Brad Taylor Has a Theory About What Makes for Good Thrillers
“Characters, characters, characters,” says the novelist, whose new Pike Logan thriller is “American Traitor.” “Setting, pace and trajectory are important, but they’re irrelevant without the reader’s emotional investment, and that is driven by characters.”
What books are on your night stand?
A stack that is much too large, and I keep saying I’m going to draw down, and is a bit eclectic: “Rise and Kill First,” by Ronen Bergman, on Israel’s targeted-killing program; “The Order,” by Daniel Silva; “AI Superpowers,” by Kai-Fu Lee, about the insidious gray war between China and the United States for domination of artificial intelligence; a book on long-range precision shooting; “The Shield and the Sword,” by Ernle Bradford, about the Knights of Malta; and two advanced reader copies from other authors.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I’m embarrassed to say the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” I read them because my daughter was assigned the tomes for school. Ironically, I’ve not let her read my own books until she is “old enough” because of the violence, but those two books are absolute blood baths. I was astounded at the sexual innuendo and the visceral killings.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The Dying Place,” by David Maurer. It’s a novel about a Special Forces recon team in Vietnam, and it’s written by a veteran of Special Forces. I read it first in college, and since then, I’ve probably read it 10 times. The themes of the book transcend the typical war novel, and it really resonated with me as I was in R.O.T.C. about to be commissioned in the Army. Since that first reading, those themes have resurfaced over and over in our national discourse. The last time I read it was on a plane to Afghanistan right after 9/11. It’s a fantastic book that belongs in the pantheon of other war novels such as “The Things They Carried” or “Dispatches,” but it has never really gotten its due.
Who’s your favorite fictional spy? And the best villain?
That’s easy: Alec Leamas from John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.” One of the best spies and spy novels — if not the best spy novel — ever written. Villain? This may sound strange, but it would honestly be General Woundwort from Richard Adams’s “Watership Down.” Yes, he’s a rabbit, but that is one of my favorite books and it had a huge impression on me as a child. I’m afraid to reread it as an adult because it might not hold up, so I just live with the memories it gave me in my youth.
What makes for a good thriller?
Without a doubt, characters. Characters, characters, characters. One could write a scene where a car bomb is placed in an empty parking lot, set to go off in two minutes. The buildup is intense, with a “Day of the Jackal” feel of finding components and creating the device, but at the end of the day, do readers care about the empty parking lot? No. They only care if that bomb is going to harm someone they’ve invested emotional energy in — and that is the character of the story. Setting, pace and trajectory are important, but they’re irrelevant without the reader’s emotional investment, and that is driven by characters.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what do you steer clear of?
Right now, I read a lot of murder mysteries. Books by John Sandford, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and others. Anything that has a bit of suspense and a twist — and, of course, characters I care about. What I steer clear of is any novel that has a political bent. I don’t care if it’s left or right, I read for escape, not the author’s political views. The minute someone begins preaching to me about some issue that’s not part of the plot, or characters appear who are obviously politically motivated and there to sell a political script, that book goes in the trash.
You spent two decades in the Army, most of it in Special Forces. What books would you recommend to someone who wants to know more about the military and its culture?
The best book I’ve ever read on the subject of the military and its culture — as it relates to the United States society at large — is “This Kind of War,” by T. R. Fehrenbach. It’s ostensibly a history of the Korean War, but delves into the meaning of an army in a democracy to a greater degree than any other book. Today, we talk about the vast void between those who serve in the military and the civilian population as if the two are distinct, but they have never been. In a democracy like ours the military is inexorably intertwined with society, and the military culture is a direct reflection of America writ large. At the beginning of the Korean War, the United States was running for its life, getting destroyed at every engagement, with retreat after embarrassing retreat, and something Fehrenbach says resonates with me: “No American may sneer at them, or at what they did. What happened to them might have happened to any American in the summer of 1950. For they represented exactly the kind of pampered, undisciplined, egalitarian army their society had long desired and had at last achieved. They had been raised to believe the world was without tigers, then sent to face those tigers with a stick. On their society must fall the blame.”
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. None are literary masterpieces, but all are series I read in my youth, and they still hold a special place for me. Many times, during a military move to one duty post or another, I’ve been tempted to throw them out like an old baseball mitt, but I never have, and they still sit on my shelf.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Voracious. I was the kid that hid a flashlight and read in the dark after my parents told me to go to bed. I read everything, from Heinlein to Bradbury to Twain to Tolkien. I remember being in English class in eighth grade, hiding a science fiction novel behind the boring stuff we were reading and getting caught. My teacher pulled me in front of the class, castigated me for the “trivial” book, basically embarrassing me in front of my peers, and ended by chucking my paperback in the trash. To this day I wonder if she realized she should have been encouraging everyone in the class to read whatever they want — cereal boxes, comic books, whatever. Instead, she made me feel like I had done something wrong by reading an actual book that wasn’t by Willa Cather (the most boring writing ever). I swore I’d never do that to my kids.
Favorite childhood literary character or hero?
I hinted at it earlier. Bigwig from “Watership Down.”
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
A first edition of “Selous Scouts: Top Secret War.” It’s about the bush wars in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and focuses on a special forces unit called the Selous Scouts, written by its commander, Col. Ronald Reid-Daly. It is a fascinating story and holds truths on insurgency that we’re still relearning today. I had the paperback and wanted a hardback, but unfortunately, they were long out of print. My father found one at a high cost and gave it to me for Christmas.
What book would you recommend for the current political moment?
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Anything that is hell and gone from today’s politics. Reading should be an escape. Why on earth would anyone want to read one more story about today’s political environment?
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens. It’s been on the best-seller list since forever, and everyone has raved about it, so I decided to give it a go. I couldn’t get through it. I know this has something to do with me and not the book, because my Lord it has been selling like toilet paper in a pandemic since 2018, but I just didn’t get into it.
Whom would you choose to write your life story?
Winston Churchill. Any man who says “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it” is the man I want at the helm of my life story.
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