To get to the end of a book, you have to turn the pages: all of them. Writers have varying strategies to make sure you do exactly that. A book which carries you along is often called a “page-turner”, as if this was all a book was meant to do. In fact, it’s the bare minimum—fail here and any other merits you may have as a writer are lost.
Last week I read Simon Kernick's Relentless, which is just about the acme of this kind of book. If ever a title was apposite, this is it: Relentless is, well…relentless. Kernick has clearly devoured the rulebook of thriller-writing. He gives the protagonist a problem on page one, and just keeps cranking it up. For six hundred pages the plot rattles on at such breakneck speed that any implausibilities are in the rear-view mirror before you see them. The edition I have has small pages, big type, wide margins. The sentences are short and the vocabulary unchallenging. Characterisation is as complex as necessary to hold the plot together, but no more. As a reader, I had the sense of moving very quickly through the book, if only because I turned the small pages so quickly.
Relentless is currently No.56 on Amazon.uk’s sales rankings. The book is a big seller. I don’t know what Kernick's aims were, but most realistic authors would be delighted with his results.
Nonetheless I finished the book with a lingering dissatisfaction, only partly the result of an ending which ran out of steam. Was the characterisation perhaps too perfunctory, even for a genre which does not place a premium on it?
My perplexity was resolved by the next thriller I read, I See You, by Gregg Hurwitz. The book comes out of the same tradition, the protagonist working to uncover a threat against him which he does not understand, but Hurwitz works with an altogether subtler palette. The action scenes are every bit as, er, relentless as Kernick's, but Hurwitz realises you don’t need them on every page, that a story needs room to breathe. In the down-time, he deepens and enriches his characterisations. You care about what happens to them, not just about what event is coming next. He also isn’t afraid of humour, and his hero Andrew Danner has a likeably laconic wit. Danner is a writer (usually a Very Bad Sign), but because he is conscious that his situation is like the plot of the thrillers he writes, Hurwitz is able to create an intriguing tension between the story Danner thinks he is in, and the plot he really inhabits—and all done in a deft way which doesn’t derail the story. Hurwitz has given us a story which satisfies on the level of a conventional thriller, with a richness of texture and playfulness which lifts it above the ruck.
It’s not just about turning the pages. What’s on them counts too.