Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Triumph of the Thriller

Beyond a doubt, the best seller lists of today bear little resemblance to best seller lists of the '50s and '60s that were dominated by novels about movie stars, sex, money and the wanton lifestyles of those who had more money than sense. Those lists were dominated by writers like Harold Robbins, Irving Stone, Jacqueline Susann, Herman Wouk and James Michener. According to Anderson, it was the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the "end of innocence for a generation," that made possible a move by the thriller genre to near domination of today's best seller lists.

The Triumph of the Thriller is perfect for those readers not familiar with the thriller genre because Anderson provides its history beginning with what he considers to be the "first great crime thriller," Mario Puzo's The Godfather, right up to the best thriller fiction being written today. Along the way he gives credit to those who most influenced today's thriller writers, starting with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, moving on to Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, Ross MacDonald and Charles Williford, and finishing with today's class.

Anderson finds that the "triumph of the thriller reached a tipping point in 1981" when, for the first time, four thrillers were on the list of the top 15 sellers for the year. Along the way, there were some breakthrough books that made it all possible: Deliverance by James Dickey, First Blood by David Morrell, Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon and The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders, among them.

My "To Be Read List" has grown by at least three dozen books as a result of chapters in which Anderson discusses the best writers and books in the several sub-genres included under the thriller umbrella. There are chapters titled: "Dangerous Women," "Lawyers at Large," "Spy Masters" and "Literary Thrillers," all of which, added books and writers to my list for future reading. But, I have to admit that it was even more fun to read what Anderson had to say about certain authors that I've learned to avoid over the last few years. He shows them no mercy.

As he says, "They deal in clich├ęs, stereotypes, cheap thrills, and ridiculous plots. Some of them can't help it - that's how their minds work - but others deliberately dumb down their work because a lot of money is made that way." Chief among the culprits? Let's start with James Patterson whom Anderson calls "a writer to avoid at all costs" and whose book The Beach House "unfolds like an unspeakably dumb comic book" that "no one with even a minimal appreciation of good writing could possibly read for pleasure." Anderson believes that Patterson has set the standard for bad writing to such a degree that he even accuses David Baldacci with his Hour Game of having "entered the James Patterson Really Bad Thriller Sweepstakes."

Anderson goes on to skewer Patricia Cornwell (Trace), David Lindsey (The Face of the Assassin), Jeffrey Archer (The Eleventh Commandment), Nicholas Sparks (The Rescue) and Tom Clancy (for everything). With the exception of the fact that I enjoyed some of Lindsey's early work, I have no quarrel with Anderson's assessment of this group. But as Anderson says:
"So what are we to do about all this deplorable fiction? In the long term, our nation must spend fewer billions on foreign wars and more on literacy programs. In the short term, reviewers (heroic fellows, for the most part) must steer people away from this schlock and toward all those good writers out there.

We would also do well to look on the bright side. There is so much wonderful writing. To be a book lover in America today, able to enjoy the wealth of fine writing that we and the rest of the world produce, is to be blessed. Ultimately, the purveyors of crap are only a nuisance."
The bottom line is this. If you are already a lover of thriller fiction, this book will provide you with a quick and easy way to expand your world. If you know little about the genre, maybe even looking down your nose a bit at it and its authors, the book should make you aware of some of the great writing that you've been missing. Then the rest is up to you.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I'm afraid to read this book. My TBR list is already too long as it is. ;)

    Actually, it sounds like something I should look into for the opposite reason - I've been finding lots of "thriller" books in the bargain section at work and I've been setting some aside to buy. I've already got two in mind to return to their stacks after reading your review.

  2. I hate to ask which authors you're putting aside, so I'll just say that the ones that Anderson ripped deserved it. They are truly awful writers.

  3. I'm also afraid to read this book, but because I already know I once was a fan of an author that was slammed in the book (I've since realized my error). But maybe I should pick it up so I can find the good writers in a genre I've somewhat abandoned.

  4. Matt, the book is both entertaining and informative so I think you'll find something there that intrigues you one way or the other. I didn't agree with everything in the book but I found so much good information that I'm recommending it to everyone I know who's a fan of thriller and/or detective fiction. (I particularly didn't agree with Anderson's praise of the Da Vinci Code because I find Dan Brown to be a poor writer.)

  5. I'm surprised to hear that he praised Dan Brown as well. Yikes! I have read at least one book by a lot of these writers that he's mntioned as terrible. I expected that they would be, and sure enough, they met my expectations. I still think when there's a name as big as Clancy or Cornwell out there, it's up to us to decide on our own. That way, if we still dislike them at the end, we have a reason or two to back it up other than snobbish ignorance. Of course, plenty would hear that I hated Clancy's "Red Storm Rising" or Grisham's "The Testament" and say that those are just two particularly bad books, every author is entitled to at least one mistake, but I'm not going to carried away reading crap either! I think a single novel should give me a relatively good idea whether or not I'd like more.

  6. I'd also caution that just because I or Anderson or you for that matter, don't like a particular book or author, it doesn't mean that people should be "steered away" necessarily. My sister enjoys Cornwell and Mary Higgins Clarke immensely and goes back to them time and time again. Why should I point her elsewhere? She's enjoying them, she's entertained, she's not interested in nominating anyone for the next Pulitzer, so is there a harm in this? I suspect there's a little intellectual superiority going on here.

  7. John, for the authors in which I placed a particular book title, that's where Anderson's criticism was aimed. He didn't write them off completely but sometimes pointed out that they seem to have peaked a few books back.

    Now, for Clancy and Patterson his criticism was much more general. He really has a problem with the way that each of these guys have surrounded themselves with collaborators who seem to be doing the bulk of the writing these days and get their names mentioned in tiny lettering on the books.

    I don't think that he's being a book snob so much as just venting about how he feels about these books and their writers. I think that may be a product of his having had to read so many "bad books" for his book review columns.

    I agree that as long as a reader is enjoying a writer there's little point in discouraging them. At least they are reading, I suppose. Heck my wife is a fan of Danielle Steele. My tongue is full of holes from all the times I've had to bite it when I see her reading one of those things. :-)

  8. Clancy's better than Patterson in that regard. I've seen "Tom Clancy's Such and Such" by John Doe and it's shelved under Doe. Patterson - the other guy's name isn't there to be found it's filed in the P's.

    Never read anything by either of them, but 2 Patterson books were just returned to the table today because of this blog. I may read him someday, but I have to be selective these days.

  9. Clancy doesn't try to hide his joint-venture projects as much as Patterson used to. Even Patterson is now giving credit where it's due on his latest books.

    I hate it when authors rent out their names to lure unsuspecting fans into buying something with which they had so little to do. It almost seems fraudulent to me.

    Frankly, I don't think you're missing much by not reading Patterson. I've said for a long time that his books seem to be little more than movie script real depth of character, etc. There are some great thriller writers out there...and not enough time to read all of them, so...

  10. I guess so. I definitely agree that there's something appauling about the selling of an author's name as a brand as you say. It really does seem fraudulent, or at the very least, underhanded.