Slow Reveals, Twists and Turns, and Other Tricks of the Trade
June 3, 2019 By: CHARLIE DONLEA
At the heart of every great thriller is an unforgettable climax. This pinnacle moment in a thriller is what defines the genre. It’s where the action takes place, where the reveal is laid bare, and where the twist is sprung on us. But there is an art to creating the climax. If it’s dumped too abruptly upon the reader, even if it checks all the right boxes, it can be a let down—like waking up to discover it’s Christmas morning without having enjoyed the holiday season that preceded it. Sure, it’s fun to open the presents, but without the lead up to the big day, something’s missing. Before the best reveals, in front of the most stunning twists, and ahead of the greatest unveilings of a killer’s identity, is a staircase. Climbing it is where the real fun happens, because it is with each successive step up this staircase where readers find the suspense in a thriller.
When I wrote the draft of my debut novel, I began with a brutal murder in the first chapter, then jumped back a year in the next. Through the rest of the book, I followed the victim through her life leading up to its violent end, dropping clues along the way as to who killed her and why. Then in one quick chapter at the end, I revealed everything in a few quick pages—what she was hiding, who killed her, the twist, the shock, the reveal, the getaway and the aftermath. I confidently turned my novel over to my editor and awaited his notes.
My editor’s comment: “You turned the staircase into a stoop.”
I went back to work. Under my editor’s watchful eye, I revised the novel so the big reveal unfolds over a few well-paced chapters that create an elaborate staircase to catapult the reader into the final, climactic scene. And with each subsequent novel I’ve written, my editor has continued to remind me that with thrillers, just like life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Here are ten thrillers that produce chest-tightening suspense by leading us up some impressive staircases.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
We could all learn a lot about suspense from reading Dennis Lehane. But if you want to experience suspense while being rattled to your core, then read Mystic River. The story or three childhood friends from a blue collar town is both atmospheric and chilling. The men have each followed different paths since a disturbing event took place when they were all friends growing up in the streets of Boston. It is on one of those streets that a car pulls up while they are playing ball and one of the boys is lured into the backseat. There is no more frightening scene than when the boy looks at his friends through the rear window as the car pulls away, supposedly to drive the boy home at his father’s request.
The friends are reunited twenty-five years later when one of their daughters is murdered. Now a cop, a crook, and a survivor, these three men fight their demons and their doubts—about each other, and themselves—to find the killer.
Staircase level: Precipitous
Defending Jacob by William Landay
Defending Jacob tells the story of an Assistant District Attorney whose son, Jacob, is accused of murder after a classmate is stabbed to death. Of course, no parent can believe their child capable of such a crime. Jacob is odd and quirky, socially inept and reserved, but he’s not a killer. Soon, though, evidence to the contrary emerges, and Jacob’s father finds himself hiding a knife he discovers in his son’s bedroom. When the town begins to turn on Jacob, and his mother’s faith is tested, the family escapes to the Caribbean to get away from the media attention and attempt to rebuild their trust in each other.
The events that take place in Jamaica start the reader up the staircase, and the disturbing truths we learn bring this story to a book-throwing, gotta-take-a-break point. But the narrative beckons us to continue, and so we do, racing up the stairs but stumbling, too, because we can’t believe what we’re reading.
Staircase level: Steep
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
Josh Bazell was offered a million dollar advance for his debut novel, and it’s not hard to see why. Beat the Reaper tells the story of Peter Brown, a New York doctor with good looks, a talent for saving lives, and a buried past he’d like to keep underground. Dr. Brown’s new patient is Nicholas LoBrutto, a mafia wiseguy with three months to live. But Mr. LoBrutto is not entirely without his wits. It seems he recognizes Peter from back in the day and believes that before his doctor was saving lives, he was ending them as a hitman for the mob.
The genius of Bazell’s novel doesn’t come from Peter going on the run, the chase scenes, or the shark tank where Peter spends an entire night fending off dorsal fins and jagged teeth. Instead, the white-knuckled reading comes from the slow building tension of Dr. Brown’s identity becoming known to those who’d rather see him dead than benefit from his life-saving abilities.
Staircase level: Extreme
Under Water by Casey Barrett
Duck Darley is the protagonist of Barrett’s outstanding, Shamus Award nominated series. A former competitive swimmer who should have been wearing gold around his neck and swimming into the proverbial sunset as an Olympic coach, Duck is instead a down on his luck, bourbon-drinking, pill popping private investigator. When Duck is tasked with tracking down the sister of an old teammate, the secrets he uncovers set his glory days on a collision course with his present reality. Of course, the few people left in Duck’s life that he holds near and dear end up in as much danger as he does. The buildup to the finale is what makes this book shine, but here’s a warning: you’ll need a strong stomach to climb this staircase and watch Duck get to the bottom of the mystery. Two fingers of a Bulleit wouldn’t hurt either.
Staircase level: Sharp
The Firm by John Grisham
I pick up The Firm every so often to remind myself how to write great suspense. But despite my scholarly intentions, every time I open the book I’m transformed into a rapid thriller fan, ripping through the pages despite knowing exactly how they’ll end.
The premise provides all the lumber to build a sturdy staircase: A shady Memphis law firm routinely flies its attorneys to Grand Cayman for long weekends, putting them up in the firm’s twin beachside condos and allowing the overworked lawyers some R&R. In reality, the firm is sending its best and brightest to the tropics to launder mob money. But when the FBI recruits the firm’s newest attorney, he has a tough choice to make: Help the Feds take the firm down, or go down with it.
The most desperate scenes come when an unlikely ally of Mitch McDeer, and an even unlikelier accomplice, head to the Caymans to steal documents from under the nose of a sedated member of the firm, racing back and forth between the twin condos in the dead of night to make copies of the incriminating evidence. In the meantime, a private jet filled with bad guys is deployed from Memphis to stop them.
Staircase level: Vertical.
Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Cain
I’m a sucker for small towns and serial killers. In this gem, Gwen Proctor has relocated to a small lakeside community in an effort to escape a dark and sordid past—her husband is a convicted serial killer, and his reign of terror had been going on for years in the family’s two-car garage. Naturally, many believe Gwen couldn’t have been clueless to her husband’s disturbing habits, and they plan to find her and make her life a living hell. Gwen has different plans—to disappear and take her kids with her.
She’s doing a pretty good job at it until a body shows up in the clear waters of the lake their house sits on. The body has all the signatures of her husband’s handiwork. Suspense builds as Gwen races to get to the bottom of the murder while running for her life, with her kids in tow and several dangerous villains on her tail.
Staircase level: Harsh
Broken Places by Tracy Clark
Clark’s Anthony and Lefty Award nominated debut is the first in her Chicago Mystery Series that follows Cass Raines, a former cop turned private investigator. When she discovers a dead priest in the confessional, she suspects more than a burglary-gone-bad, which is the conclusion the lead detective is pedaling. Tracy Clark creates a push/pull dynamic as her story unfolds, slowly teasing the reader, until that dynamic becomes more intense and she reveals all her novel’s secrets in the homestretch. As a Chicagoan myself, I recognize some the players in this ripped-from-the headlines thriller—from the politicians to the outspoken clergyman. But you don’t have to be a city slicker to love this thriller. Climbing the staircase with Cass, one clue at time, will put even a backwoods yokel on the edge of their seats.
Staircase level: Severe
Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman
When a beautiful young couple heads to Bora Bora for their honeymoon, they are ill prepared to make a discovery that could change their lives forever. But that’s exactly what happens one afternoon on a scuba diving excursion when they discover…you guessed it, something in the water.
What brings the suspense in Catherine Steadman’s debut is not the discovery itself, but what the characters do with it. Their poor choices send them spiraling toward danger and death. We know this from the beginning, since the book opens with someone digging a grave, one painful shovelful at a time…for the main character.
Staircase level: Sheer
Room by Emma Donoghue
The story of a woman held for seven years in the backyard shed of her captor, Room will both capture your heart while simultaneously attempting to arrest it. As this woman works to raise her son in the small confines of the shed where he was conceived, born, and has learned everything he knows about life, she worries that the walls of her shed will not be able to contain her son’s interest much longer. And she fears that her son’s growing curiosity will lead her capture to take control of the situation.
As she works to find a way out of her situation, we learn of all her failed attempts in the past and the consequences that followed. Will this next plan finally work? Maybe. This time, she has an accomplice.
Staircase level: Perpendicular
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Thomas Harris takes readers inside the mind of his villains better than any thriller author out there. In Red Dragon, the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, the reader learns the distorted, inner workings of the mind of The Tooth Fairy, a psychopath who kills for the fun of it. His victims are entire families, and he’s already slaughtered two of them by the time the FBI starts their hunt for him.
The FBI agent who pieces together the method in which The Tooth Fairy chooses his families is fascinating. But the love affair between The Tooth Fairy and a blind woman he falls for is where the tension lies. Our villain works to prevent his lover from discovering who he really is, which can be accomplished only one of two ways—either stop killing, or kill again.
Staircase level: Treacherous
Charlie Donlea is the USA Today and International bestselling author of Summit Lake, The Girl Who Was Taken and Don't Believe It. His fourth novel, Some Choose Darkness is available now (US, AU, BR). His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages across fifteen countries. He resides in Chicago with his wife and two young children
Crime Reads June 3, 2019
Tags: #BrokenPlaces #CaseyBarrett #CatherineSteadman #CharlieDonlea #DefendingJacob #DennisLehane #EmmaDonoghue #JohnGrisham #JoshBazell #Kensington #MysticRiver #RachelCain #RedDragon #Room #SomeChooseDarkness #SomethingintheWater #StillhouseLake