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How to tell a Granny from a Big Bad Wolf – Part III.

In the first posts of my thriller review series here and here, I explored what Little Red Riding Hood would look like as a thriller, using Christopher Booker’s metaplot theory. (You should read those posts first: it will definitely be on the final.)

THRILLER:   noun—A novel, play, or movie with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage. —Oxford Dictionaries

Here’s a checklist of action items for the thriller writer-wannabe.

  1. Start with a thriller intro scene that’s plenty…er…thrilling. Gory murders and shootings work well here, but kidnapping adorable young children is also acceptable, especially if they cry for their mothers.
  2. Next butchered bodies should start popping up, but local cops/spies/amateur detectives/teenage cheerleaders living with a hellmouth/superheroes/little old ladies with cats can’t figure out what’s happening.
  3. Only your reluctant hero can put the pieces together. But they are (like Jason Bourne) damaged, disturbed, and possibly suffering from amnesia. And s/he better get truckin because their Dark Moment is looming.
  4. Your hero enlists the help of a spunky sidekick/reluctant love interest/cat who is, of course, kidnapped by the Supervillain/Evil Corporate Exec/Other Side’s Spies—who turn out to be just as ruthlessly amoral as Our Side/Global Conspiracy/Government Agency.
  5. You’ll need plenty of deadlines, frequently exotic scene changes, and the odd cliffhanger. And surely you’ll want a timer counting down to zero before Something hits the fan.
  6. The villain could probably win by immediately killing hero and sidekick, but luckily takes the time to chat about their plans and various crimes.
  7. Thriller supporting cast/expendables [image credit: Wikipedia]

    Your reluctant hero will survive, but things aren’t so promising for just about everyone else. In fact, you might as well issue red shirts with the Star Trek logos to the supporting cast, because things don’t look good for them. If your hero is a wandering type who takes on evildoers wherever he encounters them, the love interest in each book should probably just take out a good life-insurance policy and decide how s/he wants the tombstone to read.

I’ve recently been reading a thriller that fully embraces these elements. My review of The Florentine follows below.

When Cain retired from the CIA, he moved to Florence, Italy to get away from his past.He’s had nine years to enjoy fine wine, good food, and the Tuscan countryside. But now his old boss has tracked him down, and he needs Cain to do one last job.What starts as a simple trade entangles Cain in a web of secrets involving the mafia, an NSA whistleblower, and his own past. With the Italian police and international assassins on his trail, he’ll have to survive the night to solve the mystery of who wants him dead.

“A masterpiece of an adventure. I enjoyed reading every single page.” — Chris Malone, author of #isolate

A fast-paced international thriller, The Florentine is perfect for fans of Mick Herron, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and James Patterson.

My Review: 4 stars out of 5

Author Tom Trott’s new spy/crime/action/police thriller, The Florentine, never met a trope it didn’t like. I don’t think any of the characters actually get amnesia, but that’s one of the very few thriller tropes he missed. There are senior citizen spies just trying to retire from The Game, idealistic young whistleblowers, foreign mob hit squads, heroes who get shot but don’t die, quirky foreign police and detectives, disguises, chases, double and triple-crosses, OTT rich people (who are obviously morally bankrupt because… rich people), cliffhangers, exotic and frequently changing settings, unreliable narrators, and enough corpses to start their own zombie apocalypse. (Except somehow, the author missed that one too…) These familiar elements became tropes in the first place because they’re instantly recognizable shorthand for what we already know and understand. When they’re done well, it just works.

As with all good action thrillers, The Florentine starts with a scene that’s…well, thrilling. We watch as a man who is supposed to be the Agency’s scariest bogeyman gets his guts handed to him for garters by a young woman seeking to expose government corruption. (We know he’s bad and she’s good because she takes the time to save her pet fish before bringing down the CIA.) He’s hanging her off a bridge, shots ring out from somewhere, and both of them are hit. Holy Cliffhangers!

Next thing we know, we’re in Florence with Cain, a charmingly cynical ex-spy who just wants to sit in the sun with a good glass of wine. But retirement security takes on a whole new meaning when your former profession involved meeting fascinating people in exotic locales and killing them. Also, whatever the CIA pension might be, it’s not going to float the 007-lifestyle Cain has become accustomed to. So when his former boss asks for help with one last (well-paid) job, Cain decides that while he might not be in the world-saving business anymore, he’s definitely up for the odd bit of additional retirement funding. He outsmarts the first batches of baddies before teaming up with Dolly Lightfoot, a young National Security Agency support staffer who might have proof of bureaucrats behaving badly. (And yes, despite my spending the rest of the book waiting for her to admit that couldn’t possibly be her real name, it actually is.)

As an action thriller, The Florentine definitely gets the job done. The pace is frenetic, the settings dazzlingly fast-changing and exotic, the stakes high, and the secondary characters walking tropes. (“Nazi Postmistress” anyone?) The plot, of course, is a direct descendant of the conspiracy thriller trope-codifier, All The President’s Men, which is basically a good thing because we get to suspend disbelief as the protagonists lie, cheat, double and triple-cross, steal, and even kill but that’s okay because it’s in order to stop the bad guys—who are (obviously) Government, Big Business, The Man, and some really mean women.

I would have preferred more (or any) character development, and perhaps a deeper sense of location than superficial glimpses of Italy in general and titular Florence in particular. But overall, if you like your thrillers fast-paced, your bad guys really mean, and your plots complex, you’ll have a great time with The Florentine.

🔫 🔪 ❣️ 🔪 🔫