Best Financial Thrillers (Fiction and Non-Fiction)
Financial thriller novels occupy a small sliver of the thriller novel genre. For those inclined to the cerebral thrill of money earned, lost or stolen (whether physically, digitally… or both), there are simply not enough financial thrillers to go around. As a raving fan of the genre myself, I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of some of the best financial thriller novels out there. While the following books’ position on the list below represent my personal opinion, you can rest assured that reading every single one of these novels would make for a year—or few weeks—of excellent entertainment.
The Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe
The original Wall Street novel that introduced the world at large to the “Masters of the Universe” ethos, no list of financial thrillers would be complete without Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy is a multi-millionaire bond trader in New York who hits an innocent person with his car—fatally—and then tries to cover it all up. Beyond the trials and tribulations of McCoy’s downfall, the book perfectly encapsulates many dynamics of the 1980’s, from the rowdy Wall Street trading floors to the decadent parties to the class-based and racial divides of the time.
Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre
Can you believe that this book was written in 1923? Although almost a century old, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator is a must-read financial thriller for any true finance buff. Although technically a piece of fiction, the book is also a biographical story about the early life of infamous trader Jesse Livermore. Although the technical techniques of trading described in the novel have changed completely, what this book excels at is establishing and analyzing the psychological hurdles that one must battle against while trading stocks. Replace a stock trading arcade with an online brokerage and there is very little difference between 1923 and now.
Flash Crash by Denison Hatch
What would happen if a hacker wrote an algorithm that could crash the stock market? Written by yours truly, Flash Crash delves deeply into modern reality of trading—with super computers and programmers fighting each other for supremacy at lightning-fast speed. Flash Crash also bridges the world between the digital and physical, as the intentional stock market heist quickly turns into a real world gold theft. The NYPD is struggling to figure out exactly what has happened and who’s ultimately responsible while the bad guys fight amongst each other for a piece of the spoils. I happily place this novel on the list because BestThrillers.com called it “One of the year’s best thrillers!” Hey, I’ll take it!
Replay by Ken Grimwood
If you could repeat your life, what would you do the second time? Easy: Make money. While not strictly a financial thriller, Replay by Ken Grimwood contains a long and fascinating story thread that relates to betting and investing—while knowing the outcome ahead of time. The overall concept of this phenomenal book is about a man who randomly wakes up back in time, in college, before he’s even met his wife. He gets to make every decision that he made in his previous life over again, with the added benefit of knowing everything that will happen in the future (up until the date that he “replayed.”)
The Penny Thief by Christophe Paul
The Penny Thief is a very interesting and compelling financial thriller that plays into the systemic nature of the modern banking world—and reflects the type of sophisticated financial frauds that are most likely occurring as we speak. One banker discovers that another trader has been stealing small portions of accounts, one cent at a time, for twenty years. Since the money is untraceable, the two men find themselves (and one of their wives) locked into a battle for a secret fortune. I must mention that the novel also has a fantastic cover image.
Data Jack by Christopher Greyson
Data Jack is one of the first modern techno thriller/ financial thriller novels that I read on the Kindle and I highly recommend it for pure, raw entertainment value. Detective Jack Stratton discovers that data is more valuable than gold when he goes up against a ruthless CEO whose program is designed to steal millions of dollars from the world financial markets.
The Millionaires by Brad Meltzer
A massive financial crime is the setup for this excellent thriller by Brad Meltzer. What would you do if there was three million dollars sitting in a bank account—and you knew that no one would claim it? This is the question that opens up The Millionaires. But as with all easy money, this money does not come without strings attached…
Although I intended to focus primarily on fiction for this list, a few more finance novels stood out to me while I was perusing through my bookshelf. For real:
Anyway, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them:
Liar’s Poker and The Big Short by Michael Lewis
These two books by esteemed author Michael Lewis (Moneyball) truly act as financial industry bookends. Liar’s Poker represents the hope and fun of the beginning of the Wall Street dream. I doubt that there are many traders on Wall Street who have never read Liar’s Poker. And I know for a fact that many who did read Liar’s Poker were thus inspired to attempt their hand at a trading career. It is a tale of hubris and risk-taking as a new form of financial engineering, securitization, rolled through the industry like a tidal wave. Lewis does a great job of making what could be considered a boring subject nothing of the sort. On the flipside, The Big Short represents the end of the fever. While the financial industry will continue to exist, The Big Short focuses on the 2007-2008 crash—maintaining interest by focusing on the few maverick investors who made money betting against the market. And yes, most of you are probably aware that this novel was turned into a successful movie.
House of Cards by William Cohan
House of Cards also focuses on the 2007-2008 crash—but in a more sober manner, with a wider historical scope. I highly recommend this book, not only for the small little anecdotes peppered throughout, but also for its full explanation of exactly what caused the Great Recession that followed.
The Buy Side by Turney Duff
Decidedly not tame, Turney Duff’s non-fiction novel about his real life as a sales guy in Manhattan is closer to American Psycho than Liar’s Poker. What separates The Buy Side from others is not anything of particular career-building value, but instead pure debauchery and shock value. It is The Wolf of Wall Street, but set in the early two-thousands instead of the nineties. The book is an exciting ride in the beginning, but watching what happens as Duff goes over the deep end and has to reinvent himself is equally entertaining (and ultimately enlightening).
Taking a quick break from the third novel to say hello!
1) First of all, a special note about Flash Crash. The kindle version of Flash Crash is COMPLETELY FREE this whole weekend (starting right now)!
You can go to Amazon to pick it up for ZERO BUCKS and go down the (very) unique path of a certain man named Jake Rivett (He’s an NYPD detective who’s about as different from any NYPD detective you’ve ever met before).
2) Second, a progress update on book three and some writing musings:
The title of my third Jake Rivett novel is HIS NAME IS RIVETT. As you may have witnessed in the first two books, there’s an evolution occurring with both the character and the series. In Flash Crash, Jake shares the glory with programmer David Belov. By Never Go Alone, Jake is the full-on lead character and we delve much more into his worldview and personal goals—while he solves a series of insane skyscraper heists in Manhattan.
But the stakes in His Name Is Rivett are raised even higher. Amongst other things, His Name Is Rivett is a full-on hunt for an active terror cell on U.S. soil. But when I say “amongst other things,” there’s tons of other elements to this story—Rock shows in the dark catacomb basements of New York, debunked experimental technology that may actually be operable, international intelligence agencies floating around every turn, family dramas… the list goes on.
Although I’m super excited for you to read the third book, I’m not ready to provide a release date yet. I refuse to shotgun novels out into the world (as the expression goes, to “throw something against a wall and see what sticks”)—no matter how financially rewarding it might be. I’ve noticed that many authors in the Kindle and online ecosystem pump out two, three, four or more books a year. They’re usually basic whodunits, a draft and a polish, forty thousand words, done and done. While I understand the model, these aren’t the types of books I’m interested in reading… or writing. As usual, His Name Is Rivett is going to be big, long, deep, fully stand alone, and (always) extremely entertaining. It is a grand adventure filled with awesome action, neck-breaking twists, and complex stories. Clancy, Crichton, and Connelly… these are the types of books I’m aspiring to write. (A shame my last name doesn’t start with a C! “Catch”?) Can’t wait for you to read His Name Is Rivett—but only when it’s ready, or as Rivett might say, fully ace!
3) Third, some fun stuff I found. It’s always been important to me that the novels expose interesting technologies, subcultures, and modern-but-obscure realities of the world. Here’s some cool real-life technologies and locations which relate directly to the first two books.
Ever Heard of a Stingray Machine?
Until recently, no one knew what a Stingray was. It’s one of the most top-secret intelligence technologies that the Feds (and large local police departments) use to conduct cell phone surveillance. Slowly, like a trickle, more and more information about Stingray devices has filtered out into the public. But it’s still all very hush-hush and almost impossible to get official information about this device. Stingray devices (also called “ISMI-catchers”) spoof cell phone towers so that suspects or individuals under surveillance believe they are connected to their regular cell phone company—but in actuality, all of their phone’s information (location, calls, texts, data, etc.) is first being filtered to law enforcement. Of course, Jake Rivett and his colleagues use a Stingray machine in Flash Crash for one very important turn…
Here’s a great article (“The Dragnet”) about one case in which the public first began to learn specific details about the Stingray machine.
A Secret Subway Station
In Never Go Alone, Jake quickly finds himself banding up with a team of urban explorers (who may or may not be thieves). Deep underneath the city, they discover an old, abandoned subway station underneath the Waldorf-Astoria. Astonishingly, this is a completely real location. Although long decommissioned (interestingly because curved station walls wouldn’t allow newer, longer subway cars to make the turns), it was used for visits from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other VIPs from the late 1920’s until at least 1944. Truly incredible.
You can check out more information and pictures of the station here.
The Tunnel Plug
The final bank heist in Flash Crash relies on an ingenious device called a tunnel plug. I won’t go into many more details (to keep the surprise alive), but suffice to say this thing is completely real and has had working tests!
I hope to check in again soon about His Name Is Rivett. And don’t forget, the Kindle version of Flash Crash is FREE this weekend on Amazon! Thanks for being a reader and a very special thanks to anyone who has posted a review of The Jake Rivett Series!
Until next time,
NEVER GO ALONE is OUT NOW!
Buy it right now on Amazon for paperback, Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited!
… and the RAVES are COMING IN:
From Best Thrillers:
“The return of Denison Hatch’s unruly, undercover NYPD detective Jake Rivett is something to celebrate.”
From Book Postmortem:
“Denison Hatch has done it again. The second in the Jake Rivett Series is as riveting as the first. As breathtaking, as heart-hammering and as page-turning!”
From Kirkus Reviews:
“This time, Ducati-loving Jake, a headbanger musician in his spare time, goes deep undercover to infiltrate a group that is specifically targeting penthouse apartments in skyscrapers belonging to a Donald Trump-ish real estate mogul, Arthur Metropolis.”
I HOPE YOU ENJOY NEVER GO ALONE!
UNTIL THE NEXT INSANE ADVENTURE,
The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a disturbing and detail-specific paranoid thriller. It is not an epic adventure like Apocalypse Now, nor a wide-ranging family drama like The Godfather. Instead, it comes across as a small and personal movie. It was financed by Paramount and released in 1974. But if The Conversation were produced in the current day and age, it would not be a studio movie at all—it would definitely be an indie. It might even be called a contained thriller, given how few set pieces and little action is involved.
The movie stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert for hire. Interestingly, Hackman essentially reprised the general character of Caul years later in Enemy of the State (a thriller which I’ve already written an article about). His character is portrayed with an excellent sense of verisimilitude. He is a man who has become extremely paranoid and hyper-technical and detail oriented due to his line of work (or perhaps was already paranoid and hyper-technical and found his line of work on account of his personality). Either way, this is portrayed specifically through the film—from the sophisticated electronic equipment he uses, the safeguards he utilizes to keep his life private and his apartment safe, and the exacting detail in which he extracts audio information from surveillance sources.
In the end, what helps separate the movie from the general “conspiratorial” froth is that one of the fundamental conflicts is between Harry and himself. Harry, the “surveillance expert,” functions with one moral code. But he is also a human who likes to play the saxophone, feels bad about holding back from his girlfriend, and is worried about his work causing the death of one or more of his targets.
The movie holds up very well today, but also must be understood in context to its time. It was released right around the Watergate episode, and this was also a period in American history where the ability of technology to enable everyone from consultant-based “dirty tricks” squads to nation-state spies was exploding into the public view. Part of this discourse was the gap between what the public didn’t know, what they thought was possible, and what was actually possible. One of the reasons that I admire The Conversation is that it was, apparently, extremely well-researched by Coppola. Thus, the technology used is not all-seeing and all-hearing—at odds, perhaps, with the perception of the day.
It was not possible to just turn on a piece of equipment and hear a perfect conversation stream into a tape from a target across a street. That’s why the opening scene of the movie, as well as the resulting piecing together of audio that Harry must do later, is so incredible. It embraces reality at the expense of speedy exposition. And even more than that; it provides drama. That’s one of the most impressive aspects of this movie. Who would have thought that it would be dramatic watching Gene Hackman piece together audio by slowly but surely stripping away tiny wavelengths of sound? This scene contains zero physical action beyond the turning of dials and yet it is entirely and deeply thrilling.
One of the lessons from The Conversation that still holds water today is, in fact, the difficulty of surveillance—as opposed to the prevailing belief that it must be easy for any and everyone to spy on us. It is still hard, and it is definitely still filled with much psychological complexity for the operators and agents involved. When one watches a movie such as The Conversation, one realizes how much of a cop-out it is for a modern movie to simply show a briefing with “surveillance footage” in the background—acquiring that footage could make up an entire film in and of itself!
That brings me to the real meat of the movie. First, the plot is appropriately twisty and well-constructed. A paranoid thriller always relies on a hook to pull the viewer in (in this case, it is the line, “He’d kill us if the got the chance.”), and at least one or two substantial twists to throw everyone askew in the second and third acts. I won’t describe the actual plotting in order to keep it a surprise, but suffice to say that this movie provides plenty of required turns.
But as usual, an excellent thriller will transcend its plot when it comes to why it must be watched. As was touched upon earlier, the real reason that The Conversation works so well is Hackman’s character of Harry. And although his characterization is good, what is the best is the emotional upheaval that eventually affects him. Ultimately this is a man who is undone by his own profession—his own code of existence. There is an inevitability about this result throughout the film, a sense that the cracks are forming. And at the end, when he realizes that he’s been had and also may be under surveillance himself, he cracks completely.
One of the final scenes of the movie can be played here without giving much away. But just imagine how a completely buttoned-up and under control man in the beginning of this film becomes this wreck by the end. That journey is why The Conversation easily enters the halls of the best paranoid thrillers ever made.
NEVER GO ALONE is officially available for Kindle pre-order!
I think this book is going to eclipse Flash Crash. In terms of sales, potentially, but more importantly when it comes to reader appreciation. You will love it. I personally feel that the new thriller is more exciting, well-rounded, and entertaining than the former, but also (critically) filled with tons more character development when it comes to our main man, Jake Rivett. Never Go Alone is a thriller, yes. But it’s also something else: It’s a love story. It’s a love story that revolves around Jake and a new female character, but also around the nature of the city environment itself. Obviously, you’ll have to read it for yourself to understand exactly what I mean.
Both the Kindle and the physical book will be released on December 1st. As of now, only Kindle books are available for pre-order. The Kindle book will likely be around 400 Kindle pages, and the paperback novel will come in just a hair above 300 pages. As usual, I only publish real books. None of these six-part, 50-pages-each, money-grinders. That’s not what a Rivett thriller is and never will be. And also as usual, Never Go Alone is completely readable as a standalone novel in and of itself.
And finally, a description of Never Go Alone:
A rash of elaborate cat burglaries of luxury buildings in Manhattan has the city panicked.
When a group of social media obsessed millennials–a loosely organized crew that call themselves “urban explorers”–are suspected in the heists, NYPD detective Jake Rivett is assigned the case. Rivett dives deep into the urban exploration scene in pursuit of the truth.
But what, and who, he finds–deep in the sewers, up in the cranes above under-construction skyscrapers, and everywhere else in New York–will change not only Jake, but the city itself.
THE FIRST RULE OF URBAN EXPLORATION IS: NEVER GO ALONE.
I CANNOT WAIT to hear what you think of the next RIVETT novel!
Dear Friends, Readers, and Rivett-ers,
The next Jake Rivett thriller is ready, the cover is done, and the release date is set!
But first, I’d like to talk about Flash Crash for a brief moment. I’ve officially sold over a thousand copies of Flash Crash. It’s an awesome thing to have my novel out there in the world, enjoyed by both people that I know and more importantly, those I don’t. And the first group who deserve serious thanks are you–my most loyal and interested fans.
Reviews are perhaps the most important marketing element of any book. And I am grateful that excellent reviews keep rollin’ on in. Just a few small blurbs from recent reviews:
“A high octane ride… fueled by the mind instead of brawn and violence.”
“With more switchbacks than Route 66, Flash Crash kicks in where other thrillers are rolling the closing credits. Hi-tech Manhattan meets low rent Jersey in this blockbuster first novel.”
“The detective, Rivett, is like a train wreck of bad behavior and good morals mixed together. He’s irresistible to follow…”
On that note, if you have yet to review the book, it would be HUGELY appreciated! You can click here to do that (scroll down and click on “Write a customer review.”) And if you have already reviewed the book, I would appreciate if you would LIKE or SHARE my Facebook Author Page, RETWEET my Twitter, or send anyone who loves insane thrillers to DenisonHatch.com.
Every new fan and every new sale really helps out yours truly and both supports and inspires me to keep on writing Rivett thrillers!
Whew. Now that the appetizer is over, the entree awaits:
NEVER GO ALONE is done. It’s been re-written countless times. It’s been edited. It is being formatted into both Kindle and paperback versions as we speak. And I am ultra excited for you to get your hands on it… Very soon!
Here is a summary:
NEVER GO ALONE
A rash of elaborate cat burglaries of luxury buildings in Manhattan has the police and mayor panicked. When a group of social media obsessed millennials—a loosely organized crew that call themselves “urban explorers”—are suspected in the heists, NYPD detective Jake Rivett is assigned the case.
Already undercover with one foot on each side of the blue line, Rivett is ordered to infiltrate the group and discern responsibility. Battling against both his own personal demons and misgivings regarding his superiors, Rivett dives deep into the urban exploration scene in pursuit of the truth. But what, and who, he finds—deep in the sewers, up in the cranes above under-construction skyscrapers, and everywhere else in New York—will change not only Jake, but the city itself.
Never Go Alone continues to follow your favorite Ducati-driving, Screamo-band-moonlighting NYPD detective, Jake Rivett. It picks up about a year after Flash Crash. And just like Flash Crash, Never Go Alone is certainly a thriller of the highest order. But it’s not a technothriller in the manner that Flash Crash was. Never Go Alone has a little less tech, and whole helluva’ lot more mystery.
It’s filled with neck-breaking twists, some badass new characters and Jake Rivett’s unforgettable, twisted-but-moralistic view of the world. Of course, there are some absolutely breathtaking and ingenious heists within the novel. But it is also a rumination on the state of society; the Have’s and Have-not’s of the modern world. As usual, it won’t be clear exactly who you should be rooting for. Everyone’s a sinner and everyone’s an angel–at the same time–in this novel.
And when the promo above says, “the city itself” will be changed? That’s not hyperbole. You’ll have to finish the book to understand, but Rivett has gotten himself into a case which goes both deep underground and far, far, up the food chain of money and power in New York.
A final note about the Jake Rivett series: Each book is designed to be a consuming, heart-pounding, standalone thriller. You can read any book, at any time, and feel very satisfied. That said, reading the books in their actual intended order (which as of now is: Flash Crash, Never Go Alone) will make the experience even better!
The release date for Never Go Alone is December 1st. It will be available as a 300-page paperback novel and also as a Kindle ebook at that time. And I will send out another update soon when pre-orders are open!
Thanks so much, and I can’t wait until you all can get your hands on Never Go Alone!
Take care, Denison
It is undeniable that books, film and television are interrelated. They both engage in the age-old art of storytelling, but through different mediums. And even though Hollywood is filled with professional creative executives whose job it is to troll through “every story ever written” for future projects, there are still reams of books that have not been made into movies—but should!
Here are five books in particular that would make excellent screen adaptations (STEAL THIS LIST AT WILL, PEOPLE! Just make ’em!):
THE FOREVER WAR by Joseph Haldeman
The Forever War is one of the ultimate science fiction novels, although perhaps less well-known than others in the genre. The book’s setup involves a group of spacefaring Marines who are sent to another planet to destroy what the government believes is a war-mongering alien race. When they arrive, the aliens are actually peaceful bunny rabbits with no ill intent at all. A massacre ensues. On their trip back to Earth, the Marines are eventually attacked by the same alien race. But this time the aliens are massively technologically evolved and aggressive—having been forced to develop differently after being exposed to warfare and following the massacre.
It’s an epic tale and a metaphor for Vietnam but also war in general—if you bring war to a region, that region may begin to know and be transformed by that war more than you could ever imagine. Due to its applicability to current events, combined with a generally fun and action-packed plot, this is a clear movie-in-the-making!
(*Hollywood Status: I am not the first person to think of this. This book has been “in development” for over thirty years, with multiple handfuls of scripts written. The last update from last year (2015) has it at Warner Brother’s with Channing Tatum attached… but who knows if it will happen anytime soon!)
DAEMON by Daniel Suarez
A modern technothriller, Daniel Suarez’s best selling novel Daemon is about a series of murders which are seemingly perpetrated by a computer system. One interesting fact about this novel is that it was originally self-published and later picked up by a large publishing house.
The book is particularly suited to a film adaptation for a few reasons. First of all, it blends the digital and physical realms together quite admirably. The plot does not revolve around people looking at computer screens, and even the “murders” themselves are quite spectacular real life set pieces. Second, it addresses the modern zeitgeist in an important way. Computers are becoming more and more critical to us—some would say they are already completely indispensible—and have the ability to very greatly effect our everyday quality of life. We will definitely soon see murders caused by computer algorithms. Daemon was just one of the first to get there.
SECRETS OF THE FBI by Ronald Kessler
Kessler has written over 20 non-fiction books about many parts of the U.S.’s security apparatus. But his recent book about the FBI, Secrets of the FBI, was very illuminating due to his description of the Tailored Access Operations group. It’s fascinating reading. The members of this group are basically professional burglars who will go way above and beyond expectation to get into places where they want to be. This extends to painting walls after they’ve breached them, moving huge buses to block their activities from a busy bar across the street, etc.
Anyway, this book is ripe for one thing. Not a movie, but a procedural TV show! The main character works as a tailor, but secretly his shop is the front for a small group within the FBI (also doing work with the CIA or NSA whenever necessary, all considered “clients” of the Tailor) who specialize in burglarizing places and placing bugs or retrieving information for the sake of national security. I’d tune into that tomorrow!
SNOW CRASH by Neal Stephenson
While the plot is slightly hard to explain, it basically revolves around a future world where humans have computer-like inputs. A “virus” called “Snow Crash” is going around that essentially renders human’s language unintelligible and reduces their ability to communicate to an ancient babbling language. The main character also has an awesome meta-name: Hiro Protagonist. Snow Crash has a cool high-concept plot, but it also has incredible world building that meshes the realm of computers with the real world—and depicts a well thought-out future.
It would make an awesome film in the hands of a creative director. As an added note, a few of Stephenson’s other novels would make great films too: Cryptonomicon, Reamde, and Seveneves.
(*Hollywood Status: This book seems to be set up at Paramount. But like Forever War, it’s been around the block a hundred times.)
KANE AND ABEL by Jeffrey Archer
One of my all-time favorite novels, Kane and Abel is an epic tale of family, war, betrayal and empire-building. It takes place over multiple generations and involves a longstanding feud between ambitious men.
This book should be on everyone’s “must read” list if it is not already. While perhaps more suited for a television series, I think the most compelling version of this would just be one long movie, ala, an urban version of Legends of the Fall, with two big-name actors in each role.
AND LAST, BUT NOT LEAST, ONE EXTRA BOOK (#6):
FLASH CRASH by Denison Hatch
Why not wrap up with my own novel? If you like insane heists, are infatuated by the fact that algorithms are running our stock markets, or just enjoy sitting back for an awesome thriller complete with Russian mobsters, renegade cops, and a perhaps-innocent man in the middle… FLASH CRASH may be the book for you.
A brief summary: When a rogue quantitative programmer intentionally crashes the gold index, it seems that Wall Street’s worst nightmare has come true. In truth, the crisis has just begun. Across town, an armored truck filled with $120M of gold bullion is hijacked by an ingeniously crafted electromagnetic crane and seemingly driven into thin air. Programmer David Belov discovers that his virtual “Flash Crash” was simply a required stepping stone towards the largest physical gold robbery in history, and that’s he’s been framed for the resulting chaos, the lives of his beloved wife and son on the balance… With brooding, hardboiled detective Jake Rivett and the NYPD’s finest operators from the Major Crimes Division actively seeking to locate and arrest David, and other, darker elements nipping at his heels, David is forced to confront his own past in order to have a future.
There is no more-mentioned heist thriller in any creative meeting I’ve attended than Heat. Directed by Michael Mann (some would argue in his prime) and starring Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, the film centers around a squad of thieves, run by DeNiro’s character “McCauley” and pursued by the Pacino’s detective, “Vincent Hanna.”
Unlike many thrillers (such as the previously written about Wages of Fear or Enemy of the State), the setup and overall “plot” of Heat is not as impressive as the sum of its parts. This is refreshing. The general setup of the film is simple: A cop tries to stop a robber. The two men have been proverbial foes for a long time when the movie opens. The audience isn’t provided with a sense of arriving “at the beginning.” This is no origin story. In fact, we are really arriving at the end of both man’s careers.
Formally, we are ignited into the picture with a botched robbery—with three dead guards—that re-ignites Vincent’s passions to nail McCauley. But what sets Heat apart is the nature of the characters themselves. As I briefly mentioned above, both men are in the later years of their career. This instantly sets up an interesting dynamic—the two men are perhaps more similar to one another than not. They both are dealing with issues of wives, ex-wives, girlfriends and kids. The first brilliance of the film is the clear manner in which our leads are depicted as grizzled ying’s to each other’s yang’s. But the second brilliance is the way that they are permitted to intersect towards the end of the movie. They meet in a diner and have a heart to heart conversation that would essentially position them as good friends—if it were not for the crimes in between them.
While not forgetting what’s really going on, with both admitting they would kill the other one if they had to, the fact that this scene was so flawlessly inserted into the script is one reason it must be mentioned so often in filmmaking circles. It’s also fraught with tension. How can they just sit next to each other like that? Is something going to happen that we don’t realize? It’s a truly great scene, bringing together two characters (both of whom have been built independently throughout the first two-thirds of the film) and paying their emotional arcs off together.
The scene is watchable here:
But there’s more…
Having written a handful of Thriller Thursday reviews over the last six months, I’ve come to realize that verisimilitude is one of the most important elements of a good thriller. It’s not enough for a main character to be in danger. The character must be in real danger. There is a large distinction. In some ways the difference would be exemplified by comparing a James Bond film to Bourne. Reality is crucial. One example of reality is the opening heist sequence. In it, a new member of McCauley’s crew gets carried away and kills a guard. Some movies might have left it like that and allowed the obvious retribution against the new member of the crew to occur. But what happens in Heat is much closer to reality. McCauley realizes in this moment that his hand has been forced. He has to kill the other two guards now. He doesn’t want to do it, but he’s a consummate professional—albeit in a highly illegal and dangerous field. And so the murders commence. This is a deeply tragic scene, but also one filled with reality.
The relationship between Jon Voight’s character of Nate and McCauley is also quite instructive. Nate is a fence, and also a trader of technology and information for nefarious means. The way that he conducts himself—and the way he looks in general—fits perfectly into the world of Heat. He is not a “fence” in the manner that other movies might portray him—like someone who works at a pawn shop and has a bad drug habit. Nate looks like someone who could easily be an insurance adjuster or small-town lawyer, with his manicured mustache and middle-class slouch and dress. That, again, is part of the magic. The whole combination makes the audience believe they are watching something real, something that exists in real life (but without this movie, they would not otherwise be able to see).
Finally, no mention of a Michael Mann movie would be complete without mention of his set pieces. Mann is an absolute master of the gunfight. For example, take a movie like Miami Vice. While that movie was nothing like Heat in terms of it’s permanence within the thriller canon, it (along with Public Enemies, and others) excelled when it came to the sheer reality of the gunfights and action scenes. All of this began with Heat, to some respect. The set pieces and bank/armored car robberies are patently insane. I don’t need to describe them line-by-line. Just check out this video to watch one in action and understand what I’m talking about:
Check out some of my past Thriller Thursday posts here:
Or go grab HEAT on Amazon:
Weekend Read – 6/3/16 (Frat-Bro Smugglers, Money Laundering, A Voyeur, Nazi Secrets and Russian Spies!)
It’s been two months+ since my last weekend read update. Long articles are my absolute favorite. Here are some of the recent ones I enjoyed/found interesting:
THE COYOTE BROS: HOW HARD PARTYING GUYS IN TEXAS BECAME IMMIGRANT SMUGGLERS – Just when you thought that human smugglers were shady coyotes packing immigrants into box trucks, think again – goo.gl/C6J2QL
THE MOSSAK FONSECA SCANDAL: DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS – A good primer on the law firm based out of Panama, and the source of the “Panama Papers,” which exposed massive money “hiding” by rich individuals across the globe. Still a developing story. – goo.gl/RyoeCW
THE VOYEUR’S MOTEL – Man, this one was good (and crazy). This is about a hotelier who designed his hotel specifically to spy on his guests. He never intruded. He didn’t film them. He just watched. And it’s being turned into a movie with Spielberg producing! – http://goo.gl/mJiI8D
THE NAZI UNDERGROUND – It’s not did he, but why did Hitler build a massive underground city (larger than the entire square footage of the White House) underneath a fortress in southwestern Poland? Was it to build nuclear weapons? To store bombers? To hide out? To hide gold? All of the above? Or was it the alien spacecraft… – http://goo.gl/NtXn0U
THE DAY WE DISCOVERED OUR PARENTS WERE RUSSIAN SPIES – Taken straight out of The Americans (actually it’s the other way around), these two brothers had no idea their parents were Russian spies. Until the FBI arrived and arrested them. What do you do when you think you’re an American, but suddenly find out you are actually America’s enemy? – http://goo.gl/93GLCk
“The Best of the Best,” my favorite, curated Weekend Read articles below:
*BAD GRANDPA HIKES KIDS ALMOST TO DEATH AT GRAND CANYON. I have rafted the Grand Canyon in the middle of the summer. It is absolutely, definitely not a place you want to try to conquer without the right supplies. But what I like about this Indianapolis Monthly article is not just the jovial tone, but the lack of black-and-white. Both points of view are represented very well… goo.gl/Q0mwyR
*Boom! Inside a British Bank-Bombing Spree by Nick Summers – goo.gl/XVRsPN
No American ATM has ever been robbed with explosive gas. The same WAS true in Britian – Until 2013. Now there have been more than 90.
*The Deputy Who Disappeared by Claire Martin for LA Magazine – goo.gl/PmBhvu
This is a truly fascinating story about an LA County Sheriff’s Deputy who disappeared off the face of the earth while long-distance running in the Antelope Valley. What starts out as a possible lost-and-perished-in-the-woods tale starts to become something much different as the article proceeds.
*None Dare Call It a Conspiracy by Scott Anderson for GQ – goo.gl/BJ60fG
False flag terrorism, in which one entity conducts a terrorist attack but makes it seem like another is responsible, in order to provoke a counterattack, is age-old. But is still still practiced today? This article is very controversial, as it’s about Russia, and Putin, and the apartment bombings that marked the beginning of Putin’s reign… And you won’t be able to stop reading.
When I started to prepare for publishing my novel, Flash Crash, a vast array of logistical issues reared their head. As I came closer to actually releasing the book, I learned the truth of why it’s very hard to self-publish successfully. Every author needs an edge—and hopefully the writing itself is one to begin with. But that may not be enough. One inherent conflict for the average author preparing to publish their own novel is that its difficult “tell great stories” and to also conquer the learning curve of “formatting a novel,” “designing a cover,” “fostering a social media following,” “developing a website,” and “marketing a product.”
Strong experience or a particular skill in any of those elements will help your average self-published author immensely. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing the work yourself, or if it’s a graphic/web designer that you’ve hired. What’s most important is that you’re holding the work up to the highest possible standard—applying objective criticism and deep thinking to the fundamental nature of the product.
Today, I’m going to focus on cover design. The cover is vitally important. The reason that I’ve reached some of these thoughts and conclusions was due to the design and subsequent redesign of my own book cover. First, I’d like to show you the first version of my book cover:
I was super proud of this cover. It was ultra bold and in your face. There was a lightning bolt. It even had a “bad guy” with a tattoo of a scorpion on his scalp—both a literal and physical description of one of the antagonists within the novel.
And at first, most of the people that I showed it to were complimentary. A few loved it. Most liked it. Some were on the fence. But then I began to receive external comments. An early reviewer read it on NetGalley and noted that the book was “better than the cover made you expect.” Others echoed her view. I took it all to heart, and I started thinking about where I could improve. What did it really come down to? A lock of focus? Were the words too bold? Was there a problem with the story on the cover?
What should a cover really look like anyways? What is it that people are going to want to click on?
When I first think of covers I think of Hardy Boys books, because they were the first “series” that I read actively. Somewhere around third grade, I read an entire shelf full of Hardy Boys. Check out what Hardy Boys covers looked like:
They were very literal and to the point. The cover depicted action from the book. It gave you a glimpse into the story. And Hardy Boys, while aimed at YA males, represented the cover zeitgeist of the times. First published in 1927, their prime was the 1960’s.
From the sixties to the seventies and into the 80’s, graphic design experienced many shifts. It started with the literalism of Hardy Boys. Then cubism and post-modernism arrived. Art deco flickered up and down in leaderboard, and finally the eighties ended with a combination of all of this—creatively laid out text, hand-illustrated feature or images. Check out “Eye of the Needle:”
Followed by “The Bonfire of the Vanities:”
And then “It:”
The 90’s were all about John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy. Oh—and one more participant: Photoshop. One need only to look at Grisham novel covers, from “A Time To Kill”…
…to “The Partner” to witness the progression.
This series of developments occurred and eventually began to include fully computer-aided design. That’s the point when we reached pure photorealism, such as the cover of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons:
In the process of researching what books were selling on Amazon, and general bestsellers, I realized that another progression in book cover images was well underway. The Angels & Demons-period is gone. It seems as though special effects and photorealism have fallen out of fashion. No longer are designers or readers interested in the “capturing” of a storyboard from the movie version of the book. Perhaps it was only once book covers reached “Peak CGI” that the backlash began.
What has emerged is, at its essence, simplicity. Simplicity is a rejection of the idea that we should try to force a vision of our novel’s world onto any reader. It is also an endorsement of the concept that books are a different pleasure from movies and television altogether—and to display a scene from the book for the cover is to pervert the very intention of the medium. Simplicity can mean one image, one piece of art or illustration, or something else that I noticed: the ultra close-up.
If you want to be completely on trend, then right now the ultra-close up is what’s up. All one needs to do is take a look at the two hottest beachgoer’s novels of the last two summers, “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train.” Gone Girl’s ultra-close up is of a piece of hair (or twine… I can’t be sure). Girl on the Train’s ultra-close up is essentially just a window on a train—blurred and whipping past. Both images use their simplicity to capture a sense of tone, but importantly, not plot.
Thus resulted in the final lesson for my book cover. A great modern cover should avoid plot, but is required to project “tone.” This tone places the reader in the mindset of the world they are about to enter—it makes them feel what the characters are feeling.
While designing the second generation of my cover with this in mind, I did come across one more caveat. Self-published books still tend to give just a little bit more away then books published by the Big Five. I have a feeling this is due to the inherent trust that the reader has when it comes to seeing a book on the shelf at their local Barnes & Noble. As a result of this, and since my book was self-published, I completed the design with a few specific guidelines. I intended to give the smallest preview of the book’s setting, but restrict the remainder largely to a feeling. I wanted to keep the cover image simple, and make sure the focus was on only one element. And I wanted to absolutely ace the titling—insuring that every component appeared refined and professional.
It’s beneficial to think about a project from a wider tonal perspective first, then dial-in on the right look, second. That said, there are a million other important points to cover when it comes to design.
One more crucial one: Make sure that your cover downsizes well, ensuring that when it is as small as postage stamp it is still discernible. The wording should be readable. Most importantly, imagine that postage-sized stamp as your only sales representative.