A founder of The Curzon Group of British thriller writers, Matt Lynn makes a personal selection of the ten best British thrillers:
One: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope: Even though it was published in 1894, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda remains as exciting as the day it first rolled off the presses. The story of a rather foppish young Englishman called Rudolf Rassendyll caught up in the palace and political intrigue of the imaginary state of Ruritania, it has conspiracies, mysteries and femme fatales galore. Much of the story admittedly may seem antique to modern readers – and it has more than a touch of the ripping yarn about it – but this book is the start of the action adventure genre. It tears off page one at a hundred miles an hour, and speeds up from there. After this book, thrillers had to be genuinely thrilling.
Two: The 39 Steps by John Buchan: It’s an obvious choice, but The 39 Steps is still the template for any thriller writer. It has all the ingredients to cook up a great adventure story: an ordinary hero plunged into a global conspiracy: a fantastic chase sequence: and a puzzle that has to be cracked to save the nation. Dan Brown would kill for one of the Buchan’s riddles. And the book is written with an urgency and pace that still makes it seem very modern. Written in 1915, it gives the reader an insight into how the First World War was viewed by the people living through it.
Three: Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler: For me, Eric Ambler was really the writer who lifted the spy genre out of pot-boiler fiction, and up to a whole new level. He was a brilliant writer, who also explored the great themes of his day: think George Orwell, but writing adventure stories. Journey Into Fear is his most gripping book, a fantastic story of a fraught voyage from Turkey. The hero is cooped up on a ship, chased by menacing Nazi spies. It captures the tension of the first year of World War Two. It was written in 1940 and has a sense of brooding menace of that year, when the outcome of that war was still very much in doubt, and many people though they were facing decades of the Nazis dominating Europe.
Four: The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes: I'm not sure anyone reads him anymore, by Hammond Innes was huge in the 1950s and 60s. He's really the missing link between writers like John Buchan and the modern thriller. His books are fantastic action stories pitching ordinary men into terrifying conspiracies. The Wreck of the Mary Deare, a story about a ship wreck, is the best of them. The hero is sailing across from England to France, when he comes across an abandoned cargo ship in a storm, with only a mad captain left on board. What happed to the crew? And the cargo? That’s the mystery. Part of its brilliance is its description of the English Channel as a wild and terrifying sea - Innes has the thriller writer’s ability to make the ordinary suddenly seem very threatening.
Five: Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean: Alistair MacLean was the master of a style of rugged, very masculine action adventure story that is probably best exemplified today by SAS writers like Andy McNab and Chris Ryan – and, hopefully, by myself as well. His books were the source for classic films such as Where Eagles Dare, and The Guns of Navaronne. His parse, witty writing style set the template for a whole genre: punchy, direct, but vividly descriptive. Ice Station Zebra is his finest work: a small group of men, battling against terrifying, extreme conditions, and caught up in a global power play. It captures the freezing atmosphere brilliantly, and the plotting is immaculate.
Six: From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming: Much like his alter ego James Bond, Fleming is all about style. With great covers, brilliant titles, and rattling opening sentences, the Bond books are slick, sexy entertainment turned up to the max. From Russia With Love is the best of them (and actually there are some duds in there). The title is, for my money anyway, the best ever put on a jacket. Then there is the opening line: “The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.” Pure class. The villains are cold and sadistic and the totty, for once, not completely gratuitous. It’s about as deep as an After Eight mint, but a brilliant confection.
Seven: Berlin Game by Len Deighton. All spy fiction is really an extended metaphor for the office. All those double-agents and moles are just ciphers for the guy along the corridor who is trying to steal your promotion. No character captures that better than Len Deighton's Bernard Samson, a middle-ranking intelligence executive, who can't trust anyone. He's meant to be outwitting the KGB, and but he could be any middle-aged man struggling to stay afloat in a big company, betrayed by his bosses as well as his wife. Berlin Game is the first (and best) of the Game, Set and Match trilogy, the height of Deighton's achievements. It has a fantastic twist as well. His wife is the KGB double-agent he's hunting for - a blow to any marriage.
Eight: The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth's first book, gets more attention, but it was with The Odessa File that Forsyth really hit his stride. A story of Nazi-hunting, it is brilliant as both a conspiracy and action thriller, drawing on real historical events and turning them into a compelling story. With it intensive research and tightly engineered structure, it set the template for the modern, lightening-paced thriller. If you want to know how to write an action story, then just read and re-read this book until you’ve figured out what he is doing. All thriller writers operate in Forsyth’s shadow, and this remains Forsyth's best book.
Nine: Bonecrack by Dick Francis: The most consistently prolific of British thriller writers, Dick Francis put his first career as a jockey to good use in his second as a novelist. Nearly all of his books are set in the racing world, a natural arena for tales of corruption and skull-duggery. Bonecrack, from 1971, is one of the best of the lot. A simple enough tale, the hero inherits his father’s stables, and is then forced by a mad Mafia boss to turn his son into a Derby winner. The plot is tuned to perfection, and the book rattles along at tremendous pace. The point about Francis, however, is not the brilliance of any particular book, but his amazing consistency. Forty books over forty years and not a single dud among them. An incredible achievement.
Ten: The Ghost by Robert Harris: Bang up date, super-smart and very funny in places, The Ghost is the best British thriller of the last decade. It has a great set-up, placing its hero close to power, but right on the sidelines, a device that plenty of thriller writers have used, but not often with such success. The plot has the slow-burning, smouldering build up of a great jazz record. And it captures the end of the Blair era brilliantly: the disillusion, and the bafflement, as people tried to figure out how a politician they really liked turned out to be so awful. Historians will be able to read it a hundred years and get a snapshot of what people felt about Tony Blair by 2007.
Fire Force is the second novel in Matt Lynn's action-packed, gun-toting Death's Inc series - get your hands on a copy here.