Critical Roundtable: THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER (Part III)

(This is part three and the last of a critical roundtable that began on Tuesday.)

Jerome Weeks: As I noted in my Newsday review, to be fair, Mr. Anderson himself points out the staggering number of thrillers out there. Any reader can find fault with “Triumph” by pointing to authors who were overlooked. OK, but that would logically lead a critic to be somewhat modest in his claims in any survey of the genre (how can I declare this or that writer is “the best,” when there are thousands I haven’t read?).

So when one comes across, for example, Mr. Anderson’s sweeping statement that the Cold War produced two great spy novelists — John le Carre and Frederick Forsythe — one groans. Len Deighton’s “The IPCRESS File”? “Funeral in Berlin”? Deighton was hailed as the great “anti-Bond” and “the poet of the spy story” for his quiet, smart-mouthed, working-class bureaucrat-agent, wonderfully played by Michael Caine in the film versions. Perhaps Mr. Anderson considers Deighton not in the le Carre and Forsythe league. Fair enough, Deighton’s plots are pretty elliptical and digressive. But he’s never even mentioned, and it was “The IPCRESS File” (1962) that revolutionized the spy novel. It came out a full year before “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” which Mr. Anderson declares is the great “milestone” that “raised the bar” for espionage fiction.

To his credit, Mr. Anderson is never less than interesting or entertaining. I agree with Sarah’s observation that his reconsiderations of several classic authors are thought-provoking. But for anyone looking to understand how hard-boiled detective stories or spy novels really work, what they reveal about our culture, I’d direct them to John G. Cawelti’s three genre studies: “Adventure, Mystery and Romance,” “The Spy Story” and “Mystery, Violence and Popular Culture.” The books are not up-to-date because they came out in the late ’70s, early ’80s, but seeing as they cover the same classic authors Mr. Anderson does (up through Spillane and le Carre), there’s considerable overlap with “Triumph.” And there’s a lot more rewarding (i.e., systematic) thinking.

Sarah Weinman: I thought I’d point you to Luc Sante’s writeup in this week’s New York

Times Book Review, which makes some interesting points (especially

about how the book fails to live up to its assigned subtitle):


piece really pinpoints my main criticism, which is that there is a full

analytic treatment of the rise and success of the thriller genre

begging to be written (that would build off the examples Jerome

mentioned a few days ago) but this book, I think, is a first step – one

that can be compared and contrasted while that aforementioned book is

in progress.

And finally, let’s take up Hallie’s call for discussion on women in crime fiction. TRIUMPH, being a subjective take, really reflects the authors Anderson has spent his time reviewing – and though this is purely anecdotal (only because I don’t have the time at the moment to peruse all his writings since 2000) the bulk of Anderson’s reviews for the Washington Post are about male writers. The women who he devotes attention to include Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton (whom he dismisses as “too cute”) Patricia Highsmith and Karin Slaughter, along with Agatha Christie whose work he also more or less dismisses.

Yet I’m not all that bothered by Anderson’s male slanting of thrillers because in the end, it’s his subjective take and not a true overview of the growth and changes in mystery/suspense and thrillers. When that book comes along, and if it neglects women in its attempt at comprehensive, then we have an argument in the making. I could be surprised at some of his more recent exclusions (the most striking, to my mind, is his not reviewing Carol O’Connell’s FIND ME) but it’s his choice, for the most part, as to which books he reviews or not. If anything, the gender imbalance reflects TRIUMPH’s general feeling of incompleteness – something that will have to be rectified in a future volume written by somebody else.