First Thrills, Edited by Lee Child

Twenty-five twisted imaginations

Reviewed,Robert Epstein
Sunday 23 January 2011 01:00 GMT

A man beats his lover to death – and tries to pin it on her mentally disabled child by convincing the kid he's a mere figment of his imagination.

So begins this new anthology of 25 short stories from the International Thriller Writers group. Twelve have been written by established authors and 13 by up-and-comers, in an admirable attempt to give a boost to writers with whom the public may not yet be familiar.

Lee Child, who edited the anthology, is a master of the genre, but his choice of opener, by the acclaimed Gregg Hurwitz, is a risk: it is so accomplished and involving that the narratives which follow necessarily struggle to reach the same level.

However, none of the 25 is a stinker. There are one or two that don't quite hit the mark (a CIA spook adventure, for instance, that is more Dan Brown than Ian Fleming), but on the whole they are well thought-out page-turners. Of the newcomers, Theo Gangi's "Eddy May" is the most impressive. It is an account of a shake-down of a shake-down; a double-crossing that is surprisingly moral and one that is hinted at throughout, but whose core can only really be divined once the author approaches the dénouement.

The key to a good thriller is often just such a twist: one that makes you kick yourself for not working it out before it is revealed. And they are plentiful here. Not wanting to give too much away, the subjects range from Michael Palmer and Daniel James Palmer's "Dead Club", an international group that gambles on hospital patients' lives, via Grant McKenzie's bus-bound dwarf shoot-out in "Underbelly" (a remarkably good piece for an author so new to the scene), to Bill Cameron's back-stabbing underworld-set fugazi "The Princess of Felony Flats".

Don't know what fugazi means? You won't be alone, and it has to be admitted that there is a whole new lexicon to be learnt at times (MIT math wonks, "barking dogs" and all), but it doesn't take away from the quality of the tales and, more often than not, the meaning should be clear enough through context. What's more, it adds authenticity to what is often hardboiled crime fiction.

If one is to be negative about this project at all, it would be purely on a subjective level: I'm not sure stories about UFOs or zombies really belong in a thriller collection. But perhaps they should not be denied their space in what is a broad church – especially when the next story is rarely more than 15 pages away.

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