JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

Writing The Ultimate Page -Turning Thriller


 Of the following, please check which one applies to you: a) I want to write  a page-turner that will keep my readers up all night; b) I want to read the hottest “serial-killer” thriller of the Summer;  c) Both of the above.  Whichever option you chose, The Fourth Monkey by J.D.Barker is a MUST read for you.


Ultimate Thriller

The novel is a gripping, gritty, fast-paced thriller about a serial killer, dubbed “4MK” (the Four Monkey killer), who has terrorized the city of Chicago for more than five years. His seven victims, all young women, are tortured in a unique M.O. (based on Confucius’s wise monkeys) where the killer cuts off one ear (hear no evil), then gouges out the eyes (see no evil), then the tongue (speak no evil) — before killing the victim (do no evil.) The body parts are delivered to the victims’ relatives in signature white boxes tied with black string. Since the first killing, he has been pursued unsuccessfully by homicide detective, Sam Porter. The thriller opens with an accident in which the serial killer, on his way to mail the ear of his latest, eighth victim, apparently deliberately steps out in front of a city transit bus and dies.

 Page-Turner Kept Me Up All Night

I first heard about the novel on Goodreads, the social media site for book lovers. The book cover flashed up on My Page  touting itself as “Se7en meets Hannibal Lecter.” I don’t normally pay that much attention to books which Goodreads tries to foist on me (I have my own long list of “to-read books.”)  However, since there is a “serial killer” backstory in the novel I am currently writing, I had to check this one out. This is what happened:

It kept me up all night. Literally. I started reading while watching The Rachel Maddow Show. Went to bed at midnight.  Had to get up. Had to continue reading. I finished just after 5 a.m. as dawn was breaking, and had to cancel my morning tennis game. I wasn’t exactly ready for bed (too much flitting around in my mind), but I wasn’t in any fit shape to play tennis, either.  There was worse to come:

Stopped Work On My Thriller

I couldn’t go back to the first draft of my own WIP. It’s been several days now since I finished reading, and yes, I know, any old excuse for procrastinating! But, honestly, when you read an author who has totally hit it out of the ballpark, you are bound to seriously question your own attempt at producing a page-turner. More to the point you feel the need to analyze and dissect the book all over again to answer the questions preying on your mind: How did he do it?  How did J.D. Barker make me stay up all night, reading?

Why I Turned the Pages

The author, of course, adheres to all the conventions of the genre: a string of unsolved bizarre, revolting murders; a new victim; a race against time to find the killer as well as the latest victim who is hanging onto life by the proverbial thread; and a likeable, but flawed protagonist who doggedly pursues the killer overcoming increasing obstacles –until a happy or semi-happy resolution is reached whereby the victim is rescued and/or the killer’s motives are revealed and/or the brilliantly, evil killer is captured.

BUT The Fourth Monkey is so much more than the sum of the parts of its genre. For starters, the serial killer appears to have committed suicide in the opening chapters. Why? There may be a clue in the diary which he was also carrying when he walked into the bus, and which is handed to detective Porter. The diary, additionally, is a delicious device by which the author purports to “look into the mind of a serial killer.”

There is a “social justice” aspect to his killings since his victims are related to big-time wrongdoers whose bad deeds have so far gone unpunished. This serial killer apparently believes it’s a bigger punishment for wrongdoers to know their children have been tortured and killed because of their sins than being tortured and killed themselves.  But the wife and children of the man to whom the last box was addressed appear to be unharmed and intact — after the ear is found. So, there is an initial mystery over the identity of the new victim.

Pushing the Stakes Higher in a Thriller

Photo Credit: Dayna Jung Photography

Barker (pictured)  adds to the high stakes of identifying the  latest victim and finding her location before she dies of thirst and/or starvation by introducing the nail-biting possibility of the victim being attacked and eaten by rats. This is the fate that befalls one of the serial killer’s previous victims who is found in a horrifying maze of underground tunnels beneath the city. Naturally, there is a didn’t-see-it-coming, super-horrifying mid-point twist that is as good as Gillian Flynn’s in Gone Girl, if not better.

It is the brilliant interweaving of the various strands of the thriller that makes it unputdownable. Barker, a 47-year old former self-published author, moves from 1) the police investigation and search for the victim to 2) the victim and her horrendous struggle to stay alive to 3) the diary revealing the disturbed and disturbing childhood of the serial killer (who could of course be an unreliable narrator, or be playing mind games with the cops) to 4) the unravelling of recent personal tragic events in Porter’s life.  And, he breaks off from each strand exactly at the point where the reader is “dying”  to know more.

Beginnings Of A Page-Turner

It goes without saying that Barker nailed it in his opening chapters. In a  recent post,  I wrote about a Writers Boot Camp for which I signed up and which focused on the first ten pages of the participants’ manuscripts. As Paula Munier, a literary agent, author and instructor at the boot camp emphasized, the first ten pages of a novel are make-or-break for an author. That goes whether a reader is looking through hardcovers on a Barnes and Noble shelf, or using the Look Inside feature for an Amazon Kindle purchase. In The Fourth Monkey, the author does everything right in his first ten pages.

We know immediately that something huge has happened. We learn that protagonist, homicide detective Sam Porter is being summoned back to work –although he is supposedly on some kind of leave– because of the apparent suicide of a serial killer he has been pursuing and who appears to have struck one last time.

We meet the likeable protagonist, 52-year old Sam Porter (who hates his pinging iPhone, hates “cheap electronics” from China, and owns an old nineteen-inch tube TV because it still works), and we want to know more about Porter and the personal tragedy that has led to his unwanted leave. We’re also introduced to the evil mind of the antagonist by references to his M.O. and his previous killings. He is a smart and a worthy adversary, staying one step ahead of the cops throughout the book. And, like the best antagonists of the genre, he appears to possess a human dimension that blows us away at the very end.

Eluding capture, he performs an act of vengeance on Porter’s behalf . Naturally, it comes with a small quid pro quo. On the last page of the book, he asks Porter to find his mother  –a character we’ve been fascinated and repelled by in the serial killer’s diary.

If the oft-repeated dictum “the first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book,” is correct, then, so far as I’m concerned, Barker already has a hit on his hands with the sequel due out next year.


Photo Credits:, Dayna Jung Photography






  1. This sounds amazing Joanna! I’ll have to check it out for sure 🙂

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