Julia Heaberlin's Five Favourite Thrillers
I spent much of my childhood reading the books that I could physically reach on my parents’ floor-to-ceiling shelves. So I was influenced by a lot of yellowed paperbacks on the lower shelves, which is probably a metaphor for my life.
I gobbled up Agatha Christie, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Rabbi Small series, Raymond Chandler. My Dad was the mystery fan in my house so there was a macho vibe to the thrillers we owned and, thankfully, he never censored for my gender or my age.
Among many other books, he turned me on to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, a thriller about the mystery of human existence. From The Pearl, I learned that parables are not about making something easy to understand but about forcing us to think harder. From Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I learned that an ordinary object can hold as much sinister power as a weapon. For instance, a black-eyed Susan.
Today, I’ve been asked to list five thrillers/mysteries that have influenced me as a writer. Like any good list, it’s fluid. I open every book knowing it has the potential to change me.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: I read this at 15, sitting in the window seat my father built for me. For two days, I was swept into a gothic world far removed from the small Texas town where I grew up. It was the first book that made me certain I wanted to write a mystery of my own. It was also the first book that really showed me how surroundings—the weather, a house, red flowers, the sea—can be as much a character as the people themselves.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris: I was lying on a blanket on a patch of lawn outside my house. It was summer. Children were laughing down the street. I was reading, living in Clarice’s skin, and shivering. I jumped at the sound of lawnmowers revving up and the tickle of grass on my hand. What did this masterpiece tell me about the architecture of a great page-turner? Every killer isn’t cardboard. The greatest feminist heroines can tremble. The scariest thrillers raise the emotional stakes on every page. They say something about the heart of darkness.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: This 1959 psychological thriller and literary classic about four people sent to confront ghostly happenings at an old mansion wiggled onto my favourites’ list about two years ago. A clever friend had suggested it might help me write about the fairy tale house in Black-Eyed Susans. He was right. But it also taught me things about that fine line between our fragile minds and malevolent outside forces—how we cannot always be sure which one is at the wheel.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: I swallowed this book whole when it came out ten years ago and immediately asked my husband, “Why isn’t this woman famous?” Gone Girl is widely considered Flynn’s greatest book so far, but her debut, about a reporter going home to cover murders in her hometown, is my personal favourite. I loved everything about Sharp Objects—its inky black cover, the intimate writing, the dark and untraditional plot, the fabulous twist at the end, the fact that it was written by a woman. After I read it, I felt the genre had moved forward. I could hear my own voice a little louder.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: I couldn’t write a “favourites” list without offering up my favourite first line from my favourite book: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.” A Prayer for Owen Meany isn’t a thriller. But I want my mysteries and literary classics snuggled up next to each other, like on my parents’ shelves. Sometimes, they are one and the same. All of them are trying to solve riddles. Owen Meany asks, “Why are we put on earth?” There isn’t a bigger mystery than that.