Writing Good Thrillers: Are Unreliable Narrators the Way to Go?

moshin hamid

During both my English Literature degrees my favourite module was always post-colonialism, as it exposed me to great writers I would otherwise have never even thought about, as well as some fantastic writing and new cultures. I learned to love writers such as Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Moshin Hamid.

I had only read Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist until recently, but I found my as yet untouched copy of Moth Smoke a few weeks ago (I haven’t even bought Hamid’s latest, Exit West, or his third book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, yet, which is testimony to how behind I am in my reading) and decided to delve in. I was not disappointed. As thrilling, tense and direct as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moth Smoke is an equally challenging thriller with a similar style, and a selection of equally unreliable narrators. As with the previous novel this is written mostly in a first person narrative, but with various narrators many of whom are contradictory and conceited, each believing themselves to be more right than anyone else. It is these narrators that form the backbone of the tension that remains taut throughout the novel; from the moment the reader enters the murky world of Lahore’s middle class society to the novel’s tense conclusion.

Despicable, unreliable and downright disgusting characters are a key trope in Hamid’s work. In Moth Smoke, the three core protagonists are all vile; Ozi is a spoiled little rich boy with a corrupt father and a manipulative nature, his wife Mumtaz selfish and bitter. Central character and main first person narrator Daru is morally corrupt and incredibly bitter about the increased good fortunes of his this wealthy, privileged couple, and it is his bitterness and jealousy that sets off a downward spiral in his own life.

So, are unreliable narrators the secret to truly great thrillers? Recently I have been searching for thrillers that are not driven by merciless violence, gore and a strong police presence and coming up decidedly short. Some of the greatest thrillers from the last year, such as The Girl on the Train, rely on unreliable narration to fuel the tension and drive the reader through the narrative, steering them towards incorrect conclusions. In standout brilliant thriller series such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, readers are made to disbelieve the central characters and distrust their motives, and it is this that fuels their interest in the overall outcome.

Overall, I am inclined to believe that whilst unreliable narrators should feature heavily in thrillers, it would be nice to see some new, original tropes such as setting featuring more heavily in modern thrillers. Moth Smoke encapsulates modern Lahore but, unlike many great thrillers such as Henning Mankell’s novels or Tayeb Salih’s stunning Season of Migration to the North, setting is not used as an additional character, which is what really makes these novels stand out. I would like to see additional uses of key thriller tropes in more modern novels as I continue to play catch up on myself and visit the latest novels of some of my favourite writers, many of whom combine post colonialism perfectly with thrilling stories to create books which stand the test of time and prove to be true classics.

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