What makes a book a thriller and not just another novel? British novelist Kate Atkinson’s debut in the mystery genre, Case Histories, raises that question. Sure, as in many competently written novels, life and death questions arise, characters develop, the plot twists and turns, and the reader has the satisfying experience of peering through a keyhole into the lives of people who are somehow . . . well, interesting. So, what sets apart a thriller from other novels that succeed in all these dimensions? Let’s try to count the ways . . .
Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1) by Kate Atkinson ★★★★☆
First, something truly mysterious is going on. In Case Histories there are three mysteries, each of them a cold case the police could never untangle.
Second, the mysterious goings-on typically involve or result in mayhem or murder. There’s no lack of such gruesome outcomes in Case Histories.
Third, the central preoccupation of the protagonist — willingly or unwillingly, professionally or as an amateur — is to solve the mystery. In Case Histories, Atkinson’s sleuth, retired police Inspector Jackson Brodie, now a private detective, becomes embroiled in all three cases and finds them taking over his life.
Fourth, unlike many latter-day novels, there is a beginning, middle, and end to the book, and in the end the mystery is solved. Justice may or may not be done, but the reader is almost certainly left with an understanding of what happened. Case Histories requires the reader to engage in a little guesswork on this score, but this is one of its characteristics that make it a better than average thriller.
Fifth, there are big surprises in store for the reader. In a typical novel, the twists of the plot more frequently enlighten than surprise. In skillfully crafted thrillers such as Case Histories, the surprises are often breathtaking. Atkinson reached for four principal surprises. Two were reasonably easy to anticipate. The others were eye-openers. 50/50 ain’t bad!
Case Histories, which introduced Jackson Brodie in 2004, has been followed by three other Kate Atkinson mystery novels, of which I’ve read two. Atkinson’s compassion for her characters is deep, her understanding of aberrant human behavior impressive. All three of these books are plotted with a talent for complexity worthy of a Byzantine prince and an appetite for a large cast of characters reminiscent of a Bollywood producer. If there are any faults in her writing, they stem from these characteristics, which may befuddle readers accustomed to linear story development with a single, omniscient narrator, and from a sometimes annoying tendency of hers to rely on improbable coincidence.
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