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If I told my publishers I was writing only one book this year, rather than 10, they would have a heart attack.
James Patterson is a selling sensation in the world of books. More than 300 million copies have been bought with his name emblazoned on the cover. To achieve this, he works with a cohort of regular co-writers; his publisher employs 3 people to look after his output alone. What’s the secret to this record-breaking author’s achievement?
The clues to his success are all there: Patterson’s commercial nouse (he insisted on his first Alex Cross book being advertised on TV), combined with the sheer number of titles he’s published (147 and counting) and the fact that he builds his series on recurring characters.
Patterson’s trademark fiction plays fast and loose. He writes like a racing driver: all hair-pin bends and in a frenzy for plotting and pace – so much so that his books claim “the pages turn themselves”. Since the author believes “showing off can get in the way of a good story”, his writing is colloquial and as bare as a tree stripped naked by winter. This is all wrapped up with graphic violence, James-Bond-style set pieces and plenty of twists and turns.
Take a closer look at the selection below to find another author like James Patterson to fit your perfect crime thriller profile.
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The city fed on it’s past like a serpent with its tail in its mouth.
Our first crime thriller writer, Ian Rankin, transports us north of the misty Scottish border.
In 2002, Rankin received an OBE for services to literature in his beloved Edinburgh. He achieved this accolade by carving out a name for himself in so-called ‘tartan noir’ since 1987. Enter Inspector Rebus, Rankin’s main man. He’s one of those inhabitants who really grows from the character of his patch – in this case, the crawling underbelly of contemporary Edinburgh.
Such is the history of this gothic city that walking its streets is even now guaranteed to give you a tingling, stepping-over-somebody-else’s-grave sensation.
Rankin’s work is inhabited by the topical themes of the day, such as immigration, cyber-crime, police corruption and Scottish nationalism. His protagonist is the perfect chameleon for the city’s darker side. Rebus is one of those great, old-school detectives: cerebral and hard-spoken on the outside, but nursing his Achilles heels all the same.
The crimes he faces are like jigsaws (even the detective’s name derives from that of a kind of puzzle). He must race against time to piece all of the shattered pieces back together.
Recommended Book: ‘Knots & Crosses’ (1987)
This is where it all began: the book that introduced us to the brooding and cynical detective Rebus. This serial smoker and drinker must hunt for a serial killer, who taunts him with clues.
Two young girls have been abducted and murdered, a third is missing – and it’s up to Rebus’ sharp mind to catch him.
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A good crime novel…allows us to know ourselves better.
Tess Gerritsen’s fiction has been cornering a niche in the crime thriller market since the publication of ‘Harvest’ in 1996. The physician-turned-writer has become a dab hand at her own brand of medical suspense thrillers, to be dubbed the “medical suspense queen”.
Gerritsen uses her first-hand medical knowledge, which comes straight from the emergency room and autopsy table, to smart and devastating effect. This medical vein running through the sediment of her books is used to tell tales of organ smuggling, epidemics and knowing how to hande a corpse. These nervy suspense books are unsurprisingly full of guts and gristle.
Recommended Book: ‘The Bone Garden‘ (2007)
The mystery in this eerie potboiler begins when a gardener strikes a human skull in her backyard. The reader’s transported back to Boston in the early 1800s, and the murky trade of resurrection-men.
Norris Marshall is the medical student-turned-body-snatcher, whose sideline in obtaining corpses from grave robbers keeps his place at Harvard. But with the West End Reaper knocking at his back, how long can he stay in the game?
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When reality becomes too senseless to make sense, the human mind will sometimes create its own.
Newcomer Chris Carter’s line is in psychological crime thrillers. The grisly crimes within his books are certainly the products of sadistic and warped minds.
The author worked previously as a criminal psychologist, studying and interviewing serial killers and multiple homicides. Becoming an author, and writing his 7 books (and counting), was not a career move he premeditated. Carter’s protagonist is the psychologist-turned-detective Robert Hunter, who is employed by the Los Angeles Robbery Homicide Division.
Carter’s plots present a labyrinth of macabre and depraved serial-killing minotaurs, to whom his victims fall prey in spectacularly gory ways. These are creepy and depraved stories that plunder the depths of the human mind.
Recommended Book: ‘One by One’ (2013)
‘One by One’ is a play on our modern-day bogeyman: technology. Detective Hunter is taunted with a live online video of a serial killer making his name. This quickly escalates into a live murder reality show, in which audience participation is encouraged.
Their fate is in your hands… With its surprise ending, this book is a good one to keep you guessing.
You’ve got two more stabs at finding a writer like James Patterson. Patricia Cornwell puts forensic science at the forefront of her contemporary thrillers. Raymond Chandler, on the other hand, takes us thrillingly back to the good (bad) old days of classic noir crime.
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I take things that have been traumatic and use them as rocket fuel.
Patricia Cornwell pioneered the use of forensic science (the principal that every contact leaves an identifiable trace) in mainstream contemporary crime books.
It’s more than just an academic interest. Cornwell gleaned her knowledge from working in a Chief Medical Examiner’s office (i.e. a coroner) for a number of years. “I’m supposed to be writing my memoirs, but I kind of already am. I do it in every book”, she explains. The writer has even done a little digging around of her own into Jack the Ripper. In doing her research on Jack, Cornwell went so far as to mutilate hunks of meat with knives from the period to test the wounds made.
Appropriately, the author herself is something of a daredevil who drives a Ferrari and a helicopter and practises extreme sports.
Recommended Book: ‘Postmortem’ (1990)
The star of this show is a medical examiner. With her blue eyes and blonde hair, Dr Kay Scarpetta could be an avenging angel: all steel and ice, plus with an irresistible gravitation towards the most gruesome cases. This lends an analytical edge to Cornwell’s fiction as Scarpetta takes a scalpel to the task of catching killers.
All of this is viewed as novel, because it was being published in the days before forensic TV dramas like ‘CSI’ and ‘Dexter’ had hit our screens. These days it’s less unexpected, and Angelina Jolie is reportedly in line to play Scarpetta on screen.
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A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.
Last but not least, an honourable mention must go to Raymond Chandler – whose writing is the quintessence of hard-boiled detective fiction. Patterson’s best work is said to contain echoes of Chandler, who authored ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘The Lady in the Lake’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’ amongst others.
Recommended Book: ‘The Big Sleep’ (1939)
Philip Marlowe is the private eye for hire here: a wise-cracking, fast-thinking character who roams his battleground of Los Angeles. He’s gifted at loosening tongues, with an ability to drink (and to think) criminals under the table. Not that that’s enough to prevent every single murder – Chandler’s fiction squeezes in an extraordinarily high body count.
The writer kept to a fail-safe formula: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” Marlowe’s daily grind drags up hungry-eyed portraits of desperate secrets, family skeletons, sex scandals, inheritance fraud and more – the perfect ingredients to cook up a cracking crime thriller.
Marlowe’s is a volatile and sexy world of beautiful self-destruction. But all that glitters is not gold. Instead, this gilded cage of beautiful femme fatales and smoky jazz bars is a toxic entrapment. To capture its essence, Chandler’s stylish sentence construction is like no-one else’s. His phrases are clipped, pin-sharp and lyrical.
Into them, he decants his idiosyncratic turn of phrase with a kick like a mule. See how “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”, ““He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake”, or “The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” take you.
In doing so, the writer wrings out every last drop of hard-boiled attitude and atmosphere. Chandler composes his scenes like a director – so little wonder that film star Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the movies.
Crime fiction has the power to take you to the edge of human capabilities for evil and mayhem. Writers are always ramping up these stakes with their electrifying whodunits. Luckily for us, their detectives and sleuths can (usually) handle even the most unimaginable horrors that crawl their way.
No matter how dark and discomforting their subject matter, there is ultimately something comforting about how these crime-fighters save the day. And for writers as successful as James Patterson, it’s safe to say crime definitely pays.
Who best fits your profile for the greatest crime thriller writers like James Patterson?
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