Critical Roundtable: THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER
When I got an ARC of Washington Post critic Patrick Anderson’s new book THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER, I not only knew that I would read it and likely have plenty to say on the topic, but that several other of my mystery critic peers would do so as well. And so this week I’ll be posting the results of a roundtable discussion I hosted earlier this month. Taking part were Jerome Weeks, former Dallas Morning News book critic (who wrote a review of Anderson’s book for Newsday), the Boston Globe’s Sunday mystery columnist Hallie Ephron, and Chicago Tribune mysteries & thrillers critic Dick Adler. (I also asked David Montgomery of the Chicago Sun-Times, who couldn’t participate because of time constraints, and Oline Cogdill of the Sun-Sentinel, whom I hope to hear back from soon.)
For those who have read the book, please feel free to chime in with your comments in the backblogs. Part one begins after the jump.
Sarah Weinman: To get things started, I’d like to offer up a few questions for discussion. First, did you feel that Anderson’s definition of thrillers was
consistent? For example, he holds up Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly,
George Pelecanos and Karin Slaughter as recent standouts in the genre,
when it could be argued that none of them write thrillers per se (or
write books that fall somewhere in between mysteries and thrillers.)
Second, what did you think of his treatment of the subject?
Could he have developed some ideas more fully if the book had been,
say, 400 pages long instead of not quite three hundred?
Third, was having a section devoted to authors whom Anderson disliked (such as James Patterson) helpful or harmful?
Jerome Weeks: I don’t think Mr. Anderson ever explicitly defines “the thriller,” and I’m still not certain whether that was deliberate or simply sloppy. The closest he comes is in his introduction, “A New Beat,” when he approvingly cites the list of all-time top thrillers that the International Thriller Writers, Inc. has posted on its website: “Their definition of a thriller, like my own, is inclusive, and reaches back to such classics as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White” — and what follows is a list of classics up through John Grisham’s The Firm. But he adds this parenthetical observation: “Neither Hammett nor Chandler is listed, because they are viewed as having written private-eye or detective novels, not thrillers. (To further complicate matters, most of today’s private-eye novels are considered thrillers simply because of their level of violence.)”
Needless to say, this leaves all sort of questions hanging, such as how much bloodshed is required for a private eye novel to ascend into the kingdom of thrillers. But this passage appears on p. 11 and the reader naturally assumes that there will be further refinements in defining the genre. They never show up. At first, I thought this was deliberate because (a) the thriller genre is so hugely various that any sort of rigorous definition is going to take some smart finagling to avoid complications and contradictions. And (b), the vagueness leaves him room to move, to include his favorites.
But in taxonomy, one surveys all the specimens first and then draws some conclusions. Mr. Anderson just dumps the specimens on us — leaving me disappointed enough at the end to think that he reall had no organizing principles in mind.
Hallie Ephron: First let me say I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Here’s a guy who does what I do – tries to find good crime fiction novels and let readers know about them. I couldn’t have said it better myself: “What’s more, it makes me crazy when decent people surrender $25 for some piece of crap.” (244) Hear hear!
I’m a fan of most of the authors he relishes, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t force-fitting their work into the “thriller” category in order to include them in the book. His choice of authors/novels points out just how much an individual reviewer’s taste determines which books get reviewed. Is thriller writing really a guys-only game?
Which leads me to: “Thriller??” What exactly are we talking about? At least he doesn’t offer up the cliche that it’s like pornography (you know it when you see it), but he’s almost as wishy-washy. “Today, those blockbuster novelists have been replaced on the bestseller lists by the crime related fiction we loosely call thrillers, which include 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,” (4)
Hmmm. Noir. Private eye. Spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers… Basically he’s bundled wha used to be called hardboiled with any other content area and tacked on the descriptor “thriller.” In other words, a thriller is…a thriller. He gives us a bit more insight: “In the modern thriller, suspense has replaced sex as the engine that drives popular fiction.”
YES! I’m with him. So, I’m waiting for a discussion of what this essential ingredient ‘suspense’ is and how these authors create it. As a writer and reviewer, I’m hoping he’ll grapple with the distinction between thrillers and those other crime fiction novels that fail the thriller-test. Maybe he’ll talk about how writers have broken away from writing from a single to point of view to multiple points o view, from a single story line to multiple story lines, and how this serves suspense. To shorter scenes, cliffhanger endings. About whether graphic violence is or is not an essential ingredient. But I found few of those kinds of insights.
On the negative treatment of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell… and so on… The dirty secret is that it’s more fun to write a negative review than a positive one. We get to be sharp and funny, as literate as the best of the authors we admire (“Look, I can do it too!”) while skewering someone’s inflated ego. It’s a power trip and I personally try to avoid it–it sounds as if Anderson general prefers to avoid going negative as well. But I agree with him on his assessments. I, too, hate authors who “treat their readers like idiots…deal in cliches, stereotypes, cheap thrills and ridiculous plots.” It’s no mystery why these books get published, but like Anderson, I have to wonder why they sell so many frickin’ books.
Anyone interested in taking on his treatment of women crime fiction authors?