As it's summer, it's a good time to repost some articles and lists I've done elsewhere on The Internets.
Our first delivery of eco-conscious recycled material this year comes from Foyles, who asked me earlier this year for my top 10 locations in which to set a thriller. It was good timing as I had just finished edits on The Time to Kill, which sprawls across two different time periods, three countries and about half a dozen US states.
Here's what I came up with:
Thriller-writing has something in common with house-buying: location, location, location.
Think of some of the standout scenes in classic thriller fiction and movies. The sweeping Scottish Highlands in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The murky lawless zone of the off-shore casino in Farewell, My Lovely. The mountain-top base in the Alps in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The towering glass and steel Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard.
A twisting plot and compelling characters are important, but an evocative location can effortlessly add drama to any scene. With that in mind, here are ten of my picks for great thriller backdrops.
- The wilderness (particularly when the climate is inhospitable)
A great way to pile on some extra suspense is to place the action in a wild, isolated location that’s as much of a threat to the protagonists as the villains are. In my book, The Time to Kill (Winterlong in the US), freelance manhunter Carter Blake finds himself alone and unarmed in the middle of rural Minnesota in the middle of a blizzard. He’d be in trouble even without the men with guns and hunting dogs on his trail.
- A bustling metropolis
New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong are some obvious examples, but there are many more to choose from. Hubs that draw all sorts of people from around the world, home to millions upon millions of people and as many unique stories. It’s not just the mass of diverse humanity; the urban playground provides multiple opportunities for thrilling setups, from super-highways to narrow backalleys; from dingy subways to open rooftops.
- A small town in the middle of nowhere
The incongruity of a sleepy little town and the threat or reality of violence is a classic setup used in a lot of thrillers, and most westerns. Isolated outposts of humanity are vulnerable to external threat, or the town itself can be part of the menace. Lee Child makes use of the understated sinisterness of small, closed communities in several of the Jack Reacher books.
- An abandoned post-industrial site
Aged, dilapidated factories always make for an atmospheric backdrop to the action. I’m a big fan of photographs taken by urban explorers in disused factories and subway stations. Something about a cavernous space built for teeming masses, and now surrendered to the ravages of nature makes the characters seem all the more isolated and vulnerable.
- Anywhere in Russia
Place a thriller anywhere in Russia and it immediately benefits from the residual menace of decades of Cold War spy thrillers from Fleming to Le Carré. To Western eyes, it’s still a slightly mysterious, authoritarian society, with ample scope for spy games and government-sponsored skulduggery.
- A confined location
Whether it’s a cruise ship, an underground bunker, or (as in JS Law’s excellent Tenacity) a nuclear submarine, a closed, confined location is the ideal setting for claustrophobic thrills. It’s equally good for a ‘locked room’ mystery on a slightly larger scale. If the characters are cooped up together with no way to escape, the tension will ratchet up, along with the whodunit possibilities.
- A war zone
A backdrop of a vast, nation-spanning conflict can be an excellent way to throw a smaller story into relief. The threat doesn’t come from one direction, it’s all around.
- A large crowd
There’s nothing like a big political rally or a stadium rock concert being threatened by an evildoer to raise the stakes. With so many faces in the crowd, the threat could come from anywhere. Even from a giant blimp, in the case of Thomas Harris’s first novel Black Sunday.
- A train
This actually combines a lot of the above techniques, which is probably why trains pop up more frequently in thrillers than any other form of mass transit. A train can take you deep into the wilderness. It’s a mobile confined location between stations. The killer can hide among the crowd of passengers. It’s frequently difficult to get a phone signal or internet connection. And the ticket collectors often act like throwback Soviet secret police…
- A phone blackspot
If there’s one thing that makes a modern thriller novelist’s life difficult, it’s the fact that virtually any human on the planet can immediately summon help using a handy device that fits into their pocket. Putting the lead character somewhere they can’t call 999 (or 911) is a great way to emphasise their isolation and give them (rather than the writer) an extra problem.