ONCE UPON A TIME the taxonomy of thrillers was simple. There were two clearly antithetical forms: those about upper-class people, where murder is uncommon and the detective a genius, and those about murder-class people, where murder is quotidian and the detective, if any, is doing his job. Northrup Frye, had he turned his mythy mind to these matters, might have called them high mimetic and low mimetic. We might call them Doyle/Sayers and Hammett/Chandler.
Then, as we all know and sometimes regret, the world grew more complex. Thrillers became big business, and anyone with a need for money, a case of writer's block, and a talent of a high literary sort tried his hand, but with no detective, no solution, certainly nobody doing his job. Frye would have called this the ironic mode. The point is, as Jimmy Durante used to say, everybody is trying to get into the act.
Hunt , by the distinguished poet and literary critic A. Alvarez, is a particularly interesting example of this last type. Alvarez writes well, is obviously an authority on poker, a game few play well but anyone can follow, and though he aims to write a "thriller," he doesn't give us gratuitious violence; in fact, I'm glad to say, there is barely any violence at all. One character only is killed, and while it's true he's the nicest character, and the one who discovers the body, he's clearly been doomed from his first appearance. And the body itself is unconscious, not dead. There's sex, of course, but given the world we live in, it's quite mild. The mandatory sadism is confined to apartment wrecking, and an elaborate drawing of a phallus left behind on our hero's wall. What's nice about this book, you see, is that apartment wreckers can draw in perspective, while the poker-playing hero explains Manichaeanism to his girlfriend, and the chief crook admonishes our hero not to give him "the it-tolls-for-thee routine."
Hunt is too long, and it hasn't a plot Chandler or Doyle would have given space to in a bottom drawer, but it's fun to read, particularly -- here's the really ironic touch -- if you're the high mimetic rather than the low mimetic type. Geoffrey Hartman of Yale may like comparing Ross Macdonald's fictions to Oedipus Rex , but this sort of thriller is for those who don't know metonymy from diachronic ineptitude, but like to be in the company of educated and stimulating people.
Alvarez plants some clues as to what he thinks Hunt is about; he heads the thriller with a quote from the Times (London) about everybody being in somebody's computer, and he says several times in the book that to be innocent is to be powerless, because you don't know what you're supposed to know and not know. All of that, I think, is misleading. What in fact Alvarez has written is an autobiographical novel about a fantasy that might substitute for a suicide attempt. Let me explain.
In 1972 Alvarez published The Savage God , a study of the history and literary uses of suicide, bracketed by accounts of two suicide attempts: Sylvia Plath's (successful) and his own (unsuccessful). "Letting Go" was the story of Alvarez's life around the time he swallowed 46 sleeping pills and both died and didn't die, depending on how you look at it; he looked at it both ways. Alvarez wrote there of his "steady descent through layer and layer of depression, like an elevator stopping on its way down." His wife, depressed by him, rented a television set and "sat disconsolately in front of it for two months." After the suicide attempt, Alvarez wrote, "My wife was sleeping in the same bed with me, yet she was utterly beyond my reach." When the marriage finally disintegrated, "there was nothing left. Inevitably, I went through the expected motions of distress. But in my heart, I no longer cared."
All these thoughts and events occur in Hunt . But instead of sleeping pills, the hero reverts to gambling and poker. Then he gets involved with the "body." Also he paints, instead of writing poetry. What we have here, you see, is the thriller as transposed suicide, the fantasy of a writer (or painter) who doesn't seem quite to know where he's going next.
Which is why, if you're looking for a thriller which may not end up with a solution of blinding brilliance, but doesn't turn your stomach in the middle, and is intelligent and clever most of the time, you'll probably like this one. It plays havoc with my taxonomy, but it's got class of its own.