An Appetite for Suspense

By Art Taylor,
an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and a contributing editor to Metro Magazine in Raleigh, N.C.
Thursday, February 15, 2007

THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER

How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction

By Patrick Anderson

Random House. 272 pp. $24.95

"It is not true . . . that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. . . . Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more fortunately, have been unpopular. . . . The trouble in this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil."

So wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1902, and perhaps little has changed in the reading public's disconnect between so-called high literature and genre fiction. In "The Triumph of the Thriller," Patrick Anderson, who's had the "thriller beat" at The Washington Post since 2000, reflects that he himself felt for years "a tremor of guilt when I stooped to popular fiction and certainly to thrillers." But while Anderson recognized this tendency even in himself, he also noticed in recent decades a "transformation in America's reading habits" toward embracing novels once relegated to "the genre ghetto." While the blockbuster novels of the 1950s and '60s "rarely concerned themselves with crime," Anderson estimates that about 40 percent of the bestselling hardback novels in 2005 can be counted as thrillers, and he states that talented young writers' eagerness for the genre has made it "the white-hot center of American fiction."

To chart shifts in readers' tastes and authors' intentions, Anderson steps back to discuss Poe, Doyle and Christie, Hammett, Cain and Chandler, and then a group of "tough guy" writers led by Mickey Spillane. He turns to several variations of the modern thriller, which encompasses "spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers," and samples writers from each subgenre: Scott Turow and John Grisham, for example, or Charles McCarry, Daniel Silva and Alan Furst. At times, broad critical assessments touch on historical, social and cultural factors, with Anderson noting, for example, how the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and Watergate influenced American culture: "Cynicism was in our bones; noir was the new reality. . . . Evil lurked out there and readers were ready to embrace it."

Similarly, he explains how the female private investigators of such writers as Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky stemmed inevitably from the feminist movement and how Tom Clancy's success coincided perfectly with the Reagan era's rising patriotism.

Elsewhere, eschewing a historicist approach, Anderson offers what amounts to reviews of individual books (and sometimes movie adaptations) with extended plot summaries, examinations of character and theme, and assessments of stylistic worth. He also provides biographical information, excerpts from interviews and small bits of trivia to summarize many writers' careers, with full chapters devoted to Thomas Harris, George P. Pelecanos, Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane.

At its best, the book sets forth some key reasons for the thriller's success today. Authors have realized that they can use the genre to broadcast ideas and issues to a sometimes staggering number of readers. "The Da Vinci Code" delivered a "scathing attack on Catholicism," and Dan Brown's "inspiration was to present his case through the most popular form of fiction we have." Likewise, Walter Mosley uses "more or less conventional private eye novels as vehicles for political statements that, in the context of mainstream American politics, can only be called radical." And several authors are commended for attempting a brand of "social realism . . . that today's literary writers rarely attempt." Take D.C.'s own Pelecanos, who strives, in his own words, "to humanize and illuminate the lives of people who are typically underrepresented in American fiction."

With authors strategically using the genre, and with readers responding in mass numbers, Anderson's case for the triumph of the thriller might seem open-and-shut. But his arguments sometimes seem to contradict themselves, and his focus wanders so widely from any core thesis that his message risks getting lost.

What constitutes triumph here? Anderson often touts sales figures to build his case but then shuns those figures when they don't fit his tastes. Though Anderson labels Pelecanos "outstanding," the author's novels "have not sold as well as those of many less talented writers," and Anderson ventures to suggest that perhaps "the reality of black America is one many readers prefer to ignore." At the other extreme, Anderson dismisses mega-best-selling writers such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson -- the latter termed "the lowest common denominator of cynical, skuzzy, assembly-line writing." Anderson bemoans that "it is nice to think that, as years go by, public education will provide rising levels of taste in America, but there is evidence to the contrary." But where does Patterson's success fit with the "transformation in America's reading habits"? Or is it simply that there are still good devils and bad devils, some popular, some not?

Anderson is an astute reviewer, but sometimes he gets in the way of himself as a critic in the larger sense of the word -- personal opinions competing with broader insights into the thriller as a historic, social and cultural phenomenon. It would be a shame, however, to let the sometimes awkward relationship between the book's thesis and its contents undermine his ultimate authority on the topic. Readers who share his enthusiasms will appreciate his suggestions for books and authors to seek out or to avoid. Those who may have considered genre fiction a lesser literature should view Anderson's points as a challenge to the ever-blurring distinctions between so-called high and low art. There are indeed good devils and bad devils out there and, if nothing else, he knows a fine thriller when he see one.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company