Best Thriller Writer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Elmore Leonard said that a book or a chapter should never open with a description of the weather. That’s generally good writing advice, but from the moment I read “The skies over Gatwick were an insipid grey” I was hooked by the writing of Robert Goddard. He is enormously popular in the UK but for some reason his books have not leapt the pond.

He writes intricately plotted thrillers and mysteries, some set in the present day and some in the past. My favorite is Past Caring, but of his 20 books there are very few that wouldn’t qualify as a “thumping good read” (The name of one of the awards he has won).

In addition to wickedly surprising plots, no Goddard book is without some turns of phrase that stay with you: “Tintagel is a strange looking place, and it’s stranger than it looks”, “It was one of those moments where the aimless ramble of my life took on the fleeting dignity of a plan”. Many of Goddard narrators are flawed people, which heightens the suspense. Rather than being guided along by a Sherlock Holmes-type who illuminates everything for the reader, you can never tell when the protagonist has understood what is really going on, or just thinks he has.

If you are in the UK, you can find a well-thumbed Goddard paperback in virtually any of the charity shops. It will be a pound more than well spent. Otherwise, that’s why God gave us

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Best Thriller Writer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of”

  1. I can’t remember what led me to read my first Goddard novel (Paint the Darkness), but I found it so enthralling I went through the rest of his 21 then-published books in less than a year. They do vary in quality plot-wise, but most of them kept me well entertained, and the writing is consistently top-notch. One of the major attractions for me is the variety of well-described settings, both within and outside the U.K. (as well as the absence of obligatory sex scenes; when sexual encounters occur, they’re integral to the plot and characters). While his plots are in a sense formulaic, it’s a formula on which a wide range of changes can be rung. You’re unlikely to be able to anticipate what’s going to happen next, except for knowing that it’ll be unexpected.

    I looked for info about Goddard on the Web, and there isn’t much, but I did find a story saying Stephen King had recently discovered his books and was so thrilled by them that he’d ordered them all and was working his way through them one by one. That ain’t a bad recommendation.

    Goddard’s latest, Blood Count, was published earlier this year. I’m waiting for it to become available used and cheap on Amazon (I try to make it a rule not to spend more than 1 cent + $3.99 shipping for my light reading).

  2. William Gibson also broke Leonard’s rule successfully in Neuromancer; I quote from memory:

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

  3. Thanks for the tip. My library network shows forty-five entries for Goddard. I’ve reserved Past Caring. There’s one person ahead of me.

  4. On your advice, I went to the local library and got their only Goddard, Found Wanting. Here’s the opening sentence:
    “The sky over Whitehall is doughy grey, the air chill and granular.”

  5. Thanks for the tip. Got two out of the library today. And thanks for the movie recommendation above, although not sure I’ll ever be able to find it. Didn’t know Robert M. was Elizabeth M.’s father, either.

  6. @Jay Livingston–Found Wanting is not one of Goddard’s best. If you don’t care for it, don’t give up. Try Past Caring or Paint the Darkness or Into the Blue or Caught in the Light or Name to a Face.

  7. Jay: I dug around last night for my copy of Past Caring so that I could mail it you, but I couldn’t find it — think I passed it along to a friend. You will particularly like it if you find the Edwardian English period interesting. I echo Swift’s Loris’ other recommendations. I am not sure how many Goddard books I have read, maybe a dozen, and the quality is very high. But every 6 books or so he misses a trick, at least for me. Still that’s a high hit rate, equal to Michael Connelly and Steven King I think.

  8. I was glad to see several Goddard titles (but not Past Caring) in my library system, Montgomery County, MD. So he’s crossed the pond.

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