As a critic, one of the best feelings in the world is when I find a book that absolutely blows me away. Even better, though, is when I get to tell you all, diehard readers and fans of the thriller genre, about it. Then, finally, that book comes out, and one by one, I watch on social media as readers go through that same reading experience that I did, and their reactions are always priceless.
Well, most recently, the book that took me on such an adventure was Landon Beach’s Narrator, a riveting first-person, present-tense story that follows famed audiobook narrator Shawn Frost, who while battling some personal demons, finds himself living in hell on earth after he’s captured and forced to perform the narration of an audiobook his captors wrote for him.
“Narrator is a project that I have wanted to take on for a long time,” Beach told me during a lengthy conversation a few weeks ago. “The seeds were planted decades ago when I read Julio Cortázar’s short story “The Continuity of Parks” and saw these four films: Vertigo, Play Misty For Me, Misery, and A Beautiful Mind. In fact, after seeing A Beautiful Mind in 2001, a twenty-year brainstorming session commenced—the creation of a soup containing those five main ingredients along with my life experiences as a writer attempting to navigate the entertainment business. And so for twenty years, I stirred the soup.”
Misery, Stephen King’s 1987 classic bestselling novel, which Beach referenced, is the obvious comparison here. The similarities are obvious, a famous author is kidnapped by a deranged fan and forced to produce a book he didn’t want to write, versus a narrator being held captive and made to perform an audiobook against his will. At least, that’s what I thought going into it. Armed with very little knowledge of what Beach had cooked up in that literary “soup,” he’d been working on, I only thought I knew what to expect. About a quarter of the way in though, I felt the rug being pulled out from under me in one quick motion, and suddenly, as my head spun, I realized this book was not what I had expected.
“What I wanted to write was a psychological thriller, set in the entertainment industry, that was new and had never been done before,” Beach explained to me when I asked what his goal was in writing Narrator. “There were many taste-testing sips of the soup over the years, but nothing that made me stop and say, “Yes, it’s ready.” The final ingredient was added three years ago when my life forever changed: I contacted the unrivaled Hall of Fame narrator Scott Brick and asked if he would be interested in performing my three independently-published novels at the time. He read The Wreck…and said yes. As we collaborated on the production of those three books, I realized what my long-gestating story could be about and set to work on it.”
There are a few things to unpack here. First, Beach—an author I have long admired—is best known for his Great Lakes saga: The Wreck (2018), The Sail (2019), The Cabin (2019), and The Hike (2021). A Michigan man born and raised, I was fascinated by the concept of creating books that, while not necessarily classified as a series or sequels to one another, at least in the traditional sense, are each centered around a different Great Lake. That, to the best of my knowledge, hadn’t been done before, and as someone who has spent considerable time around each of the five Great Lakes, I wanted to see if the author had managed to capture the ambiance and setting that each body of water provides. Spoiler alert: Beach did that and so much more. Instantly, I was a fan. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the author tells me he’s planning to write the fifth book, which will be set around Lake Michigan (of which I am intimately familiar with having grown up on the water) in the future. More on that below.
So, knowing Beach’s work, I thought I knew what to expect from the author I so admired. He’d already shown tremendous range within the Great Lakes saga, not to mention Huron Breeze, the first book in a new series he’s writing. Breeze, a mystery novel, has a completely different vibe from, say, The Cabin, which has real grit, reading closer to hard-boiled noir when compared to the lighthearted prose that fills the pages of The Wreck. And yet still, I didn’t think Beach, who is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, had it in him to deliver something quite as twisted as Narrator. But more on that in a moment.
The other thing I wanted to touch on here, is the mention of Scott Brick. One of the most iconic narrators to ever sit in the booth, Brick has narrated for serious heavyweights like Nelson DeMille, Brad Melter, Lee Child, Tom Clancy, and Vince Flynn—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re a fan of his work, you’re in for a treat with this one. Narrator, without question, is the performance of Brick’s career. He owns this role similar to how Robert Dowely Jr. brought the beloved Tony Stark to life on the big screen for Marvel studios. Really. Click play, and what you’ll quickly learn, as I did, is that Brick is Shawn Frost, at least to some degree—and the decades of experience that he brings to the role, on top of his emotional performance, proves he is the only person who could do this audiobook justice. And that he did.
It all works so well that, even if you prefer the paperback or eBook, I highly recommend also picking up the audiobook version of Narrator, just to witness Scott Brick do his thing.
So, yes, surprises on top of surprises for me, as a reader myself, when I dove into this one. As I’ve already stated, Beach hasn’t ever done anything like this, and that got me thinking—why now?
“I looked at my writing load for the next few years and saw that I had four books I wanted to write: The Bay, Huron Nights, Huron Sunrise, and Narrator. I thought about starting The Bay because I was, and still am, excited to bring The Great Lakes Saga to a satisfying, thrilling finish, but I could not get my idea for Narrator out of my head. Also, I didn’t think that there had ever been a novel published that was quite like Narrator, so the uniqueness of the project gave me additional motivation to finish the book and get it out into the marketplace. The audiobook business continues to explode in popularity; this seemed like the perfect time for a psychological thriller about an audiobook narrator to come out.”
When I pointed out to Landon Beach that this book is so different from anything else he’s ever written, he explained why he took that risk, and how he prepared for it, saying, “I am always looking for ways to improve my craft. In that regard, I enjoyed studying Robert McKee’s first two books, Story and Dialogue. When I heard he had a third book coming out titled Character, I bought it as soon as it was available and devoured it. As a result of that experience, I did more work on my main character, playwright-turned-narrator Shawn Frost, than I had ever done for a character before. When I finished the months of work that went into Shawn’s creation, I felt I knew him better than any previous character that I had created.”
Fascinated, I followed up by asking Beach why he decided to write in first-person with this one when all of his previous books were told in the third-person narrative.
“When I thought about how I would tell his story (an entertainment business comeback story) and what genre of story I wanted to tell (a psychological thriller), I knew that the novel had to have an immediacy to it. It needed to feel like everything that was happening to Shawn was happening right now. And, since I had a firm grasp of who he was and where he came from, I decided to move out of my comfort zone and tell the story in first-person, present-tense. First-person narration seemed to be a logical move, but the present-tense aspect was the most important to me because I wanted the reader to experience things as Shawn experienced them; I reasoned that if I told the story in the past tense, I would lose some of that immediacy, tension, suspense, and surprise.”
It was a gutsy decision, no doubt, and though it worked well, that doesn’t mean the author wasn’t nervous about the writing change initially.
“I was unsure of how it would go, but after a few days of writing, I became more comfortable and enjoyed telling the story through Shawn’s perspective as events took place. Looking back, if I had not done all of the character work on Shawn beforehand, it would have been impossible to write the 123,000-word novel that Narrator is from mostly Shawn’s perspective. Also, having a chapter here and there from another character’s first-person point of view provided a variety of opportunities that would not have been available to me if I had gone with third-person close or third-person omniscient narration. I’m happy with how the story turned out—and I rarely say that.”
What makes Narrator so devilishly good, though, is also what makes the story so incredibly hard to talk about without soiling any of those jaw-dropping moments. Much like Harlan Coben’s Fool Me Once, or even Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Beach does utilize what could be considered an unreliable narrator, but you won’t really know until the end, when all is revealed, to what level he leans into that. And even then, believe me, there’s a lot to unpack about what’s real, what isn’t, and whether or not Shawn Frost is even someone we can root for. And if that sounds like a cluster-you-know-what, well, it is. But that mind-bending narrative, where readers are forced to wonder what’s real and what isn’t, is what drives this story—and what makes it so unique. Still, the back of my head, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of toll creating such a story might take on a writer.
“It is a bit of a relief to move back into some familiar waters for my next book,” said Beach with a laugh when I asked about the transition away from Narrator to focus on his next book. “Researching, writing, and editing Narrator was an all-consuming experience—more than any book I have ever worked on before. Right now, I’m writing the final two books in my Sunrise-Side Mystery trilogy back-to-back. I had planned for Huron Breeze to be a standalone novel, but so many fans loved my odd-couple P.I. team of Rachel and Obadiah that I decided to write two more. I would have been happy to leave it at just Huron Breeze, but there were two more novels that my character Riley Cannon had to finish to complete her “Around-the-Clock” series in the book, so a trilogy made sense to show how she gets the last two written amidst her moonlighting job as a P.I., mining for story ideas. Plus, there’s always enough murder and mayhem to go around when you’ve got tony neighborhoods full of beach mansions. I imagine that Rachel and Obadiah will have plenty to do when bodies start showing up.”
Before you assume, though, that because Beach is moving back to Riley Cannon and already turning his attention to wrapping up that trilogy of books, the door is officially shut on something else like Narrator, the author told me in no uncertain terms that he would be open to writing such a book down the road. “If I ever think up a character like Shawn Frost again, I will definitely be open to writing another novel in first-person, present-tense,” Beach confirmed. “In terms of this being a series, I would never rule it out and could see some characters from this universe interacting with characters from another one of my series.”
That’s excellent news for those who’ve picked up Narrator, available today in paperback, eBook, and of course, audiobook. Personally, I would love another book told in this vein from Beach, and would be fascinated to see what he cooks up in his mind next.
As the conversation wound down, I asked Landon Beach what he wanted readers’ takeaway to be once they turned the final page of Narrator. After a moment of thought, the author said, “I hope once they start reading the book or listening to the audiobook, that they cannot stop until they finish it. Narrator is a novel about the entertainment industry, and, in a way, it is my love letter to storytelling and storytellers. I hope when readers and listeners look back on their experiences they say that they were delightfully entertained and moved by Shawn’s journey.”
Indeed, Narrator does produce an unforgettable, unputdownable reading experience unlike anything else on bookstore shelves right now. So if you’re looking for a great book to sink your teeth into, run and don’t walk to get your copy of Landon Beach’s phenomenal new novel today.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and co-hosts the ThrillerTalk podcast when he’s not streaming and hanging out with his growing community on Twitch. His debut thriller, FIELDS OF FIRE, which #1 New York Times bestselling author Jack Carr says “will leave you speechless and begging for more,” comes out on September 6, 2022. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook.