Thriller, edited by the ubiquitous James Patterson, is the first publication of the recently formed International Thriller Writers Inc. To publicise (and help fund) the ITW, Patterson has compiled a collection of thirty stories donated by well-known thriller writers, all using "a familiar character or plotline" from their novels.
Unsurprisingly, the result is something of a mixed bag. Not all novelists are masters of the short story form, and many of these writers seem uncomfortable within its confines. Some of the stories skimp on characterization, and some on plot; some work well as stand-alones, but others rely too much on the readers' knowledge of characters and organizations from the writers' novels. That said, there are some gems inside.
Patterson leads with one of the strongest stories: `James Penney's New Identity', by Lee Child. Penney, a Vietnam vet, suffers from post-traumatic syndrome, and has been retrenched after seventeen years in the same job because of a poor attendance record. Going slightly crazy, he sets fire to his house before fleeing in his prized Firebird, but the fire spreads. Soon he's wanted for arson - and then, he encounters military cop Jack Reacher. It's a neat little tale, and all you need to know about Reacher for it to work is his idea of honour.
J. A. Konrath's `Epitaph' is less surprising, but it's a well-written and punchy story involving Phin Trout, one of the colourful sidekicks of Whiskey Sour's heroine "Jack" Daniels. In James Rollins's amusing and fast-paced `Kowalski's in Love', Sigma Force's heroic but less-than-brilliant Joe Kowalski has to fight his way past booby traps and rabid baboons to loot a mad scientist's island laboratory before the Brazilian government fire-bombs the place. In F. Paul Wilson's `Interlude at Duane's', unarmed career criminal Repairman Jack has to hunt for improvised weapons in a drug-store held up by a heavily armed team of enthusiastic amateurs; the action is frantic, and the results gruesome, but the tone is light-heartedly anarchic.
More serious is James Siegel's `Empathy', a grim and claustrophobic stand-alone about a masseuse who suspects that a client is a paedophile, but lacks proof. David Morrell's `The Abelard Sanction' features a tense armed stand-off between enemy spies in a sanctuary; it starts with several pages of background, but Morrell manages to make this as interesting as his conflicted characters. Dennis Lynds's `Success of a Mission' and Grant Blackwood's `Sacrifical Lion' are well-constructed accounts of dangerous undercover missions - one in the Middle East, the other in Stalin's Russia.
Two of the stories make use of the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. David Dun's `Spirit Walker' pits Tilok tracker Kier Wintripp against the Anthrax letter bomber, and in Steve Berry's `The Devils' Due' - one of the gems in the collection - Osama Bin Laden arranges a meeting with Cotton Malone and offers to surrender.
For fans of historical conspiracies, there is Katherine Neville's `The Tuesday Club', in which Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson look for secret messages in `Frere Jacques'. David Liss pits 18th century thief-taker Benjamin Weaver against a cunning highwayman, and Ted Bell spins a yarn of Napoleonic-era sailors and pirates in `The Powder Monkey'.
Christopher Reich's `Assassins' and Robert Liparulo's `Kill Zone' are little more than character studies, but Liparullo does a particularly good job of showing us the viewpoint of police sniper Byron Stone.
Alex Kava's `Goodnight, Sweet Mother' and John Lescroart and M. J. Rose's `The Portal' are both enjoyably twisted, but Heather Graham's `The Face in the Window' is rather predictable. Michael and Daniel Palmer's `Disfigured' is an intriguing tale of a deranged kidnap plot, but needed to be at least twice as long.
James Grippando's `Operation Northwoods' feels more like a teaser for his next novel - as do Gayle Lynds's `The Hunt for Dmitri', Brad Thor's `The Athens Solution', and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's `Gone Fishing', despite their promising beginnings.
Chris Mooney's `Falling', Denise Hamilton's `At The Drop of A Hat', Christopher Rice's `Man Catch', and M. Diane Vogt's `Surviving Toronto' all feel more like compressed novels, with too many scenes and characters reduced to ciphers and most of the tension left out. Raelynn Hillhouse handles the short story length better in `Diplomatic Constraints', an exciting prologue to `Outsourced', but I still felt I was missing something.
This book is rather like a smorgasbord for thriller readers. Even if you don't like everything on offer, chances are you'll find something you'll want to try again.