Daniel Palmer, best-selling author of Trauma, shares his top five favorite suspense novels and why there so great.
Let’s face it—most of us (if not all) are dealing with some form of information overload. Our phones can execute millions of calculations a second. Smart televisions make picture-in-picture technology seem like a cute parlor trick. Even our watches can send updates from CNN along with our heart rate.
One downside to all this whiz-bang gadgetry is how technology and its many distractions have altered our working memory by zapping our attention. When we count on a computer to remember something for us, we tend not to remember it for ourselves.
Some experiences, however, do seem to avoid this techie mind trap. Some things get lodged so deep in the crevices of our gray matter we can’t forget them even if we tried.
When it comes to picking five suspense novels to share, I went for books whose stories I had no trouble recalling despite all the information I’ve crammed into my overwhelmed noggin. In no way is this quick list comprehensive of the best of the best. The omission of Stieg Larsson, Tess Gerritsen, Joe Finder, Lee Child, Karen Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, Harlan Coben, Patricia Highsmith, John Grisham, Katherine Neville, a bunch of others — heck even my own father, Michael Palmer — has to do only with the constraints of this assignment.
That said, here are five top-notch suspense novels whose stories have stuck with me through the years and whose level of craft is unquestionable.
Dean Koontz’s Watchers
Ask me to pen an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that must include a golden retriever named Einstein (who can play Scrabble), and I don’t think you’d be thrilled with the results. Thank goodness we have Dean Koontz! Good (capital G) and Evil (capital E) are on full display in this cautionary tale of genetic engineering gone wrong. Koontz can craft a sentence with the best of them, but the action jets, thanks to his crisp and economical prose. When I first read Watchers as a teen, The Outsider character thrilled (or scared) me no end. It was, however, the slow reveal of Einstein’s exceptional gifts and the bond between man and dog that made this remarkable book an endearing and suspenseful read.
Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs
The serial killer aspect of Harris's masterpiece is truly frightening, but it's the psychological warfare between Starling and Lecter that makes this novel a classic. The relationship surpasses the plot, or the plot is there to serve the relationship. Clarice is both pupil and teacher, and it's through her the book's core message comes clear. The monsters to fear most are the ones lurking in our minds. Like Clarice, we strive to solve problems, to prove ourselves, but all we truly want is for the lambs to stop screaming in our heads.
Ken Follett’s Eye of The Needle
The stakes here are inarguably high: the true-life deception of the Allies’ “Operation Fortitude” might decide the fate of the war. The hunt for the master German spy, Henry Faber (aka The Needle), who carries proof of the American plan, escapes pedestrian spy thriller territory thanks to its unlikely heroine. I can’t help but wonder if someone bet Follett he could not write a novel in which a lonely housewife wins the war. Lucy Rose was not only a compelling heroine; she was an utterly believable one. If Follett did make that bet, he won it handily.
Stephen King’s The Stand
Read the news today, and it’s easy to take a gloomy outlook. King felt a similar sense of doom when, in the mid-1970s, he penned his Lord of the Rings-like epic on an American landscape. We love archetypes, perhaps for the same reason we’re addicted to those dang Buzzfeed quizzes; in them, we hope to catch a glimpse of our better selves. When scrubbed of what defines us (our possessions, our jobs, etc.), what’s left is our character. King’s masterwork makes it easy to imagine that we too could be as bold, as brave, as amazing as the archetypical heroes who face the ultimate evil in humanity’s final stand.
Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October
When you start a book with a Russian sub being chased by the Russian fleet, you know you’re in for a thrill ride. Clancy is deft at conveying the claustrophobic feeling of life below sea level. What makes the book something truly special is how he blends an explanation of gadgetry with a plot as propulsive as any torpedo. It reads like non-fiction, which in some ways is the highest praise one can bestow on any fiction writer.
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