Boring thrillers

Boring thrillers: a contradiction in terms? It’s something I’ve been promising to write about for a while now.

I like crime stories but I’m quite fussy about them. To begin with, I want to be in the position of the detective, amateur or professional, and I don’t appreciate being given the criminal’s pov, or some prologue that gives the solution away. I like being asked by the author to investigate alongside the detective and draw sensible conclusions then check them against the eventual ending. I like it when the author plays fair – no deus ex machina at the last minute and preferably no ‘well they were insane and nobody knew’. ( I read a couple like that recently.) I don’t like things that are too gruesome as we ‘watch’ though I don’t mind the investigation of gory crimes. Nor am I keen on really cosy mysteries, partly because I don’t often find them realistic; most investigation is done by professionals, either police or private detectives, not by amateurs.

Having said all that, I’m fairly careful about what I buy or borrow, and always read the blurb. I don’t read many reviews, in case of spoilers. I look at the first couple of pages and if an entire novel is clearly going to be in present tense I tend to turn away. Not a criticism because it’s clever and I know there are people who enjoy it – I’m just not one of them. It’s also a literary ‘trend’ and that’s something I don’t want in my genre reading.

However, recently I have read a number of thrillers that passed all those initial tests and then turned out to be totally uninspiring.

There are the police procedurals that are more about the procedure than the crime. I really think we can skip too much time explaining how a police station works. Even differences between different countries can be covered very briefly. Forensic science labs likewise. I want results and then the detective’s reactions to them.

Some stories have so many characters and so many threads introduced very early that my brain switches off. I have no objection to a cast of hundreds if they’re brought in gradually!

Then there are crime stories that are more about the detective than the crime. Yes, I want an interesting detective so that they come alive on the page and engage my sympathy, but I really don’t want chapter after chapter about their family or their problems till it detracts from the main plot.

That brings me to another kind of boring – boring detectives. I don’t necessarily want a superhero (in fact I don’t much like superheroes) or someone with so many quirks they aren’t real, but I do want them to stand out from the crowd. The same goes for their partner or sidekick. I’m happy with them finding romance – with each other or elsewhere – but again, it shouldn’t overwhelm the plot.

I love most Scandi-Noir on TV but have tried some Scandinavian novels and found them lacking. I think the actors and directors must bring extra life to the characters when books are used for series.

So when I give four or five stars to a crime story you’ll know it has passed all my tests. I’ll mention a few writers I love: Charlie Cochrane and RJ Scott both write mm romantic crime mysteries. KJ Charles does the same and includes magic. Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series is wonderful, as is Ian Rankin’s Rebus. My comfort reading includes Lindsey Davis’ Roman detective Falco. There are others but this isn’t a critique or review post. It’s just to explain why sometimes in my reviews I talk about thrillers being boring.

And you know, when I invest time (and money) in a thriller, the last thing I want is for it to be boring!

6 thoughts on “Boring thrillers

  1. Yea, yea and thrice yea. This is another thing we need to discuss in person because I have a host of examples of authors not playing fair or making things too bleeding obvious (like the Georgette Heyer where I literally knew the murderer from page one.)

    • I read a couple recently (not mm) where the killer was ‘mad’ and nobody had realised. One was American and I kind of shrugged. The other was set here during WWII and I was really disappointed. And yes, being obvious is another way of not playing fair because if you like detective stories basically you like puzzles.

  2. Cough on books from the criminal’s pov grins but otherwise I agree wholeheartedly. Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room was a fantastic book… right up to the point where she unveiled the killer and I thought ‘who?’ And it turned out almost everyone else who read the book also thought ‘who?’ It was a case of ‘least likely candidate did it’ and that gets a bit, well, boring because it’s being done to death at the moment…

  3. I’m not criticising books from criminal’s pov! I’m sure there are some excellent ones out there. Grins at you! But I have to say they aren’t for me, because I want the ‘solve the mystery’ aspect and of course they don’t provide that. And yes, there has to be a moment in a conventional mystery where the reader says ‘aha, I should have known’ along with the detective or perhaps slightly before or after them.

  4. I agree so much with this. I prefer police detectives to the talented amateur, and I want to see them using all the facilities available, but I don’t need a blow by blow account of how it’s done. I like my detectives competent (they make mistakes, who doesn’t) and capable of solving something given the information (which is shared with us). Which means if they are too tied up with their problems then they should be on leave and are clearly not competent.
    I do like some cozy mysteries – in the same way I like reading Miss Read – I like the characters, but they will never be as good as a decent detective – or Miss Marple, whose understanding of characters is what hooks me.

  5. I can see why the cosy mysteries appeal, but if I want ‘cosy’ I’ll go for slice-of-life (like Miss Read) rather than a mystery. I have read a couple of detective stories recently where really the lead detective should not have been at work… I love being given a puzzle to solve provided we have access to all the information the detectives have e.g. the forensics, local knowledge, etc. I ought perhaps to have added that I’m not wild about the books or shows where the forensic team do the investigating. They wouldn’t or shouldn’t have time…

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