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We readers are always looking for that next great novel that keeps us riveted. We want a book that keeps us on the edge of our seat, reading late into the night until we can finish it. The one we’ll be thinking about for days or weeks afterward, and recommending to all of our bookish friends.
Often, we think these books are mysteries or psychological thrillers—but do they deliver?
I’m starting to realize that mysteries are NOT the genre for me to read if I want that immersive, satisfying reading experience. Here’s why.
Why Some Mysteries Fall Flat
If I pick up a mystery or psychological thriller, I’m almost certain to see it through to the end. Most create a decent amount of suspense, and they form enough questions that I will keep reading to find out the answer to the mystery.
But even when I get the answers, the overall reading experience sometimes ends up unsatisfactory.
Here are a few reasons some mysteries just don’t work for me.
The Plot Points Serve the Mystery More than the Story
Sometimes it feels like writers are a slave to the secret and not the story. The result is unlikely scenarios, characters that serve no real purpose, and red herrings to throw the reader off the trail. All of these don’t serve the story and they often create loose ends that aren’t addressed by the story’s end.
It’s All About the Twist
Ever since Gone Girl, it seems like just about every thriller has a “big twist.” They are all marketed as the next Gone Girl…and most fall short. Sometimes the twists work—they are surprising and they make sense with the overall arc of the story. Sometimes they seem to be there for the gimmick of it. The build up is all about the twist, and everything that comes after is a let down.
The Characters Interact and Behave In Ways that Only Serve the Mystery
Talking in circles. Never finishing a complete sentence. Leaving in the middle of important conversations Do people really talk the way they do in some mysteries? Maybe they do, and roundabout conversations with communication disconnects aren’t exclusive to mysteries—but they sure seem to show up a lot.
Add in implausible decisions that don’t seem to jive with what we know about characters and we end up with an all-around frustrating reading experience.
Obviously, none of these things are universal across all mystery novels. It’s a huge genre and there are a lot of talented authors–including some whose novels I really enjoyed (Tana French! Louise Penny!).
I’m not even thinking of a particular book as I write about these frustrations. I just know that I often come away from mystery-thrillers less than satisfied.
Thrilling Books that Aren’t Mysteries
Several recent thrillers I’ve read, however, did provide more satisfying reading experiences than usual.
As I thought more about them, I realized what was different: they were thrillers, with many of the hallmarks of a good whodunit, but they weren’t mysteries.
Most of these books have a crime at the center of the story, but the reader knows what’s happening throughout the books. There’s no great mystery for the reader to solve, no secret about the culprit, and no jaded-but-brilliant detective to follow to the resolution.
And most of all, especially at this point in literary time, there’s no “big twist.” These aren’t considered psychological thrillers either. They aren’t the next Gone Girl.
What they are is stories about people who find themselves in circumstances that call for choices about their own survival and the survival of the people they love. The choices often put the characters into moral quandaries and forever change their senses of themselves and their relationships with friends, family, and the world at large.
The action is a focus, of course, but sometimes the real question isn’t how a situation is resolved but how people can move forward after it is.
Here are five books that fit the “thriller without a mystery” category. All are some of my favorite reads, so I know this is the type of book I should read more of. Are there others like this that you would recommend?
As a day at the zoo winds down, Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, make their way toward the exit and realize that the fireworks they heard earlier were, in fact, gunshots. Joan and Lincoln spend the next three hours running, navigating the false wilderness and exhibits that provide hiding places--for themselves and for their hunters. This book had me on the edge of my seat--I read it in a matter of hours--and I could feel the weight of the four-year-old in her arms, as well as the desperation to keep him quiet and make him understand the situation without causing hysteria. I have to admit to some reservations about the zoo after reading this book! My only complaint was some questions that were left unresolved by the end of the book--it could have used another chapter or two.More info →
When Liv and Nora and their husbands decide to take their families on a cruise, it feels like just what everyone needs after some stressful times. They just start to relax when the worst happens: in a moment of lapsed vigilance on a day trip ashore, all of the children disappear. What follows is the parents' desperate attempts to find the kids while dealing with their sudden mistrust of themselves and each other. Meanwhile, the children find themselves having to take responsibility for each other, make life and death choices, and make moment-to-moment decisions about who to trust. The story started a little slow but soon had me on the edge of my seat, all while making sharp observations about privilege, parenting, relationships, and facing both the worst and best in ourselves.More info →
Five-year-old Jack has never known the world beyond Room. He lives there with Ma, who has made it into a world for him. But she has been a prisoner for seven years and she knows it's time for Jack--and her--to have more of a life. But the terrifying escape plot is only the first part of the challenge. If they can make it out of Room, they then need to find their way to a new life, to feelings of security, to new identities, and ultimately back to each other. Room is terrifying for its basis in real-life events, but it's also hopeful for its portrayal of the strength of the bond between parent and child.More info →
The Orphan Master's Son is the story of Pak Jun Do ("John Doe"), the son of a man who runs an orphan work camp in North Korea. Jun Do grows up and rises through the ranks of the North Korean bureaucracy, navigating the changing demands of a volatile leadership to stay alive and make his way closer to Kim Jong Il and the woman he loves. This is an illuminating, thrilling, and horrifying look at life inside North Korea. I was riveted; this is a book that has stayed with me and I still think of it frequently even years after reading it.More info →
At a party in the vice-presidential mansion of an unnamed South American country, a band of young terrorists enters and takes hostages. The hostages include a world-renowned soprano, a Japanese business titan, and diplomats from various countries. The days and months stretch on and lines blur, relationships form, and tensions rise and fall and rise again. This is one of my favorite books and was my first introduction to Ann Patchett--now one of my favorite authors. I recently reread it and had a great experience; read about it in Why You Should Reread Your Favorite Books and How to Make It Worth Your While.More info →
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