Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bloody Inspiration Part 4: My Top Five Thriller Authors

News of Tom Clancy's death today got me thinking about the writers who have consciously affected my craft. I'm sure that my writing has been influenced by dozens of writers on a subconscious level, but I'm going to stick to the ones that I'm aware of, because I don't want to spend hours in psychoanalysis just to write a blog post.

Here they are in order of importance to me:

1) Barry Eisler
Signature book: Winner Take All (Rain Storm)
Signature character: John Rain
The stories set in the John Rain universe resonate with detailed tradecraft and sudden violence. Eisler conveys a sense of realism that is missing from many testosterone driven espionage thrillers. He also delivers a sense of characterization and true character (See Creating Complex Characters) that is unique in a genre of cookie cutter assassins, maverick FBI agents and special forces tropes. If there is anyone I want to compare my books to, it's Eisler's.

2) John Le Carre
Signature book: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Signature character: George Smiley
Where other authors treat spies as modern day daredevil adventurers, Le Carre offers a vision of agents and case officers that is much more human. Flawed personalities, personal distrust and institutional apathy hover over everything in his work. But there is also a charm and a wit that he will use to turn a phrase or describe a situation that is amazing to experience,  whether he is lifting you up or bringing you down. I hope one day to have both Le Carre's gift of language and his grounded characters.

3) Greg Rucka
Signature book: A Gentleman's Game (Queen and Country Book 1)
Signature character: Tara Chace
Rucka's Queen and Country story has found success both as a series of novels and comics. Rucka combines the bureaucratic infighting and troubled spies of Le Carre with the action and high body counts of James Bond. He also focuses on a female protagonist, something that is sadly rare in the espionage genre. Fortunately, I'm trying to change that with my novels.

4) Brian Azzarello
Signature book: 100 Bullets
Signature character: Agent Graves
Unlike everyone else on this list, Azzarello makes comics, not novels. But that doesn't diminish his craft in any way. 100 Bullets weaves crime, conspiracy, politics, sex, violence and social commentary seamlessly in a story that stretches from the discovery of America to the present. The visual nature of the story enhances the raw beauty of it in a way that prose can't accomplish on its own, no matter how much I try.

5) Tom Clancy
Signature book: A Clear and Present Danger
Signature character: Jack Ryan
Clancy's books don't really have a strong influence on my writing. I consciously avoid the type of highly technical descriptions that often left me confused and pulled out of the story when I read his work years ago. I also try to avoid the super patriotic undertones of good vs. evil that he fostered and the impossibly high, end of the world stakes that were common place in his books.

I do draw a lot of inspiration from the universe he created. It was through books like Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears that I learned to appreciate the complex relationship between the US military and its intelligence services. His books taught me the importance of set ups and payoffs in a narrative that are pure art when done his way. Most of all, I constantly look to the work derived from the Ryan series and expressed in games like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell. Clancy may not have invented Sam Fisher, but he is the godfather of the techno thriller and characters like Fisher couldn't exist without him.

So who are your favorite thriller authors? Who influences what you write and read today? I'm always looking for new authors, so please provide a book title if you can.

Have fun.

See Also


  1. Great post Gamal. I especially like the reasons you give for your 5 best thrillers.

    1. Thanks Brian. I often feel that the reasons why you like something are almost as important as what you like.

  2. As you say, Gamal, it is not easy to define who the greatest influences are, so many do engrave traits that one wish for oneself. Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal started a certain trend in high research espionage with total disregard for limited POWs, but gets away with it. Lately, Harry Bingham has made me sit up and take notice with a single POW, astonishingly first person present, with his Fiona Griffiths in Talking To The Dead and Love Story, With Murders.

    1. Peter, did you read Forsyth's Afghan? I enjoyed the first 75% of that book, but the end lost me. I've been reluctant to try another one of his books.