Thriller novels reflect the partisan politics of our time
By Kevin Nance,
Readers looking for books that reflect their political views—on the right, the left or any point in between — have no trouble finding them on the nonfiction bestseller lists. From Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza to Al Franken and Michael Moore, there are screeds to suit all tastes. But there’s another category of books that, in a less explicit but equally polarized way, also reflects the American political spectrum: thriller novels.
While readers and critics typically treat thrillers as pure entertainment, large portions of the genre are full of implied political messages, most aligned with either the right or the left. On a wide variety of topics — criminal justice, the death penalty, the war on drugs, the role of corporations in public life and, above all, national security, especially terrorism and efforts to combat it — thriller novels tend to fall fairly neatly into two camps.
In the conservative camp, the villains are most often radical Muslim fundamentalists, who’ve replaced the Soviet spies of Cold War fiction as America’s primary adversaries. The heroes are usually American government operatives whose pursuit and interrogation of terrorists, sometimes including the use of torture and assassination, is presented as a necessary, in-kind response to bad guys who, as thriller writer Brad Thor puts it, “don’t exactly abide by the Geneva Convention.” If there are secondary villains, they’re often politicians or bureaucrats who, out of misguided scruples or outright corruption, endanger or otherwise hamper efforts to mete out justice — of the eye-for-an-eye variety — to America’s enemies. The line between good and evil is clearly defined, and mobility from one side to the other is exceedingly rare.
“One of the core beliefs of conservatism is that you have to take responsibility for your actions, and if you commit an act of evil, you need to be punished for that,” says Thor, whose series hero, a butt-kicking former Navy SEAL-turned-counterterrorism agent named Scot Harvath, once elicited information from a captured Islamic terrorist by applying a power drill to the man’s kneecap. (Harvath’s most recent outing was in this year’s “Black List,” published by Atria Books.) “There’s a certain catharsis the reader gets from being able to pull the monster out from under the bed, beat up the monster and then live to fight another day.”
But sharing the shelves and bestseller lists with Thor is Fairfax County’s David Baldacci, whose books take a notably different approach to similar subject matter. Baldacci’s villains are often high government officials; his first novel, 1996’s “Absolute Power” (later made into a film with Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman), was about an American president and his cadre of Secret Service agents, who were willing to use deadly force to cover up the president’s role in the death of a woman with whom he’d been having an affair. In the author’s later novels — including those featuring members of the Camel Club, a group of conspiracy-minded political watchdogs — heroes are flawed, villains can redeem themselves, and terrorism is not simply evil but, rather, the product of complex geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that transcend religion.
“I write in a world of gray, not black and white,” says Baldacci, whose most recent novel was this year’s “The Innocent” (Grand Central Publishing). “I don’t condone terrorism, nor do I forgive it. But I don’t like to judge people until I’ve walked in their shoes. It takes a lot to drive people to these horrific acts of violence. And unless we try to understand what drives people to do such things, we’ll never be in a position where we can stop some of it. If we understand the environment that spawns that type of behavior, then we can work toward making sure that environment doesn’t exist anymore.”
Thor’s Atria stable mate Vince Flynn, whose novels featuring a heat-packing CIA agent named Mitch Rapp regularly debut at or near the top of the bestseller lists, scoffs at such reasoning. “Look how we went after the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and ’60s,” says Flynn, who describes himself as socially liberal but an archconservative on national security. “We didn’t sit here as northerners and say, ‘You know what, I don’t understand their culture — they were raised in a different part of the country, so I’m uncomfortable judging these people.’ Bulls---. Evil is evil. Those sadistic bastards chained black people to trees and killed them. The KKK was immoral and corrupt, and we didn’t need to understand them. We just needed to stop them.” Likewise, he says, “I think we need to kill all the terrorists, and I don’t apologize for that.”
The fact that readers consume thriller novels as fantasy, rather than real life, gives authors on the right a kind of home-field advantage. “After 9/11, a national magazine said they would not review Vince’s book that year because it was too upsetting,” recalls Emily Bestler, who edits both Flynn and Thor at Atria.
“[Our reaction]was one of astonishment, because after 9/11, his sales soared, I think because readers were seeking a way of dealing with the problem through fiction. For a lot of people, they’re not reading these books because that’s how they would vote, or because they would apply the drill to the kneecap. They’re reading the books because they’re entertaining. I know a lot of liberals who enjoy these books, because they tell me, ‘They’re such a guilty pleasure.’ You don’t have to agree with them to enjoy them.”
While conservatives dominate the field of thriller novels focused on national security, liberals are more common in thrillers about the law, with most siding with defendants and their attorneys over prosecutors, who often come off as overzealous or unscrupulous. The novels of John Grisham are leading examples; others are by David Ellis, whose series character, defense attorney Jason Kolarich, must contend with a legal system stacked against his clients.
“The power of prosecutors is scary, and some of that gets into my books,” admits Ellis, a civil litigator in Chicago who also successfully prosecuted Gov. Rod Blagojevich in his Illinois Senate impeachment trial in 2009. “I’ve known good prosecutors who used their power judiciously, but I’ve also seen some who didn’t. That’s very scary, because you can ruin someone’s life just with an accusation. You can empty their bank accounts, you can take away their homes, just by the amount of money they have to spend defending themselves, even if they’re not convicted. It’s a major problem in this country, and anybody who denies that needs to look at the evidence. Prosecutors have resources that are essentially unlimited. If the defendant is well off, maybe he can beat the charges, but he’s often left broke. If he’s poor, he can get a public defender, sure, but it’s usually somebody who’s lacking in resources and is tremendously overburdened. It’s wrong.”
Ellis’s fellow Chicago novelist Scott Turow, author of “Presumed Innocent” and other bestsellers, has also occasionally hinted at his political opinions in his novels — in particular 2002’s “Reversible Errors,” about a man sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. But Turow, a vocal opponent of the death penalty, was acutely conscious of the need to avoid any explicit political arguments in the novel; he reserved those for a nonfiction book, “Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty,” published the following year.
“I’ve always tried to follow what Darryl Zanuck said to one of his screenwriters in the 1930s, which was that if you want to send a message, use Western Union,” Turow says with a laugh.
“You can certainly read ‘Reversible Errors’ and draw the conclusion that the death penalty is a bad idea. But I restrained myself to the point that I ended up writing ‘Ultimate Punishment’ because I had a lot more to say on the topic than I was willing to put in the novel. If somebody’s busy clobbering you with a political message — even one you agree with — I think it often hinders the other purposes of art. Not long ago, for example, I went to a concert by Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose political views I tend to share, and always have. But their new material was so political that I turned to my date and said, ‘Their next song is going to be a hymn to Obamacare.’ In fiction, certainly, if somebody’s giving you cardboard characters in order to advance a political agenda, it’s going to be a bad novel, period.”
But even Turow isn’t immune to the temptation to address political issues in his fiction. His current novel-in-progress, “The Trial of the Gemini,” due next year, is about a big-city mayoral candidate accused of murder by a billionaire who, for his own reasons, saturates the local airwaves with attack ads. It’s a clear reference to the current flood of soft-money advertising funded by a small number of superrich people in the wake of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling. “It’s not inadvertent that it gives a pretty clear picture of what happens when somebody with a lot of money decides they want to say anything about a candidate in the course of a political campaign,” Turow admits. “In the novel, it actually changes the outcome of the election. That’s a pretty frank political message.”
Nance is a freelance writer.