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.