I have taken countless writing classes and joined many groups, but for me the best writing education comes from reading. I love it when I read a book and the author makes a choice – a plot point, a character trait, a scene or a line of dialogue – that takes my breath away, giving a lesson in crafts that I can not help but try to apply on my own writing. Here are seven books that taught me how to be a better criminal (author).
Jane Harper – The dry
This is easy. It was the first book I read in the genre nicknamed “outback noir”, and in addition to the appealing protagonist and a well-plotted mystery, it is a fascinating example of how to use the setting of your story as an antagonist. With nature’s unpredictable whims, the risk of simply driving too far and being stranded in unbearable heat, the impending threat of fire with too few resources to extinguish it, the forgiving outback setting permeated every scene with an undercurrent of suspense that constantly reminds readers that a decision in a second can mean the difference between life and death.
Criminal element: The environment
Tiffany D. Jackson – Alleged
Jackson is an expert in creating protagonists you want to trust, but is not entirely sure you should. When I first started reading this book, I was in doubt about the main character, but she overcomes so much on the way to improving her life that you can not help but root for her, even as a small part of your brain warns about , that everything is probably not as it seems. Jackson’s skillful hand to drop clues that later add a bigger picture kept this reader on the edge of his seat, waiting for the gut-wrenching final twist.
Criminal element: The unreliable narrator
Jeff Lindsay – Darkly Dreaming Dexter
I watched the whole TV series before I even knew there was a book, so I knew what I was aiming for when I cracked this one. Serial killer Dexter Morgan does bad things for the right reasons – plastic-wrapping criminals who would otherwise evade warning or prosecution. His adoptive father taught him this “honor” system, and he sticks to it religiously. His methods are cruel, and his collection of blood samples is creepy, but if you think about it (or don’t), he cleans up the street a bit in his own sweet, sick way.
Criminal element: All murder (but for the right reasons)
Lucy Foley – The guest list
I find stories told from several POVs hard to get into. Just as you begin to understand one sign, you jump to another. But somehow Mrs. Foley created five different voices with very different stories and woven them together to tell the story of an unhappy travel wedding. This is one of those anxiously convincing readings where you know you can not trust anyone. Once the author drops the first bomb, the hits continue, and each chapter provides a dramatic revelation that you would never have guessed. The author gave everyone a reason to kill and then also gave them all the opportunity, making this book a side-turner when you rush to learn which one ultimately gave to their bases, murderous instincts.
Criminal element: Everyone possibly
Dot Hutchinson – The Butterfly Garden
Okay, this one snuck me out. What is not disturbing about a man who created a secret oasis in prison and kidnapped young women, tattooed them like butterflies and killed and preserved their beautifully inked bodies when they got too old? The very concept of this story permeates the reader with fear, but what makes it so effective is the nagging question: What if this happened to me? Mrs. Hutchinson told her story so well that the reader can imagine that they were trapped in this hell paradise and desperately rooted that the heroine should flee and once and for all end the nightmare and its architect.
Criminal Element: A unique twisted villain
Caroline Kepnes – You
Not odd Dexter, this gripping story follows a young sociopath as he effortlessly pursues his unconscious victim and slowly develops a very, very unhealthy relationship with her and the people who are unfortunate enough to be in her life. Mrs. Kepnes expertly develops the tone and surprisingly dark humor in the story with lines and set pieces that make you laugh out loud while crawling together at the same time. I love the restless balance of knowing this guy is bad, but I want to see what he does next time anyway.
Criminal Element: pretty much everything Joe does
Karin Slaughter – The good daughter
I found this book particularly difficult to read, and after a thought I pondered why: Mrs. Slaughter makes you lie. She holds you in every difficult moment for as long as it is humanly possible, and no matter how fast you read, you still sit tight and hold the challenge next to the character and spin in every uncomfortable second. It’s really brilliant writing to make that experience feel like it’s cleverly crafted and never boring, bringing the story and its dark moments to eerie life. Once the torment is over and you release the breath you knew you were holding, the reader is finally able to marvel at Mrs. Slaughter’s criminal good writing.
Criminal Element: Time
There are hundreds more titles that could easily fill this list, and fighting through my Goodreads read shelf reminded me of how many great books I have read and how many more I am waiting to discover as I continue my criminal education.