A New Beat
In 2000, Marie Arana, the editor of The Washington Post Book World, put me on the thriller beat. I had for years reviewed both fiction and nonfiction for Book World, but now Marie wanted me to focus on the crime-related novels that have come to dominate the best-seller lists. Soon I began reviewing a new book each Monday in the Post’s freewheeling Style section.
Over the years, reading purely for pleasure, I’d become a fan of such writers as John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Sanders, Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, Ed McBain, James Lee Burke, Thomas Harris, and Michael Connelly. Now, reading thrillers on a regular basis, I learned how much more talent was out there. I discovered people like Dennis Lehane, Ian Rankin, Donna Leon, Robert Littell, George Pelecanos, John Lescroart, and Alan Furst. I reviewed best sellers by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, John Sandford, James Patterson, and Patricia Cornwell; some I admired, some I deplored, but their success says something about our popular culture. I’ve had the pleasure of telling our readers about new talent like Karin Slaughter, David Corbett, Robert Reuland, and Charlie Huston.
The more I read, the more I was struck by the transformation in America’s reading habits. I grew up with the blockbuster novels of
the 1950s and 1960s, written by people like James Michener, Harold Robbins, John O’Hara, Jacqueline Susann, Herman Wouk, and Irving Stone. They explored sex, money, movie stars, war, religion, and exotic foreign lands but rarely concerned themselves with crime. In those days, crime novels were trapped in the genre ghetto, often published as paperback originals, and rarely won a mass audience.
Today, those blockbuster novelists have been replaced on the best- seller lists by the crime-related fiction we loosely call thrillers, which includes hard-core noir, in the Hammett-Chandler private-eye tradition, as well as a bigger, broader universe of books that includes spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers. I have a copy of the December 25, 1966, Book World—incredibly enough, I had a review in it. Starting at the top, the ten authors on the fiction best-seller list are Robert Crichton, Allen Drury, Jacqueline Susann, Rebecca West, Mary Renault, Edwin
O’Connor, James Clavell, Bernard Malamud, Harold Robbins, and Harry Mark Petrakis. Two political novelists, two or three literary writers, two grand masters of sex and schlock—but no crime fiction.
Compare that with a Book World list in February of 2006. By my count, nine of the ten books listed were thrillers, including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Sue Grafton’s S Is for Silence, and John Lescroart’s The Hunt Club. Another Sunday that month, The New York Times Book Review had fifteen thrillers among its sixteen hardback best sellers, including those on the Post’s list plus Greg Iles’s Turning Angel, and various lesser works. The transformation between the lists in 1966 and 2006 could not be more dramatic. To oversimplify a bit, John Grisham is the new James Michener and The Da Vinci Code is our Gone with the Wind.
In this book, I’ll look back to the origins of modern crime fiction— to writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie—to examine how the modern thriller has evolved. The triumph of the thriller, I call this transformation. We will grapple with questions of definition. Just what is a thriller? How is it different from a mystery or a crime novel? The terminology is far from precise, but let me suggest a few guidelines.
Agatha Christie and her imitators wrote mysteries that stressed intellectual solutions to crimes. Her tradition continues in so- called cozies, which appeal to readers who want no violence, and in more ingenious novels by writers like the American Martha Grimes.
In this country, around 1930, Dashiell Hammett invented the American crime novel, also known as the detective or private-eye novel, and Raymond Chandler built on Hammett’s work. Their hard-boiled tradition prevailed for several decades, but by the 1970s the crime novel began to mutate into something that was bigger, darker, more imaginative, and more violent: the modern thriller. Certain novels have been milestones in expanding the boundaries of the thriller—among them Lawrence Sanders’s The First Deadly Sin, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, John Grisham’s The Firm, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.
John Updike said this while reviewing Robert Littell’s surreal spy novel Legends in The New Yorker in 2005: “The slippery difference between a thriller and a non-thriller would hardly be worth groping for did not the thriller-writers themselves seem to be restive— chafing to escape, yearning for a less restrictive contract with the reader. They write longer than they used to, with more flourishes.” Updike notes that Agatha Christie’s ambitions never extended past the lean, efficient mysteries she wrote, but “Littell and le Carré and the estimable P. D. James give signs of wanting to be ‘real’ novelists, free to follow character where it takes them and to display their knowledge of the world without the obligation to provide a thrill in every chapter.”
The estimable Updike might have gone further and added a number of other thriller writers to his list of restive souls, many of whom have gone beyond wanting to be real writers to doing it. Novels like Bangkok 8, Hard Revolution, Tropic of Night, Done for a Dime, Red Dragon, Lost Light, and The Way the Crow Flies are simply some of the best fiction being written today.
I had misgivings when Marie put me on the thriller beat. I was an English major in the uptight 1950s, when the high modernists—T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Faulkner—were force-fed to undergraduates, and for years I felt a tremor of guilt when I stooped to popular fiction and certainly to thrillers. A lot of people of my generation felt that way. When my political thriller The President’s Mistress was published in 1976, The Washington Post’s reviewer declared that she locked herself in her office until she finished it. It was, she said, “a Mt. Everest among cliff-hangers.” I was feeling pretty good until she sandbagged me at the end: “Of course, I always did like Chinese food.”
In other words, I’d given her a few hours of guilty pleasure, but I wasn’t a serious writer providing solid sustenance. I was guilty as charged, of course, but consoled by a $250,000 paperback sale and a movie deal. A few years later I saw another review in which that same writer confessed that, after much soul-searching, she had decided it was all right to enjoy popular fiction. I was happy for her.
A lot of people have a hard time making the leap from officially approved “literary” fiction to novels that are fun, and they aren’t all refugees from the fifties. I received an e-mail recently from a college student in Houston, an English major, asking what thrillers he should read—or whether he should read them at all. “I am racked with guilt if I read any of this stuff. Life is short. I haven’t finished all of Dickens or Shakespeare. Do I have time for detective novels?” I could only advise him that life is a lot longer than he at present understands and there is time for, say, Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane along with Dickens and Shakespeare.
The more I read, the more I saw that Marie, in putting me on the thriller beat, had given me the new mainstream of American popular fiction to splash about in. I want to examine this new mainstream and how it came about. I want to show who the good writers are and why— and, to a lesser degree, who some bad ones are and why. It seems to me beyond dispute that the level of talent at work today in thrillers and crime fiction is superior to anything that has previously existed in America or Great Britain. I say this having recently reread a number of acclaimed crime novels that I first read several decades ago. Alas, the books we loved in our youth, like the sweet young things we dallied with, have not always aged well. Our memories play tricks on us and often we have been misled by movies that vastly improved the original material. Nostalgia is the sweetest of drugs, but it will cloud our minds, distort our memories, and lead us into error if we let it.
We must ask why thrillers have become increasingly popular. Of course, stories of danger and suspense have always had visceral appeal. Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, once summed this up nicely:
In human evolution we developed language, we developed storytelling, and that must have been for a serious purpose. I think right from the caveman days, we had stories that involved danger and peril, and eventually safety and resolution. To me that is the story. And that’s what we’re still telling today, 100,000 years later. That’s what a page-turner is.
But there are contemporary reasons for the triumph of the thriller as well. One is the transformation of the book business. Once hailed as a “gentleman’s profession,” publishing today is more like a barroom brawl as corporate takeovers have intensified bottom-line pressures on editors. And the bottom line is that thrillers sell, which means there is a continuing scramble to find the writers who can produce books that translate into corporate profits. There are other social and cultural factors, of course. Decades of war, recession, and political and corporate corruption have made Americans more cynical— or realistic—and thus more open to novels that examine the dark side of our society. And yet most thrillers manage some sort of happy ending. They have it both ways, reminding us how ugly and dangerous our society can be and yet offering hope in the end. Thrillers provide the illusion of order and justice in a world that often seems to have none.
Of course, we read for fun too. We love the excitement of suspense. We want to know whodunit. Indeed, these days, we love suspense more than sex, at least in books. In the fifties and sixties, sex was a huge element in popular fiction, from I, the Jury to Peyton Place to Portnoy’s Complaint and countless others. Today, we’re up to our ears in sex. Who wants to read about it? The books I’m discussing contain relatively little sex and dirty talk, nothing like what we endure on HBO. In the modern thriller, suspense has replaced sex as the engine that drives popular fiction.
As thrillers have become more popular and their potential rewards greater, more of the most talented young writers, those who a generation ago would have produced anguished novels about their unhappy childhoods, are instead trying to become the next Grisham or Grafton. The level of their work has risen until the best of today’s thrillers are the white-hot center of American fiction. We hear talk about this or that “golden age” of yesteryear. Forget it. Right here, right now, is the golden age of thrillers, some of which transcend genre. The Silence of the Lambs and Mystic River are excellent examples. Both novels—and the Oscar-winning movies made from them—are vastly more sophisticated and powerful than their counterparts from earlier eras.
This book is not about me—often a vital point for a writer to grasp— but it is indisputably by me, so I think it reasonable to say a little about my background, preferences, and prejudices. The central fact is that, as reader and reviewer, I fall into three related categories: bookworm, middlebrow, and writer.
The turning point in my life came when I was four and spent a year living with my maternal grandparents. My grandmother was a fussy little woman who decided it was high time I learned to read. I remember sitting on the floor as she stood at a blackboard and taught me my ABCs. Soon I was reading the Sunday comics and then books. I still have the copy of Huckleberry Finn she gave me the Christmas I was six. I was never much of a student—I was bored in the early grades and rebellious in high school—but I read a lot and could always write an essay or book report; in a pinch I would make up the book. Most of what I learned in my early years resulted from taking the bus to the Fort Worth Public Library each Saturday morning, checking out the maximum five books, reading them, and going back the next Saturday for five more. The Hardy Boys were my first crime series, if you don’t count the Dick Tracy comic strip.
My mother kept best sellers around the house. The first grown-up novel I remember reading, at twelve or so, was The Robe, which featured one hell of an exciting sword fight. I loved George Orwell’s Animal Farm without having a clue about its political message. I devoured the short stories of Mark Twain, who did a great deal to corrupt my young mind. When I was a teenager, you could feel awfully isolated in Texas if you weren’t part of its dominant culture, which worshipped football, oil, Cadillacs, and country clubs. You were always listening for faint signals from afar, evidence that others out there shared your discontent. By high school I was deep into Somerset Maugham, whose views were decidedly un-Texan, and Sinclair Lewis, who encouraged me to scorn the George Babbitts and Elmer Gantrys I saw around me.
I spent two years at North Texas State, in nearby Denton, where my fellow students included Pat Boone, who joined my fraternity before he dashed off to stardom, and Bill Moyers, whom I would meet again a decade later in the White House. Larry McMurtry arrived on campus just after I left; we both took a writing course from Dr. James Brown. Life was good at North Texas—except that, like many an impressionable lad of that era, I had come under the spell of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dreamed of Princeton’s ivory towers. Alas, I lacked the money—not to mention the grades—to enter that distant paradise. But I had a friend at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, and I managed to scrape together the wherewithal to enroll there.
Until then I had read at random. At Sewanee, people were actually teaching me. I took a good course on Shakespeare and a great one on the Renaissance poets, taught by an incomparable Alabaman, Dr. Charles Trawick Harrison. It was the most important course in my college career. Once you begin to appreciate the majesty of Andrew Marvell’s “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near” and the music of Robert Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying,” you start to grasp the potential of our language. I also took a course on Romantic poets that bored me and one on literary criticism that baffled me. I was starting to realize that there were highbrows in the world and there were middlebrows, and I was among the latter.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Triumph of the Thriller by Patrick Anderson. Copyright © 2007 by Patrick Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.