Favourite Thrillers - Stephen Leather
Escape by David McMillan
A while back I wrote a book called The Solitary Man, about a man who escapes from Klong Prem prison in Thailand, known around the world as the Bangkok Hilton. I visited the prison several times to research the book and it is a hell-hole. There are 600 foreigners among the 12,000 inmates of this walled prison city, and little did I know at the time that one of the foreigners would eventually escape and become a good friend. His name is David McMillan and his life story reads like a thriller. After he got to England he got in touch with me and I advised him to write an account of his escape and this he duly did. The book is called “Escape” and it’s brilliant. It’s as exciting as any thriller but it’s a true story and he still faces arrest if he ever goes back to Thailand. From his arrest at Don Muang airport, to awaiting trial inside Klong Prem, he provides an insight into the lives of the British, Australian, American and other Western prisoners as they are destroyed by disease, neglect and despair. But “Escape” isn’t the usual “prison is hell” tale – David makes no excuses for his life as a professional drug smuggler and asks for no sympathy. While most of David’s fellow prisoners gave up hope and accepted their fate, he decided from Day One that he had no alternative other than to do what no other Westerner had ever managed – to escape! David is a great writer and I hope that he turns his hand to fiction.
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
My book Private Dancer is, in my humble opinion, the best book about the Bangkok bar scene ever written. But John Burdett has written one of the best crime stories set in the city. In his Bangkok 8, Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is on the trail of the killer of a US marine. The killer’s weapon of choice – a python and a swarm of cobras. John takes the reader through a surreal Bangkok, where nothing is quite as it seems, and his character Sonchai is a clever, if somewhat implausible, creation. John, a retired Hong Kong lawyer, lives in France but is a frequent visitor to the Land of Smiles and he can often be found of an evening doing ‘research’ in the bars of Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. Unfortunately, his follow-up books didn’t sell as well as Bangkok 8 and he has decided to curtail his Sonchai series after just four books.
The Big Mango by Jake Needham
Jake is a screenwriting friend who lives in Bangkok. The Big Mango was his first book, and I think it’s his best. It’s the hunt for a stack of money that went missing when Saigon fell and Jake’s central character Eddie Dare is a terrific creation. His descriptions of Bangkok – the Big Mango of the title – are spot on. Jake has sold the movie rights so expect to see this on the big screen one day.
Murder In China Red by Dean Barrett
Dean Barrett is another good friend of mine, an American who spends a lot of time in Bangkok. He writes great crime novels, and this one has a blurb from me on the cover. It’s the story of a Chinese private detective, Liu Chiang-hsin, who’s trying to solve the mystery of a double-killing in a New York hotel. It’s a great read. And a bit different to his earlier work, most of which is set in Asia.
Thailand: Land Of Beautiful Women by Dean Berrett
This isn’t a thriller, but a book of photographs of Thai ladies, all done in the best possible taste. Oh, and the odd ladyboy, too. Dean is an old Asia hand and this book is his tribute to the ladies of the Land of Smiles. He took the photographs himself and wrote the copy. I often flick through it when I miss Thailand.
The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey
Sujata is another old friend of mine from my days of living in Baltimore. She still lives there with her husband and two children and now writes mystery stories set in Japan. Her heroine is Rei Shimura, a 27-year-old Japanese-American antiques dealer who solves mysteries in her spare time and her books are brilliant. In The Salaryman’s Wife, Rei is searching for the killer of the wife of a high-powered businessman. Her hunt for the killer has her crashing a funeral and posing as a bargirl. As one reviewer said – ‘You won’t find a better guide to the mean streets of Japan than Rei Shimura!’
Drink With The Devil by Jack Higgins
Jack Higgins is the undisputed master of the thriller genre, selling more than 250 million books in fifty-five languages. Awesome. Before I started writing fiction, I read twenty of his thrillers as I commuted every day from Wimbledon to Central London. It paid off - my first book Pay Off was published by Collins. My editor sent the manuscript to Jack to see if he’d give us a review to use on the cover. He wrote back to say that unfortunately he was too busy to read it. I tried to convince Collins that we should use that on the cover: ‘I was too busy to read it’ - Jack Higgins, but Collins had a sense of humour failure. A few years later Hodder and Stoughton sent The Chinaman to him and he gave it a great review which was a big help in promoting the book and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Drink With The Devil stars one of his best known characters, IRA enforcer turned Government agent Sean Dillon. Thrillers don’t come any faster-paced than this one and Dillon even visits the road I used to live in when I worked for The Times - Wapping High Street.
Gumshoe by Neville Smith
Writing in the first person is one of the hardest tricks to pull off, partly because it’s so restricting to the plot, but also because you really have to get the voice of the character. There’s no margin for error, if the voice isn’t consistent and believable the whole book falls apart. I tried it with my first two books, Pay Off and The Fireman, so I appreciate how difficult it is. Gumshoe is one of my all time favourite first-person reads. It was made into a great movie with Albert Finney starring as the Liverpool bingo caller with dreams of being a private eye. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s a great read. The sardonic sense of humour always makes me laugh, no matter how many times I read it, and the twists will keep you guessing. This new edition has a forward by Steven Frears, who directed the film.
Blue Genes by Val McDermid
Val McDermott was on the Mirror Group Graduate Training Scheme a year or so before me, and while I was dispatched up to Glasgow to work for the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail, Val went to Manchester. She’s written a stack of great thrillers and I’m a big fan of her Kate Brannigan heroine. Val’s got a great line in humor and her writing sparkles with snappy one-liners while maintaining masterful tension and pace. Blue Genes is set in Manchester, my home town, and as always Val’s descriptions of the city are bang on.
Snow Wolf by Glenn Meade
Glenn is a good friend of mine in Dublin. When he’s not teaching Aer Lingus pilots to fly, he writes cracking thrillers. Brandenburg was his first, Snow Wolf his second. He spends an incredible amount of time and effort to get his research just right, but he’s just as brilliant at pacing and tension. Snow Wolf is a great thriller, about a CIA plot to kill Stalin, and as you read it you can’t help but wonder how much is fact and how much is fiction.
Harry's Game by Gerald Seymour
My first two books, Pay Off and The Fireman, were published as paperbacks with a short hardback print run for libraries. I asked Collins how I could become a bigger author, ie how could I get published in hardback, and my then editor suggested I read Gerald Seymour. It was excellent advice and I went on to ready pretty much all of his thrillers. Like many former journalists who go on to writing fiction, his thrillers are packed with authentic detail, and he has a real flare for description. Thrillers don’t come any better than Harry’s Game, and I read it several times while I was writing The Chinaman to see how Seymour describes life in Belfast. When anyone asks me for advice on how to become a thriller writer I always suggest they read everything by Gerald Seymour and Jack Higgins. There’s no better insight into what makes a thriller work.
Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh
Pest Control was an impulse buy, for no other reason than it had a great cover. I saw the American edition which had a bright yellow cover with a dead cockroach in a sniper's sight, and it was so striking I picked it up and flicked through it.
The cover of the UK edition isn't such a grabber, which is maybe why it hasn't sold so well outside the States, but Pest Control is one of the funniest thrillers I've ever read.
The set-up grabs you from the start - a pest exterminator cursed with the name Bob Dillon advertises a new method of extermination and is mistaken for a professional assassin. Real professional hitmen resent the competition and decide to put Bob out of business. He uses his bug-killing skills to fight back.
Great characterisation, a rip-roaring plot and very funny dialogue. I wish I'd written it.
Green River Rising by Tim Willocks
Another prison story, Green River Rising was recommended to me by a friend, and it is one of those books which grabs you and won't let go. I don't remember the book being publicised much, and I don't think his later work has been well promoted, but a few years ago everyone was talking about Green River Rising, and almost everyone said what a great movie it would make.
It's about a riot at Green River State Penitentiary, on the day that hero Ray Klein is due to get paroled after three years behind bars. It's graphic violence is brilliant, and Willocks has a straightforward writing style that pulls you through the story at breakneck speed. It was one of those books that kept me from eating, watching TV, even sleeping, until I'd finished it..
Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre
Plots don't come any convoluted than this, and the writing can't be bettered. Le Carre is the most literate of thriller writers and his books can be read over and over again. His plotting is also masterful, and I have to confess I needed to read Tinker Tailor twice before I fully understood what had happened.
George Smiley's hunt for a Moscow mole who has been buried within British Intelligence for three decades is painstakingly detailed, and we learn as much about Smiley and his troubled background as we do about the spies and their craft.
I'm actually quite lucky in that my books tend to appear next to Le Carre's in the thriller section. Alphabetically fortuitous.
Charlies Choice - The First Muffin Omnibus Edition by Brian Freemantle
Charlie Muffin is one of the all-time great anti-heroes and this omnibus is the perfect introduction as it contains the first three books in which he appeared - Charlie Muffin; Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie; and The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin.
Charlie Muffin is a middle-class grammar school boy with leaking Hush Puppies who's constantly being under-estimated by his colleagues and superiors but who knows more about the tradecraft of espionage then anyone. Double-crosses and triple-crosses abound, but the cynical Charlie Muffin always comes out on top.
Like le Carre's early work, the Cold War is very much the setting which dates the books somewhat, but that's always the problem with writing to today's headlines - sooner or later they're going to show their age.
Brian Freemantle is another journalist-turned thriller writer, he used to be foreign editor on the Daily Mail, though he'd left long before I joined the paper, and like most former-journalists he has an easy-to-read style that flows so effortlessly that his books are difficult to put down.
He deserves to be better known - I only discovered his books when an actor being interviewed on a TV books programme listed three of his favourite thriller-writers and Freemantle was the only one I hadn't read.
The first book was made into a movie - Daily Mail columnist Keith Waterstone wrote the script with David Hemmings playing the role of Charlie to perfection.