I have just finished reading Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water; thriller of the year according to the badge on the front cover of my copy. I think it certainly must be one of the bestsellers of the year as it is dominating the shelves of high street, shopping mall and airport bookshops. It’s definitely good and I would recommend unreservedly for thriller and crime writer lovers.
What the book reminded me of was a very complex episode of A Midsomer Murders (which it actually, a bit cheesily to my mind, cites) or, being generous, a well constructed episode of Morse. The plot is complex and and tied together effectively, but there wasn’t a lot of suspense and it never really felt like a ‘whodunnit’, though it was. It’s told in short chapters and pulls in all the different characters’ roles in the unravelling of the crime to a satisfactory conclusion. To be fair, it’s really well constructed, but I do struggle with intricate plot lines. Even the later Harry Potter books had me pretty confused.
I only started reading crime and thriller books when I became a librarian, (I needed to keep up to date) and now I’m not a librarian anymore I don’t ‘have to’. Thrillers are probably not my thing, but I was swayed by all the hype of Into the Water and did enjoy The Girl on the Train. Generally speaking I do find the writing sparse and a bit too plain for my taste. Also, the jump between the first and third person is a bit jarring, although perhaps necessary to create character understanding whilst getting the plot moving forward. Having said all that, what wouldn’t I give to be able to write anything even a teeny fraction as good!
Book v Movie
I sometimes grimace when people say “No, I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the film.” I turn all book snobby, but I think when it comes to thrillers, TV maybe is a better medium for me. Here’s why:
- I can pause the TV and ask the family what is happening when I miss a bit. (I know that I can flick back in a book, but it isn’t quite the same.)
- I am not dependent on remembering the characters’ names to keep up. In Into the Water, it was essential to keep referring back to who was speaking or being spoken about.
- In this genre I think that characterisation is usually more fully developed in moving images than it is on the page.
- At least in modern thriller writing, I think the atmosphere is usually better drawn in moving images. (I think the opportunity to really go to town on the atmosphere of the river was missed in Into the Water.)
- When watching on the TV, you (or at least, I) tend not to cheat and jump to the end, but I always do this when reading.
- Finally, in this genre, there isn’t, to my mind, any place for the author’s voice to be heard. (I don’t mean the same thing as making stylistic use of narrative voice), I just mean hearing the writer come through in their fiction when there’s no need. It’s irritating. In the summer, I read John Grisham’s The Rooster Bar where I could hear an author throughout, (is it actually John Grisham who churns out the books or a team of writers?) It dominated and, to be honest, I thought was pretty poor. Judging by his sales, I’m not sure that will be a popular observation!
A Great Thriller Book
Probably the best thriller that I’ve read is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The plot was exquisite, but even better is that it was imaginatively and flawlessly crafted, rather than just being accurately plotted. I think Gone Girl far exceeds the expectations of a simple thriller and is appealing for those readers for whom strong characterisation is the main hook in. However, I still couldn’t always keep up with the plot and had to flick back!
I have a Maths teacher friend who loves a good thriller and simply eats them up on holidays (the Maths may have relevance) as antidote to anxiety is perhaps needed, but for me they are hard work and take too much concentration. They are a bit of a slow burn too – but, to be fair, by the end I’m usually glad I’ve persevered. I am glad I read Into the Water and I vow to try to be a little more open minded about thrillers in general. I am eagerly awaiting the next Robert Galbraith, though, that’s possibly just because of my middle-aged mid-life crisis crush on the main character Cormoran Strike! Hmm, not sure I like what that reveals about me as a reader!
I’ve just read this through before posting. Did I really base the blog post on the premise that the TV version may be better than the book. Fully retracted!