2017 was a year of trying new things - one of them being my foray into action thrillers for the first time ever. As someone sampling this particular crime fiction subgenre for the first time, I knew I wanted to try books from both established and debut authors, and I knew that, as a woman, I wanted to read action thrillers featuring strong female leads. My 2017 action thriller picks were spot-on for my personal qualifications. STRONG TO THE BONE by Jon Land (Forge Books; 12/5/17) and DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb (Orenda; 4/1/17) delivered thrills, emotionally-compelling characters, and a whole lot of high-stakes tension - the perfect introduction to action thrillers for this newcomer. While my personal tastes may always air towards Scandinavian crime fiction and psychological thrillers, I had so much fun exploring the world of action thrillers with these two novels and their resourceful, resilient leading ladies!
Jon Land’s STRONG TO THE BONE might be part of a series, but I found it totally readable as a standalone. Set in Texas, this layered and quite timely thriller gives readers a glimpse into the life of Caitlin Strong, a Texas Ranger. When a conspiracy with longstanding ties to American history - and World War II in particular - rears its ugly head, Strong must draw on all her strength to defeat it - proving just how aptly named she really is. Interspersed within this present-day narrative, readers are given a glimpse into the past through the character of Earl Strong, Caitlin’s grandfather. In the 1940’s, Earl Strong (another Ranger) investigated a multiple homicide in a Nazi POW camp in Texas. In the present day, Caitlin finds herself pursuing the killer that her grandfather never caught in a case with implications as far-reaching as they are deeply personal. As a history buff and a former Texas resident, I absolutely loved the interspersed elements of Texas history in this thriller; I actually felt inspired to do some additional reading about the history of Texas after finishing this book, which is always a good sign for me! If you love novels that blend American history with pulse-pounding narrative, you’ll feel right at home in the world Land crafts in STRONG TO THE BONE. Similarly, and perhaps most chillingly, readers who like their thrillers to feel “ripped from the headlines” will find many of the issues tackled here, from neo-Nazism to sexual harassment, unnervingly relevant to the 2017 news cycle.
As a reader whose typical crime fiction selections air on the side of character-driven, psychologically-complex novels, I also appreciated one of the more emotionally-affecting elements of this story: a plotline involving a young woman who has been sexually assaulted, and Caitlin’s personal commitment to finding justice for her. Without spoiling any of Caitlin’s personal history, it becomes evident to the reader that this case strikes a nerve with our protagonist and unearths a trauma from her past. Caitlin, in her brazen and self-assured way, immediately takes it upon herself to rescue the victim. (And, it’s worth noting, does so in dramatic style right from the get-go!) This tie to Caitlin’s personal life added a close-to-home element to an otherwise sweeping and layered thriller. As much as I enjoyed Caitlin and crew’s epic fight for justice, I also loved the glimpse this particular piece of the story’s larger puzzle gave the reader into Caitlin not just as a Ranger, but as a person, too. There’s something to be said for a female hero who can more than keep pace with her peers - and with the bad guys - while also revealing to the reader a piece of the very personal experiences that have defined her life.
STRONG TO THE BONE delivers all the action and intensity I had hoped for, wrapped up in a package that also includes a strong historical element and a tough-as-nails female lead. Readers looking for an action thriller that seamlessly blends history with movie-worthy action will find this book right up their alley.
DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb (aka blogger Crime Thriller Girl) delivers an equally action-packed - if a bit lighter in tone - thriller, this one set in Florida and featuring bounty hunter Lori Anderson. Lori’s young daughter has been diagnosed with cancer, and the medical bills are stacking up. To pay for her daughter’s treatment, Lori accepts a particularly tough case which finds her traveling across the country to pick up a wanted man and return him to Florida. But the assignment is much more than she bargained for: it finds her crossing paths with JT, the former love of her life, a man who seems to bring nothing but trouble with him. Lori soon becomes embroiled in a case that poses an imminent threat both to her own life, and to the life of her daughter.
This story certainly has an emotional component in Lori’s determination to care for her young daughter, but my personal favorite element actually lies in its sheer entertainment value. DEEP DOWN DEAD is easy to breeze through; Broadribb has written a story that moves its reader alongside its heroine as she traverses the country in pursuit of her target - and finds herself wrapped up in a gang of organized criminals. I found myself cheering for Lori every step of the way on her harrowing - and totally entertaining - journey. Broadribb also incorporates an element of interpersonal drama into her story in the form of Lori’s ex-boyfriend JT. Readers looking for this touch of romantic intrigue will find JT’s character a welcome addition - but I will also note that Broadribb does a superb job not allowing this romantic angle to overwhelm the “thriller” element of this story. This is a thriller through and through, with just a dash of romance on the side.
DEEP DOWN DEAD is pure, cinematic entertainment. It has action, suspense, a touch of romance, seemingly impossible odds for our protagonists to overcome, and a cliffhanger ending that left me desperate for more. DEEP DOWN DEAD felt like a perfect “first action thriller” for me; this read seemed a perfect precursor to the layered complexity of Land’s STRONG TO THE BONE.
There are few things I enjoy more than broadening my reading horizons, and I’m so glad to have ventured into action thriller territory with both STRONG TO THE BONE and DEEP DOWN DEAD. These two reads illustrate the variety that exists within this subgenre beautifully; at surface level, these books have a whole lot in common, from their tough female leads to their Southern settings. Yet Land’s book shines in its rich blend of history and thrills, while Broadribb focuses on interpersonal drama and breakneck plotting; a complementary and entertaining pairing of novels. My foray into this subgenre was a success, and I will look forward to exploring new subgenres of crime fiction - and perhaps continuing my action thriller exploration! - in the new year.
PS. If you’re interested in additional coverage of action thrillers, I would recommend checking out The Real Book Spy - this blog covers a ton of action thrillers that are usually outside my wheelhouse on CBTB!
I received free copies of the books discussed here in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the books or the content of my review. All opinions my own.