A veteran reader of action thrillers tells you which titles, and authors, are best at keeping you awake at night.
WANT TO READ SOME GREAT ACTION THRILLERS?
As a sometime reviewer and addictive reader of action thrillers, I wanted to share some of my all-time favorites. If, like me, you love pulse-pounding tales of heroes fighting overwhelming odds in order to win, or save, the things most precious to them in life, then these are the writers you want to be reading.
Alistair Maclean. He was an early pioneer of heroic, man's-man action thrillers, and you can't go wrong with The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, The Golden Rendezvous, When Eight Bells Toll, and Night Without End. You've probably seen some of the exciting film versions of these, but the books are even better.
Desmond Bagley. Another terrific Brit thriller writer, a lot like Maclean in style. Running Blind, The Golden Keel, and The Spoilers are among his best.
Mickey Spillane. Yeah. The Mick. The Founding Father of hardboiled detective thrillers. Punchy dialogue. Scenes that whiz by like tracer bullets. Vintage mid-twentieth-century male chauvinism that will make you laugh...nostalgically. His hero, Mike Hammer, became a cultural icon in the '50s. And you'll see why if you pick up the first in the series, I, The Jury. Mystery, beautiful dames, an ending that will blow you away. The first half dozen or so of Mick's novels were all fine, with One Lonely Night being perhaps his best. A word to the wise: Mike has never been properly rendered on-screen, see? So hey, pal, don't let those crappy TV and film versions stop you from giving him a fair shot.
Donald Hamilton. I also urge you to try this author's "Matt Helm" series. Like Mike Hammer, Matt Helm, a '60s-era spy hero, has been vandalized and satirized on the screen. In the novels, he's a mature, tough-as-nails spy, as far from the persona of bon-vivante Dean Martin as is Uma Thurman from Rosie O'Donnell. The first novel in the series, Death of a Citizen, is one of the finest, most gripping spy thrillers you'll ever read, and I'm confident it will hook you on Helm as a hero. Incidentally, author Hamilton is a gun expert, and even penned a volume On Guns and Hunting, so the tradecraft in the novels rings with authenticity.
Jack Higgins. Pen name for Harry Patterson, an Irish writer who also published under the aliases James Graham, Hugh Marlowe, and Martin Fallon. Higgins's style is impressionistic—spare, stripped down, lean, mostly strong nouns and verbs, with minimal in-depth characterization and local color. But Higgins creates engrossing, suspenseful plots with great heroes and villains, all characterized by a devil-may-care gallantry in action. Years back, he and I corresponded a few times, and he once wrote me that "The Higgins' hero will always go back for the girl." That sums it up well: you always feel a sense of nobility and grandeur in his protagonists. Among the best of his scores of books: The Eagle Has Landed (his breakthrough novel), A Game for Heroes (my personal favorite), Solo, The Run to Morning, East of Desolation, The Khufra Run, The Savage Day, Night of the Fox, and the haunting A Prayer for the Dying. These are mostly older titles; the stuff he's written during the past decade or two is often disappointingly derivative and recycled. But he's a damned fine thriller writer.
John Clarkson. Here's a personal discovery, a thriller writer almost nobody knows about—but boy, is he terrific. His first novel, And Justice for One, introduced Jack Devlin, an action hero who is a kind of hybrid of Mike Hammer and writer Lee Child's memorable Jack Reacher. A brutal, violent tale of revenge that stays with you, and you'll love Devlin. Clarkson followed this with One Man's Law, a Devlin tale almost as good, then One Way Out, which for me was a disappointment. But try the first one, and I'll bet you get hooked. He's also published a couple of other thrillers in recent years, but without Devlin as a hero. A fascinating, gripping one—and totally unconventional—is Reed's Promise, a mystery thriller with an amputee as its tough-guy hero.
David Morrell. A fine contemporary thriller writer whose First Blood gave our culture the immortal Rambo. Morrell characterizes very well, and creates dazzling action scenes. I'm especially a fan of his early stuff, The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Fraternity of the Stone, and The League of Night and Fog.
Wilbur Smith. A South African craftsman of real macho adventure. A memorable action thriller set in the world of terrorism was The Delta Decision (also titled Wild Justice), so suspenseful that I defy anyone to put it down during the first hundred pages. My personal favorite, however, is Hungry As the Sea, which, though not a shoot-'em-up sort of thriller, has one of the best heroes and some of the most exciting action sequences you'll ever read, packed in a terrific story.
Single novels. One of the finest tales of international intrigue I've ever read was The Red Fox, the debut novel of Canadian novelist Anthony Hyde. I liked Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, though I confess I haven't yet gotten into Clancy that much. Though I find Clive Cussler somewhat crude as a writer, I enjoyed Raise the Titanic! more than Dirk Pitt's subsequent adventures. Mystery writer Dick Francis writes a lot like Jack Higgins, spare and lean; a standout in my memory was his early thriller Nerve. Early Ken Follett is also worth reading, especially The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca.
These are all stellar writers and books. But several contemporary thriller authors stand out as the best of the lot:
Lee Child. About two years ago I picked up his latest paperback, Persuader, out of curiosity, and boy—was I glad I did! It's the seventh outing for Child's big, tough, clever, ex-military-M. P. hero, Jack Reacher...and thrillers just don't get more thrilling. I immediately bought and devoured the first in the Reacher series, Killing Floor, his stunning debut novel; and I've since done a Sherman's March through all the rest. Child simply does everything right: great dialogue, devious plotting, terrific suspense, richly colorful settings...with a hero who's as ferociously tough, honorable, and memorable as Mike Hammer. You'll love Jack Reacher.
Stephen Hunter. Lee Child is a great thriller author, almost without peer. But "almost." In my opinion, Stephen Hunter is simply in a class by himself. The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Washington Post, Hunter is the grand master of the thriller genre.
Quite a few years ago I ran across his nuclear nightmare tale, The Day Before Midnight, and found myself on the most suspenseful thrill ride in memory. For some reason I didn't try another Hunter story for years. Then a couple of years back I read Point of Impact, which introduced me to one of the most original and compelling action heroes ever to stride across the fiction landscape: a lean, stoic, former Marine sniper with the unlikely name of Bob Lee Swagger. Once again, Hunter had told me a story of matchless excitement. After that stunning introduction, I plunged into Bob Lee's further adventures willy-nilly...then tore into the interwoven adventures of his equally heroic state trooper father, Earl Swagger.
"Ingenuity" is a vastly overused word, but it applies here. Hunter's creative imagination and writing skills are simply breathtaking. His wealth of detail in period and place, his refined ear for dialogue, the psychological depth and originality of his characterizations, the serpentine turns of his dazzling plots, their unbearable suspense, the furious, frenzied action sequences he renders so palpably, viscerally...and above all, his majestic heroes—hard, driven men of almost mythic stature...what more could anyone want?
As the various Swagger stories unfold, Hunter brilliantly interweaves them in often startling and poignant ways. They inform and enrich each other concerning the backgrounds of the heroes and villains, and their complex and unexpected interrelationships. Soon, great action tales reveal themselves as mere threads in a grand, overarching, multigenerational adventure tapestry. You can certainly read any of the Swagger novels and enjoy them on their own. But to fully appreciate the author's genius, try them in their order of publication: Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Black Light, Time to Hunt, Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming, and the latest, Havana.
After that, perhaps you'll want to try his earlier, stand-alone tales: The Master Sniper, The Second Saladin, The Day Before Midnight, Tapestry of Spies, and The Spanish Gambit.
Robert B. Parker. Ages ago I read Parker's outstanding early thriller, Wilderness. But I never dabbled in his famous "Spenser" detective series, put off by the TV version starring Robert Urich. Bad mistake. Boston-based private eye Spenser—no first name ever provided—is a first-rate action hero, and his fast-moving tales have set the modern standard for detective fiction. Parker is peerless when it comes to dialogue. The banter between Spenser, his long-time girlfriend, psychiatrist Susan Silverman, and his intimidating thug-pal, Hawk, is always clever, often very funny. The most hilarious aspect is that Spenser and Hawk shatter the tough-guy stereotype: though they are big, hulking brutes, they are highly (if self-) educated, and often playfully trade arcane literary references or quote poetry while bashing bewildered, chromosome-deficient bad guys.
Which brings me to Parker's other great strength: characterization. Nobody does a better job of working complex human and romantic relationships into action stories. Parker admits that he drew on the ups and downs of his own marriage in crafting Spenser's ageless romance with Susan Silverman. And it is a romance: they have remained head-over-heels in love with each other for years—which no doubt explains why the Spenser stories appeal almost as much to women readers as to men. The long evolution of Spenser's relationships with Susan, Hawk, and an ongoing cast of memorable cronies mandates that you read the 30-odd Spenser installments from the beginning of the series, in chronological order—starting with The Godwulf Manuscript. That story was a fairly mundane detective tale, but the quick introduction of Susan and Hawk in subsequent novels raised the Spenser stories way above the competition.
Though the series has lost a bit of oomph in recent years, Spenser will never bore you: these are very fast reads, and very rewarding. As an added bonus, at least once per novel you'll be treated to an enticing new food recipe, as gourmet cook Spenser prepares himself a meal while trying to sort out the clues. Finally, if, like me, you've ever lived in or near Boston, Parker's guided tours through the city's familiar haunts will feel like a homecoming.
Note: Parker has launched a couple of other detective series—one about a small-town New England police chief named Jesse Stone, the other about a female detective, Sunny Randall. Haven't sampled Sunny's adventures yet. But for me, the Stone stories, while engaging, just don't have the same flair as the Spenser outings. My main problem with Stone is that he is far more flawed a man than Spenser, and for this kind of reading, I prefer my heroes...well, heroic.
Now, my final recommendation—and most recent discovery.
Robert Crais. For a writer of detective fiction, about the most complimentary comparison one could make is to liken him to Robert B. Parker. Robert Crais has earned the comparison: he is like a younger, rejuvenated Robert B. Parker—and so is his completely original hero. Crais has conjured this hard-ass, smart-mouthed detective hero in L.A. with the unlikely name of Elvis (don't ask) Cole, who is enamored of rock music, Disney collectibles, and the martial arts; plus a formidable, cold-blooded, even harder-ass partner named Joe Pike, who hides ice blue eyes behind mirrored sunglasses, and whose rare attempts to smile come across as a mere facial tic; plus the whole colorful, aromatic menagerie of La-La Land creeps and weirdos, Hollywood stars and shysters, crooked cops and loose ladies...ah yes, everything you could want in a detective novel, and more. The dialogue and sense of place are every bit as potent as in the Spenser novels: Cole's mouth runs like Eddie Murphy's after a drug overdose, and the L.A. landscape (where I've also spent time) becomes as important to the series as Boston is to the Spenser novels. The Cole plots are, if anything, even more clever and complicated than Spenser's.
I've read three of the Elvis tales, in order of publication, but it hasn't yet seemed to matter that I did so. But just in case, I urge you to start with the first in the series, The Monkey's Raincoat. You'll be hooked. Like Mike Hammer, Jack Reacher, Bob Lee Swagger, and, most of all, Spenser, Elvis Cole is a man with an inviolate code of honor: a rare white knight traversing a dark, dangerous world, setting things to rights for those deserving vindication, and bringing righteous wrath down on those deserving vengeance. If you like Spenser, you'll love Elvis.
Okay, I've given you enough recommendations for many years of armchair thrills.
Robert Bidinotto is editor of The New Individualist magazine, and publisher of the web site ecoNOT.com. This article is reprinted with permission from his other popular site, The Bidinotto Blog, and includes additions by Mr. Bidinotto exclusive to The Webzine.