillers and mysteries for as long as I can remember. I have made a list of books that have been with me and they are roughly in the order I read them. These novels not only entertained me, they taught me to write. I did not know it at the time, at least not consciously, but now I can look back and say that these are all books that have influenced my style, plot and the dark humor I love so much.
The partner by John Grisham
I have read a number of Grisham books, but it is the one I have reread countless times. Patrick is a lawyer who has stolen a lot of money from a client and now lives in hiding in South America. At the beginning of the book he was found. The cat-and-mouse game that follows is fast-paced, full of surprises, and it kept me late more than once. And the end … the end. Of course, I will not spoil this, but one of the best endings I have ever read. Even today, I still think of this ending when I write my own.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This was one of the first thrillers I read, which was written by a woman and had a female protagonist. It was also one of the first books I read with an unnamed narrator that I found fascinating. Rebecca is probably one of the earliest books that today would be categorized as a domestic thriller. The genre did not become popular for many years, but Daphne du Maurier certainly wrote one of the first. In part, this book is the reason why it inspired me to have an unnamed narrator in My lovely wife.
American psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis has a way of mixing absolutely horrific acts of violence with ridiculous humor. The book is satire, a brutal commentary on the materialistic 80s world of investment bankers in New York. Although my books include murder, it is rare that I have any graphic violence as this book does, but the humor and the points he highlights always fascinated me. This is the kind of book I read and think “how does he do it do that? “I still do not know. Patrick Bateman is an iconic character and a serial killer … or is he? I love that we do not know for sure, because it is the kind of book that has started many conversations. It is the kind of twist – if it can be called that – that I strive for.
The story of my life by Jay McInerney
While not technically a thriller, this book is still scary in its own way. It also has a background story: Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis are contemporaries and friends, and their characters often cross into each other’s books. The narrator of this book is Allison Poole, who also appears in American psycho—And almost killed by Patrick Bateman. This is her story. Allison is a party girl in Manhattan, a life that includes many parties, shopping, cocaine and the occasional deep introspection. Her ongoing stream of consciousness history is funny, sad and impossible to put down. I have studied this book a lot and tried to figure out how a character can be so invisible but so engaging at the same time.
Kiss me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer
The main character, Phineas Poe, is an ex-policeman and a morphine addict who spends the night with a prostitute and wakes up in a bathtub full of ice. Oh, and his kidney is missing. This book, twisted with humor and a hazy, drug-addicted protagonist, was a game changer for me. It broke so many of the rules that we as writers hear about, which I think is so exciting. Forget likeable protagonists, there are none in this book, but that does not make it any less convincing. It’s both a skill and an art to be able to pull this off, and it’s something I try to do in everything I write.
Hitman by Lawrence Block
A protagonist who kills people to live? Sign me up. Keller is the protagonist, a man who collects stamps, discusses whether to use earplugs more than once before throwing them away, and he kills people for money. This book and those that followed in this series have so many things I love: It’s funny, it’s dark, and it makes you question whether something’s wrong with you because you enjoy it so much . I hope to do the same … If I can get a reader to think “I should not enjoy this so much” then I have reached my goal!
Out by Natsuo Kirino
This book was published in Japan in 1997, seven years later it was translated and published in the United States. The story is about four women who work in a factory and make packed lunches, and all four dreamed of a better life. When one of them clicks, it triggers a chain of events that change their entire lives. Desperation runs deep in this book for all the characters, and it inspired me to use that feeling to produce both the best – and the worst – in a person. Desperation is something I have used in every book in several characters because it drives people to things they would not otherwise.
Dope by Sara Gran
Sara Gran is not afraid of anything, or at least the impression I had after reading this book. Her writing is sparse but full of daggers, and her characters have more flaws than virtues. The opening lines connected me right into this book about a sober heroin addict who set out to find someone who is also a drug addict and who is nothing close to sober. Reading Dope makes me push my own writing and stories further out there – as far as I can – because she taught me that not only was it possible it could make the book better.
Gone girl by Gillian Flynn
I have to include this book, not only because it is ingenious, but because the popularity of it created an explosion of domestic thrillers. I think of these books as thrillers that have no protagonists working in law enforcement, and the stories tend to focus more on relationships. The genre is not dead either. It’s only gotten bigger over the years, and it’s my favorite genre of thriller. Without Gone girland so many others that followed, I probably would never have figured out My lovely wife –and it certainly would not have been published.
I’m letting you go by Claire Macintosh
This book from 2014 is the latest thriller on my list, but I have to include it as an influence. The novel is excellently constructed and written, and without giving anything away … I dare anyone find out that twist! This is something that needs to be planned from the start – which is extremely difficult for me as I do not plot my books. But getting a twist like this is definitely one of my goals!