THE BLOG
07/13/2010 12:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

100 Thriller Must Reads

By day I'm a mild-mannered former newspaper reporter and college professor. By night I'm a thriller writer, which no doubt bewilders a colleague who christened me, with some justification, as "the world's most boring man."

Golly, do I have company.

I just returned from my third pilgrimage to the annual Thrillerfest, a New York City gathering of novelists who have fled their normal professions to do their best to scare, panic, intrigue, inform and delight readers who like their literature page-turning hot. It's an extremely congenial gathering of very bright people who spend their waking hours dreaming up fictional mass-mayhem. They get paid for it too, occasionally very well.

Since its foundation in 2004, International Thriller Writers has attracted more than 1,100 active members from a score of countries, produced a small shelf of money-raising books, and persuaded the biggest names in the business to tell the rest of us how they did it. This year the headliner was Ken Follett, and speakers included Gayle Lynds, Katherine Neville, Steve Berry, Brad Meltzer, Clive Cussler, Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline -- if you read the genre, you get the picture.

(Spoiler: Unfortunately, to a person, they report they succeeded by working very, very hard. Damn.)

ITW was formed to promote some respect for an adrenalin-tapping branch of literature. Their newest effort is the book, Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner, and which picks top thrillers from Theseus and the Minotaur to The Da Vinci Code.

The biographies of both the 100 authors (okay, we don't know who first wrote Theseus) and the essayists fascinate me in their diversity. Simply put, thriller writers are usually somebody else before.

In an unscientific count through the book, I came up with 30 journalists, 16 lawyers, 11 doctors, 11 spies, eight college professors, six military-somethings, and two each forensic scientists, poets, pilots, cops, and computer executives. Not to mention actors, singers, political aides and one insurance salesman, Tom Clancy.

Which suggests a very fun, lively group, when the current crop gets together each year at the Grand Hyatt. Thriller writers have yet to cop a Nobel, but they are unpretentious, funny, generous, witty -- and a lot more seriously curious about the world than the introspective scribes at some of the literary gatherings I've been exposed to. These thriller career jumpers are scary-smart and uber-competitive, but they honor first-timers with breakfast and a boost each year. The more the merrier!

Do we produce Literature with a Capital L? Well, the 100 Must Reads includes Shakespeare's Macbeth, Kipling's Kim, Dickey's Deliverance, and Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (you'll recognize many, many others, too) but in main the list is not synonymous with the Western Literary Canon. These are must-reads as in you-can't-put-them-down, not you-must-read-to-graduate. Thrillers go for head, heart, glands, and mind, but above all they are gripping stories, and that's anathema to literatti who believe novels in which a lot happens are sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Clearly, I disagree. I'd better, since I write them too. I like literary fiction, but often find thrillers and mysteries have more to say about my world than rarefied works about upper-class angst. Besides, they're more fun. Better sex and peril, too.

My recent books have been historical adventures with some thriller twists (why are books always being labeled, anyway?) which has gotten me into this particular club. I find the challenge of casting a spell to snare a reader fascinating, and the research required is an excuse to satisfy my own curiosity.

But then we thriller writers claim a proud pedigree. Nobody was more melodramatic than Shakespeare with his ghosts, murders, battles, fairies, and witchcraft. (Except the Bible, Homer, and myth!) Following along have been Defoe, Dickens, Poe, Dumas, Verne, Stoker, Wells, Conrad... yep, I claim them as my club too.

The final two days of Thrillerfest are available for attendance by the general public (there's a fee), so drop by some year: it happens just after the Fourth of July. It's a celebration of "can't-put-it-down" by some of the nicest, liveliest, funniest mass murderers on the literary scene.

Sometimes it takes awhile to earn highbrow respect -- about 40 years for Stephen King, I believe, who is also in the top 100 book -- but my bet is that centuries from now, some of these tales will still be read by shivering, gleeful fans when some of today's prize-winners are long forgotten.