5 Thrilling Books that Aren't Mysteries | MindJoggle.com

5 Thrilling Books (That Aren’t Mysteries)

We readers are always looking for that next great novel that keeps us riveted. We want a book that keeps us on the edge of our seat, reading late into the night until we can finish it. The one we’ll be thinking about for days or weeks afterward, and recommending to all of our bookish friends.

Often, we think these books are mysteries or psychological thrillers—but do they deliver?

I’m starting to realize that mysteries are NOT the genre for me to read if I want that immersive, satisfying reading experience. Here’s why.

Why Some Mysteries Fall Flat

If I pick up a mystery or psychological thriller, I’m almost certain to see it through to the end. Most create a decent amount of suspense, and they form enough questions that I will keep reading to find out the answer to the mystery.

But even when I get the answers, the overall reading experience sometimes ends up unsatisfactory.

Here are a few reasons some mysteries just don’t work for me.

The Plot Points Serve the Mystery More than the Story

Sometimes it feels like writers are a slave to the secret and not the story. The result is unlikely scenarios, characters that serve no real purpose, and red herrings to throw the reader off the trail. All of these don’t serve the story and they often create loose ends that aren’t addressed by the story’s end.

It’s All About the Twist

Ever since Gone Girl, it seems like just about every thriller has a “big twist.” They are all marketed as the next Gone Girl…and most fall short. Sometimes the twists work—they are surprising and they make sense with the overall arc of the story. Sometimes they seem to be there for the gimmick of it. The build up is all about the twist, and everything that comes after is a let down.

The Characters Interact and Behave In Ways that Only Serve the Mystery

Talking in circles. Never finishing a complete sentence. Leaving in the middle of important conversations Do people really talk the way they do in some mysteries? Maybe they do, and roundabout conversations with communication disconnects aren’t exclusive to mysteries—but they sure seem to show up a lot.

Add in implausible decisions that don’t seem to jive with what we know about characters and we end up with an all-around frustrating reading experience.

Obviously, none of these things are universal across all mystery novels. It’s a huge genre and there are a lot of talented authors–including some whose novels I really enjoyed (Tana French! Louise Penny!).

I’m not even thinking of a particular book as I write about these frustrations. I just know that I often come away from mystery-thrillers less than satisfied.

Thrilling Books that Aren’t Mysteries

Several recent thrillers I’ve read, however, did provide more satisfying reading experiences than usual.

As I thought more about them, I realized what was different: they were thrillers, with many of the hallmarks of a good whodunit, but they weren’t mysteries.

Most of these books have a crime at the center of the story, but the reader knows what’s happening throughout the books. There’s no great mystery for the reader to solve, no secret about the culprit, and no jaded-but-brilliant detective to follow to the resolution.

And most of all, especially at this point in literary time, there’s no “big twist.” These aren’t considered psychological thrillers either. They aren’t the next Gone Girl.

What they are is stories about people who find themselves in circumstances that call for choices about their own survival and the survival of the people they love. The choices often put the characters into moral quandaries and forever change their senses of themselves and their relationships with friends, family, and the world at large.

The action is a focus, of course, but sometimes the real question isn’t how a situation is resolved but how people can move forward after it is.

Here are five books that fit the “thriller without a mystery” category. All are some of my favorite reads, so I know this is the type of book I should read more of. Are there others like this that you would recommend?

Fierce Kingdom

Fierce Kingdom

As a day at the zoo winds down, Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, make their way toward the exit and realize that the fireworks they heard earlier were, in fact, gunshots. Joan and Lincoln spend the next three hours running, navigating the false wilderness and exhibits that provide hiding places--for themselves and for their hunters. This book had me on the edge of my seat--I read it in a matter of hours--and I could feel the weight of the four-year-old in her arms, as well as the desperation to keep him quiet and make him understand the situation without causing hysteria. I have to admit to some reservations about the zoo after reading this book! My only complaint was some questions that were left unresolved by the end of the book--it could have used another chapter or two. More info →
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Do Not Become Alarmed

Do Not Become Alarmed

When Liv and Nora and their husbands decide to take their families on a cruise, it feels like just what everyone needs after some stressful times. They just start to relax when the worst happens: in a moment of lapsed vigilance on a day trip ashore, all of the children disappear. What follows is the parents' desperate attempts to find the kids while dealing with their sudden mistrust of themselves and each other. Meanwhile, the children find themselves having to take responsibility for each other, make life and death choices, and make moment-to-moment decisions about who to trust. The story started a little slow but soon had me on the edge of my seat, all while making sharp observations about privilege, parenting, relationships, and facing both the worst and best in ourselves. More info →
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Room

Room

Five-year-old Jack has never known the world beyond Room. He lives there with Ma, who has made it into a world for him. But she has been a prisoner for seven years and she knows it's time for Jack--and her--to have more of a life. But the terrifying escape plot is only the first part of the challenge. If they can make it out of Room, they then need to find their way to a new life, to feelings of security, to new identities, and ultimately back to each other. Room is terrifying for its basis in real-life events, but it's also hopeful for its portrayal of the strength of the bond between parent and child. More info →
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The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son is the story of Pak Jun Do ("John Doe"), the son of a man who runs an orphan work camp in North Korea. Jun Do grows up and rises through the ranks of the North Korean bureaucracy, navigating the changing demands of a volatile leadership to stay alive and make his way closer to Kim Jong Il and the woman he loves. This is an illuminating, thrilling, and horrifying look at life inside North Korea. I was riveted; this is a book that has stayed with me and I still think of it frequently even years after reading it. More info →
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Bel Canto

Bel Canto

At a party in the vice-presidential mansion of an unnamed South American country, a band of young terrorists enters and takes hostages. The hostages include a world-renowned soprano, a Japanese business titan, and diplomats from various countries. The days and months stretch on and lines blur, relationships form, and tensions rise and fall and rise again. This is one of my favorite books and was my first introduction to Ann Patchett--now one of my favorite authors. More info →
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5 Thrilling Books That Aren't Mysteries | MindJoggle.com

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16 thoughts on “5 Thrilling Books (That Aren’t Mysteries)

  1. Great post! I agree that often mysteries sacrifice story for the “secret” but for me I have the most trouble with psychological thrillers. It’s rare all the psychological manipulation of the reader works for me, in fact, I’m actively avoiding books with the word psychological in the marketing/blurb.

    • Thanks, Renee! I don’t read too many of those types of books, and there’s been a few that were good but more that I actively disliked. At least we’re figuring out how to look past the marketing and find what works for us!

    • I don’t do well with scary either–definitely no horror. The first three are about parents who have kids in danger, so that’s a different kind of scary, but it’s not just played for terror either–the relationships are central, which is why they work so well for me.

  2. I’ve just been through 2 “psychological thrillers” that were just plain annoying. I don’t necessarily need a plot twist to be satisfied, but what absolutely pisses me off is a half-hearted attempt at one. Why even bother…

    I like your selection! 🙂

    • Thanks! Now I’m curious about what they were 😉 I have no patience either for half-hearted twists, but what’s really getting me lately is the unreliable narrator: lately always unreliable because they drink too much or take certain prescriptions–and they’re always female. It feels lazy and disrespectful.

  3. Ahhh, this is so great! I’ve never really thought in terms of books that felt thrilling without the marketing of a “thriller;” this is a wonderful new perspective! I would completely agree with that idea on Bel Canto and now I can acknowledge that I definitely enjoy thrilling books and maybe not thrillers? Unfortunately, as you’ve mentioned, I fall for the publisher’s blurb or marketing strategy and have really high expectations, only to be disappointed when I’m not wowed by the ending or anything out of the ordinary. What a great post, Allison! Also, Do Not Become Alarmed has been on my list for a long time.

    • Thanks, Tara! I’m so glad this resonates with you. It was actually Do Not Become Alarmed that helped me identify this. I kind of expected a mystery, based on the blurb, but then…the story told what happened to the kids! It wasn’t a mystery, and it worked for me. And then I realized that some other books that I really, really love were similar in that way–I just wish I had more like this to share! But now I’m on the lookout. Definitely let me know if you find more like this 🙂 The marketing pulls me in, too–the premise of some books sounds so enticing, but I have to pay more attention and resist the ones that are unlikely to work for me.

  4. I’ve always been a mystery junkie–ever since I was a kid, really. I don’t actually read that many mysteries these days and I confess that I’m more than willing to overlook most of the faults you outlined here. Lately, I’ve been reading a few character-driven thriller/suspense novels (Good Me Bad Me, Emma in the Night, etc.) and while I enjoy them, they just don’t do it for me like mysteries. Nothing can replace the good old-fashioned procedural for me, though Bel Canto is on my TBR list. Room was brilliant, but I didn’t really enjoy reading it like I do mysteries.

    • Yeah, mystery is such a huge genre–I know a lot of people really love them. I even read a lot of Nancy Drew as a kid 🙂 And I do enjoy a good mystery now and then; I’m hoping to pick up some Agatha Christie this year, and I have a few others on my shelf to read as well. I can definitely appreciate having some guilty pleasure reads, where you can look past the faults and enjoy the ride. One of mine is actually the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich–they always have a central mystery, but they are so over-the-top, goofy, and formulaic that I can’t possibly read them with a critical eye.

  5. I’m going to be that worst of all commenters- as I was reading this I was thinking I knew exactly what you mean and I had a book to recommend and…it’s gone. Sorry. I agree and am even happier that you still like Louise Penny! I’ve just gotten into that series and adore her writing. Even if the plots in certain ones are a bit much- I love her wirting enough that I don’t care.

    The Orphan Master’s Son is a wonderful example and book. It was so immersive and well-done. You had no idea that it was going to end the way it did.

    • Ha! Let me know if you think of it 🙂 I think part of the appeal of Penny is the atmosphere she creates–so even if the mystery doesn’t work perfectly, the other parts of the story do.

      Funny that you forgot the book you were thinking of, because I forgot the end of The Orphan Master’s Son! There are a lot of parts of the story I remember, and I know I loved it, but I have no idea how it ended. Might be good reason to re-read it–because my list isn’t already long enough 🙂

  6. Thanks for this list. I agree that sometimes thrillers, though they make me turn pages with their twisty plots, leave me feeling sort of unsatisfied at the end. I’m excited to read some of the books on this list. I’ve only read two of the five, and I’m always looking for “well-written page-turners.” These seem like they’ll do the trick. 🙂

    • Exactly–they keep me reading but then I’m bugged after it’s over. I think I just need more character-driven stories. Glad you found some new ones here!

  7. What a great post! While I do love a good, on-the-edge-of-my-seat thriller from time-to-time, I agree that sometimes you want to KNOW what you’re reading. I’m putting a few of these book on my Need to Read List!

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