Review of "Thrillers: The 100 Must-Reads," by David Morrell and Hank Wagner

(Courtesy Of Oceanview - Courtesy Of Oceanview)
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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 15, 2010


100 Must-Reads

By David Morrell and Hank Wagner

Oceanview. 378 pp. $27.95

With his very first novel, David Morrell created an iconic character, now as famous as Tarzan or James Bond: "His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing there by the pump of a gas station on the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky." So begins Morrell's electrifying and morally unsettling "First Blood." Some of his other books include the horror classic "The Totem" and one of the most exciting Ludlumesque thrillers I've ever read, "The Brotherhood of the Rose."

Hank Wagner may not write novels, but he certainly knows modern horror, fantasy, mystery and science fiction. He's the co-author of "The Complete Stephen King Universe" and of "Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman." His articles have appeared in publications ranging from Cemetery Dance to Mystery Scene to the New York Review of Science Fiction.

Both novelist and critic are members of the six-year-old International Thriller Writers organization. Its goals "include educating readers about thrillers and encouraging ITW members to explore the creative possibilities of the form." To this end, the group decided to compile this annotated guide to essential thrillers. Enjoyable in itself, the book also offers 100 possible answers to that perennial summertime conundrum: What book shall I pack for the beach?

"Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads" opens with the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur and, by fudging the supposed cutoff date of 2000, closes with Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Each of the chosen titles -- one book per author -- is accompanied by a brief biographical note, followed by a two- or three-page essay of reminiscence, analysis and appreciation by a member of ITW. Among the essayists are Lee Child, Sandra Brown, James Grady, R.L. Stine, David Baldacci, Katherine Neville and F. Paul Wilson.

No one could seriously argue with the recommendations up to the mid-1970s. Here are Wilkie Collins's "The Woman in White" (1860), Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1901), John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (1915), Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios" (1939), and even what is, arguably, the single most famous adventure short story of all time, Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924). Moreover, the editors' definition of the thriller is a capacious one that embraces horror (Bram Stoker's "Dracula," 1897), science fiction (H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds," 1898) and romantic suspense (Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca," 1938).

At their best, the accompanying essays illuminate a book's distinctive artistry or magic. Many are highly personal, almost love letters. Because he reveres P.G. Wodehouse's comic fiction, Stine works hard to demonstrate how much the roller-coaster plot of "Summer Lightning" (1929) resembles that of a crime thriller. Of Evelyn Anthony's books, the fannishly enthusiastic Sandra Brown notes: "I've reread them for pleasure and for study." In a charming bit of autobiography, Morrell himself underscores how much "First Blood" was influenced by Geoffrey Household's "Rogue Male" (1939), the great masterpiece of hunter and hunted.

Many of the essayists comment on craftsmanship. Writing about Brian Garfield's "Death Wish" (1972), John Lescroart quotes the novel's brilliant first sentence -- "Later he worked out where he had been at the time of the attack on Esther and Carol" -- and then details how Garfield immediately shifts to describing scenes from Paul Benjamin's ordinary working day. But "because of the pulled-pin character" of that opening sentence, "these scenes become excruciatingly, almost unbearably, suspenseful." What precisely has happened to Esther and Carol? How and when will Paul learn about them? What will he do?

Editor Hank Wagner's infectious enthusiasm for William Goldman's "Marathon Man" (1974) made me want to read the novel (as well as re-see the movie), an astonishing mix of Nazi-hunting, espionage and brotherly love. "Literally nothing is wasted," he writes of its plotting. "Seemingly disparate pieces of information ultimately tie together, just waiting for the right piece of exposition, or revelation, to explain it all coherently." To define this kind of artistic elegance, Wagner cites the fantasy and science fiction giant Gene Wolfe: Literature, Wolfe reminds us, "is that which can be read with pleasure by an educated reader and reread with increased pleasure."

Certainly, many of these books are either literature or close to it. Of the more modern titles, I was pleased to see some personal favorites: Richard Stark's lean, cold novel of revenge, "The Hunter" (1962), and its younger cousin Thomas Perry's "The Butcher's Boy" (1982), Ross Thomas's urbane "Chinaman's Chance" (1978), and Charles McCarry's masterpiece about the Kennedy assassination, "The Tears of Autumn" (1974). Each is perfectly controlled.

That said, I felt that the later pages of "Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads" came to seem disturbingly incestuous. Fourteen of the ITW essayists have their own books listed here. While they are doubtless excellent pieces of work, Justin Scott's "The Shipkiller" (1979), Gayle Lynd's "Masquerade" (1996) and Lee Child's "Killing Floor" (1997) are too recent to be in the same company as Graham Greene's "The Third Man" (1950) and Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train" (1950). Indeed, this might be said of all too many of the later titles, such as Nelson DeMille's "The Charm School" (1988) and Dean Koontz's "Watchers" (1988). Only time will tell.

Three final observations: First, the accompanying essays sometimes contain spoilers revealing key plot turns and outcomes: Be warned. Second, in looking through the biographical notes about the contributing essayists, I realized that these writers -- many of whom were new to me -- have already won important awards, produced bestsellers, been translated into multiple languages. In this respect, Morrell and Wagner's guide can lead the thriller fan to many more than just the 100 main selections. And third: How could the editors have left out George MacDonald Fraser, creator of Flashman, and Ruth Rendell and Dick Francis and . . .

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