Thrilled all over

(appeared originally in Newsday but is no longer available on their website)
Pulp fiction's tough-guy detectives and bloodthirsty maniacs, once at home in paperback, have filled our hardcover best-seller lists for a decade now. It's true that masters of the tough guy school, such as Raymond Chandler, gained intellectual respectability long ago. But this is different, argues Washington Post thriller columnist and novelist Patrick Anderson in his new book, The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction.

The mastodon that once dominated the lists, the middlebrow novel like James Michener's Chesapeake, is nearly extinct. What Americans read today are techno thrillers, legal thrillers and female detective thrillers. And some are as good as any fiction around, Anderson argues.

But it's a triumph he examines in width, not depth. Mostly, he provides a running commentary -- or given his casual style, a strolling commentary. After covering the familiar background from Edgar Allan Poe to Elmore Leonard, Anderson writes that by the 1970s, crime fiction was mutating into something "bigger, darker, more imaginative and more violent: the modern thriller."

He does cite the rising tide of cynicism and slaughter that has influenced the genre. Once Hannibal Lecter got a taste for fresh brain, novelists started dispensing blood with a firehose. And after Vietnam and Watergate, the private eye's suspicion that our system is corrupt had become a baseline assumption. Ours is an era, after all, of O.J. Simpson books and warrantless wiretaps.

But Anderson doesn't recognize the other related trait of many thrillers: a simmering rage that would make Mickey Spillane wince. "HATE," James Ellroy writes about his hero in The Cold Six Hundred. "It moved him. It ran him. It called his shots."

Indeed it did; and still does. Revenge as a spur to righteous violence is as old as Hamlet. But Hamlet had reservations about revenge, his only recourse. In thrillers today, retribution is practically a spiritual path. Yes, Ellroy -- whom Anderson never examines -- is an extreme example. His novels read like outraged shrieks. But even Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch -- whom Anderson admires -- comes equipped with the genre's standard feature, brooding male anger.

Thrillers are fantasies, albeit fantasies balanced by grim realities, such as their mean-street settings. And that's another trait Anderson overlooks: From the New Mexico of Tony Hillerman (a writer he doesn't deal with) to Denise Mina's Glasgow (ditto), crime fiction has drifted out of Los Angeles and New York into Anywheresville. Beyond their relative exoticism, the appeal of such locales lies in the way crime splits a place open. We see families, cops and businesses try to handle violence. We see that society under stress. Or at its most basic.

Given the slick, empty best-sellers by the likes of James Patterson, today's suspense novels can look as market-calculated as an ad campaign. But beyond a few lines about corporate demands for higher profits from publishers, Anderson doesn't really explain why the thriller -- why these particular kinds of thrillers -- are selling now.

What he's extolling is really a shift in sensibility as much as sales. Ours is a thriller-minded age, different from the Cold War that inspired the masterful spy sagas of John le Carré and Len Deighton. He doesn't really address this, either, but one mark of the thriller's new relevance is that novelists on the order of Don DeLillo are in synch with it. Their stories are filled with conspiracies, secrets and violence, while Joyce Carol Oates even writes her own suspense yarns. Not surprisingly, the term "literary thriller" now straddles superb genre books, such as Alan Furst's espionage tales, as well as novels of tremendous artistic ambition, such as Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.

As a critic, Anderson is enjoyable and perceptive when he's championing Dennis Lehane or dismissing the dreadful Patricia Cornwell or Tom Clancy. But The Triumph of the Thriller is really a survey of his likes and dislikes. As with all such lists, one finds bones to pick. George Pelacanos (an author Anderson hails) has written that John Gregory Dunne's great milestone, True Confessions, proved that writing crime fiction isn't slumming. The book isn't mentioned. Neither is Chester Himes, a common oversight.

To be fair, Anderson notes that with so many thrillers, readers will inevitably find fault with his choices. But the chief fault of Triumph is its lack of sustained analysis. It's mostly a gathering of columns and second thoughts. Considering the thriller's cultural pervasiveness, its newfound sales and quality, it deserves a more rigorous workout than this walk-through.

February 10, 2007 11:39 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on February 10, 2007 11:39 AM.

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