The new year is ten weeks old, and I see from my stats that I’ve read sixty books in the last seventy days. Of course, thirty-nine of these were audio books and seven were graphic novels, so I’m not sure in what sense I can say I’ve been reading.
I went through a huge number of thrillers this year. I’ve been on the domestic thriller band-wagon from the beginning. Gone Girl was a huge favorite of mine when it came out, and I’m always down to see the twisting tendrils of madness as it manifests within the typical American yuppie couple.
But I have to say, a large number of these domestic thrillers were pretty disappointing. I think the problem here is The Girl On The Train and, to a lesser extent, Gone Girl, which both went to extreme lengths to keep you guessing about key aspects of the narrative.
But this is not usually good storytelling. I mean, generally speaking, people tend not to be uncertain about whether or not the things they’ve experienced in the recent past actually occurred. Like, let’s say I had a person rent a room in my house. Then I see my neighbor murder them. Almost always, I’m going to be pretty sure that this person actually existed. First of all, it’s unlikely that nobody else would have EVER seen them. I don’t care how huge an agorophobe I am: there’d be some evidence of their existence. Secondly, I could prove their existence if I needed to. Maybe they left something behind. Maybe they gave me something. Maybe they had to sign a lease. Maybe I ran a credit check. Maybe they rented through AirBnB. Now I’m not saying you always have all this evidence, but generally speaking, the facts are relatively clear.
Similarly the protagonist is insane, then usually it’s equally clear, to the outside observer, that they are insane. They’re like, this boarder came to my house, and she brought an alien with her, and they were working with the CIA. There’s not a lot of edge cases when it comes to visual hallucinations.
Which is not to say that you can’t have people with delusional beliefs that aren’t disprovable (people who believe they are, for instance, Jesus Christ), but that actually be a pretty concrete thing. Because if I’m reading a story about someone who believes they’re Jesus, I know that I’m dealing with an inherently ambiguous unresolvable situation (unless they perform miracles, in which case it’s unambiguous in a different direction).
Now if you’re gonna muddy the waters and try to make the reader believe that a relatively simple situation is actually ambiguous, then you’re gonna end up writing a book that’s pretty sweaty. Like, you simply cannot spend four hundred pages obfuscating whether or not someone actually exists.
Sometimes I get very disappointed with the writers of plot-driven fiction. Because it feels like they believe that it’s easy. All you need is to throw some crap at a board and then contort all logic to make it work. Like, oh alright, we’ve got a murder. But nobody is sure that the person actually existed in the first place! Wouldn’t that be a mindfuck? No.
It’s gotten to the point where I just won’t read any book if the plot summary contains more than one plot twist. Like, here’s an example, is the plot summary of Riley Sagar’s mega-hit Final Girls:
Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.
That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.
Now “Serial killer targets the survivors of other serial killers” is pretty absurd, but I might read that book. What I won’t read is “serial killer targets the survivor of other serial killers, AND it turns out he was connected to the killings that they all survived…” That’s one plot twist too many! I mean trying to imagine how that would work (or why anyone would do it) can ONLY lead you to ridiculous places. There is no reasonable novel that can be constructed from such a premise.
What I prefer are books where there’s some sort of concrete conflict that flows organically from characters who have different needs. For instance, my favorite of this crop of thrillers was Michelle Frances’s The Girlfriend, which is about a clingy mother who’s afraid that her son’s girlfriend is a gold-digger. She’s not wrong, but she’s also not right (incidentally, this is same premise as that of Henry James’s most readable novel, Washington Square). That’s a good novel. I’ll read that shit all day.
But coming up with a premise this simple is HARD. You can’t just churn out something like that year after year (at least not without repeating yourself). And that’s why it’s hard to find good thrillers. Somebody might write one or two great ones, but eventually either the pressure of the market catches up to them, and they start churning out crap, or their pace of publishing becomes glacially slow and they try to cross-brand their books as “literary thrillers” (which is a bit of a meaningless term, to be honest).