When you think of ‘thriller’ as a genre you might think of a mystery set against the clock, unexpected twists that raise the stakes, or a tense show-down that ends on a cliff hanger. Most people might also think of internationally best-selling novels such as Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series (which the TV show Bones is based on), The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, almost anything by Dean Koontz, or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. All these examples can fit into the thriller genre, but there are some sub-genres within thriller that have emerged as it’s grown in popularity, some of which have a particularly Australian flavour.
Aussie Rural Thrillers
Aussie rural thrillers make the most of the unique Australian landscape and the people who live in less populated areas of the country, as they are very isolated and often face difficult weather events such as droughts, floods, fires and so on. Jane Harper’s The Dry and Force of Nature, the first two books released in her Aaron Falk series, are defining examples of this sub-genre. In The Dry, three members of a rural small-town family are brutally slain in the middle of the worst drought in a century. In Force of Nature, five women go hiking on an isolated track through rugged bushland, and only four make it home. In both these books, the isolation and perceived hostility of the Australian landscape is a central pillar of the story, and this amps up the tension and fear factors.
But not all thrillers need to be centred on a murder mystery. Emily O’Grady’s The Yellow House follows ten-year-old Cub, who lives with her parents and brothers on a remote property, bordering an abandoned cattle farm. They are overshadowed by a yellow house just over the fence where her infamous grandfather lived, and although he died twelve years ago his notoriety and legacy of violence has caused their family to be ostracised from their small community. This book is about family legacies, betrayal, redemption, and the long-reaching effects of violence. Although some of the story’s focus is on Cub’s grandfather’s actions, the tension rises from the family coming to terms with their lives in his shadow, especially when estranged relatives arrive and long-buried secrets come inevitably into the light.
Other books in this sub-genre include:
– Dead in the Water – Tania Chandler
– In the Clearing – JP Pomare
– The Van Apfel Girls are Gone – Felicity McLean – reviewed by Editor Shelley in 2019
A newer sub-genre that has emerged in recent years, particularly in Australian literary circles, is the Young Adult Thriller, which uses thriller elements with coming-of-age narratives. My personal favourite in this sub-genre is Sarah Epstein’s Small Spaces, which editor Jess Rae reviewed for us in 2018. It follows the unravelling of a traumatic series of events that rocked teenager Tash’s ability to tell the difference between reality and her imagination. She’s spent years filled with anxiety, unable to socialise with anyone but her best friend, watched closely and never quite trusted by her parents. Tash tries to navigate the usual adolescent problems of school, crushes, bullies, and planning for her future, but the mystery of what happened to her grows stranger and more sinister as the truth swirls around her, disturbing and just out of reach.
Another brilliant example of the YA Thriller sub-genre is My Father’s Shadow by Jannali Jones, reviewed by Marketing Manager Jess in 2019. Teenager Kaya is living in secrecy with her mother while they await a trial involving her father and dangerous criminals. Kaya is a witness to the case, but her PTSD has erased some of her memory. As the trial draws closer and Kaya navigates familiar adolescent issues – a difficult relationship with her mother, awkward romantic encounters, closeness with her best friend – the tension and mystery builds, because some of Kaya’s memories are returning, and they raise dangerous questions about what happened to her.
Or, if you’re looking for a YA Thriller with an Icelandic setting, The Sharp Edge of a Snow Flake by Sif Sigmarsdottir follows two protagonists, one a budding teenage journalist banished from London to live in exile with her father in Iceland, and the other a social media influencer who suffered a traumatic assault and must face up to the pain she’s buried, as well as the man who inflicted it on her.
The Domestic Thriller generally has a plot full of family secrets, friends united or torn apart, or community upheaval. They tend to be an examination of close personal relationships, with betrayals, secrets, reluctant alliances, obsession, revenge, power games, blackmail… a Pandora’s box of human failings, usually resulting in a devastating reveal or betrayal. Probably the most well-known work in this sub-genre is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which tells the story of three friends at crossroads in their lives, the sacrifices they’ve made, the secrets they keep, and the lies they tell themselves and each other in order to survive.
Other examples of this sub-genre include The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth, a murder mystery that examines a difficult mother-and-daughter-in-law relationship; Not Bad People by Brandy Scott, which sees three friends unravel their relationships and themselves as they grapple with a tragedy they may or may not have caused; and You Don’t Know Me by Sara Foster, which examines legacies of shame, guilt and secrets, as a man returns to his home town for the inquest into the disappearance of his brother’s girlfriend over a decade earlier.
The Historical Thriller is a very popular sub-genre of thrillers, and is sometimes arrived at by readers of historical fiction who want something tense and fast-paced. Kirsten Alexander’s Half Moon Lake exemplifies the sub-genre, telling of four-year-old Sonny’s disappearance at a lake in Louisiana in 1913. After years of searching, Sonny’s family is on the verge of giving up all hope when he is found in the company of a tramp. But is this child really their lost son? A woman travels from another state to claim the boy as her own, and the tension builds as the family, the townsfolk, the newspapers, even their friends, take sides as to which family the child belongs to.
Another example of the historical thriller is The Nowhere Child by Christian White, which bounces between the dual timelines of Kimberley, a photographer living in Australia, and Sammy, a two-year-old girl who vanished twenty-six years earlier in Kentucky. Abduction, estrangement, secrets, and religious fundamentalism amp up the suspense as the story switches between Kimberley’s revelations of her identity, and the spiral that Sammy’s parents went into when she disappeared from their home in the 1990s.
The Thriller is an excellent genre to dip into because there are so many flavours to it, and although there is a particular formula to what makes a thriller thrilling, authors are always finding ways to surprise readers, and to appeal to difference audiences. If thrillers are your jam, or you think you could be swayed to read more of them, make sure to read the Underground Writers issue 30: Thriller, coming out 5th May 2020 – it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat!