Lisa Gardner wrote the epitome of a thriller. Tense, exciting, edge-of-your-seat suspense and incredible characterization make this book a must-read for lovers of this genre, and a must-study for writers in general.
The Survivors Club, one of Donald Maass’s examples of good characterization in his book The Fire in Fiction, has well over a dozen characters in it, each fully rounded–even the most minor. The twists Gardner throws in are enough to make you bite your nails to nubs. She doesn’t let up on the tension from page one to the very end–the very satisfying end. The bad guy is diabolical, making his defeat all the more luscious.
If I remember correctly (and forgive me, I’m still at Mom’s and the book is back home), Maass used the introduction of one of Gardner’s main characters, Griffin, as an example in his book–he could’ve chosen any of them, but Griffin works because his intro is different from the other characters. Griffin, a cop, is a flawed hero, but we don’t realize just how flawed he is, or how entwined it is with the story, until Gardner reveals it, piece by piece throughout the novel. When he’s introduced, all we know is he’s been away awhile. In his opening scene, he is driving to work:
Here I am. I am ready.
And then . . . ?
“Welcome back,” they would greet him. (Hopefully.)
“Thanks,” he would say. (Probably.)
“How are you feeling?” they’d ask. (Suspiciously.)
“Good,” he’d reply. (Too easily.)
Ah . . . Good was a stupid answer.
As Griffin continues another bout of rehearsals with himself, the readers know something is up, but Gardner makes us wait to find out just what it is. In other words, we don’t get the backstory right up front.
I found a nugget in the story, too, for those writers who like using all the senses–an incredible use of “smell.” One of the characters’ husbands wasn’t there to save her from a brutal and violent rape, and for a while afterward tried to pamper her, bringing her flowers and takeout from her favorite restaurants. “Guilt, she decided, smelled like red roses and veal piccata.”
Really, can you beat that?
For the writers who believe you should never name an emotion, but rather illustrate it, Gardner’s technique is to do both:
Up one street, down the other. Around this block, around another. Clock ticking, tension mounting. Griffin could feel the knots bulging in his shoulders, while Waters cracked his knuckles incessantly.
Gardner had no qualms about using the word “tension,” but she also illustrated it brilliantly–as she did throughout the book. More often than not, she illustrated the emotion without naming it, but this wasn’t a hard and fast rule for her.
Along with other tricks, Gardner uses repetition to draw images and build tension. In this scene, Griffin is face to face with the bad guy:
“Where is Meg?” Griffin asked again, circling, circling, circling.
“You think?” Circling, circling, circling.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you haven’t exactly gotten away yet . . . ”
Griffin shrugged. “If you say so.”
“What is wrong with you! . . . yell at me!”
Griffin didn’t say a word. Just circled, circled, circled.
Writers also learn to imagine the most awful thing that could happen to their characters, make it worse . . . then do it. Gardner is a pro at this. I’d have to quote the entire book to show what she does and how she does it, so best bet is to read it yourself.
As always in mainstream books, the language is rough–and the novel starts off with some seriously vile language, because the story begins with a conversation between two bad guys. Unlike the Tami Hoag novel that didn’t impress me, the use of expletives is relatively limited with the rest of the characters, and is heaviest only when illustrating strong emotions or with the types of characters who use such language as second nature. In other words, it’s realistic. Those who know me know my opinion: Even realism isn’t a reason to use foul language. But being realistic myself, I know to expect it in secular novels.
A quick note about the assault scenes: they are violent and terrifying, but not nearly as explicit as they could have been. Even so, this is not a book for sensitive readers.
Great examples. Thrillers aren’t usually my genre, but I may have to check this one out. I agree that there are no hard and fast rules in fiction. Only general guidelines – and they were made to be broken.
I think it’s worth the read. Gardner has some good tricks up her sleeve!
Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. I think I’ll have to read! Probably my next purchase for my Kindle (if it’s available.)
I definitely need to go through Maass’ book again–and read all the books he used as examples. I think I’ve only read two, and one was by Nancy Pickard, who runs the local Sisters in Crime group I go to periodically.
You’ll like it!