In Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: much ado about thrillers

August 2, 2010 at 1:24 am (books, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

In the Spring 2010 issue of Deadly Pleasures  Mystery Magazine, the focus is on thrillers. To begin with, editor George Easter tackles the question: What, exactly, is a thriller? Some years ago, he and associate editor Larry Gandle came up with the following: in order to be classified as a thriller, a novel should be fast paced, contain lots of action, and possibly feature a deadline and/or a chase scene. There should be at least one character who is in serious, possibly mortal, danger.

Gandle and Easter were satisfied with the definition they’d come up with and proceeded to act as ad hoc “thriller police” when novels labeled as such failed to meet  their criteria. Gradually, however, they realized that they were fighting a losing battle. Book after book was being called a thriller when it possessed few – sometimes none – of the elements they had specified. Why was this happening?

For one thing, thrillers are hot right now – witness the impressive success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. So slapping that label on a book should help sales. Does it – even if Larsson is not the author? Don’t know – but this is certainly not the first instance of knee-jerk unimaginative piling on by publishers – nor will it be the last.

So – in attempting to uphold a standard of integrity and accuracy in matters literary – what’s a critic to do?

Easter wrestles this conundrum to the ground by breaking down the sprawling mass of material currently subsumed under the “thriller” rubric into a variety of subgenres. He does not offer definitions per se; rather, he gives  several examples of each. Here are the subgenres; I’ll include one example of each:

Action thrillers:

Historical thrillers:

Police procedural thrllers:

Private eye thrillers:

Forensic/action thrillers:

Political thrillers:

Spy thrillers:

Supernatural thrillers:

Hit man thrillers:

Crime thrillers:

Analogous subgenres have, of course, had their place in mystery fiction for quite some time.

The title of Easter’s article is “The Golden Age of the Thriller is Now.” Considering the wealth of evidence presented in the magazine, it’s hard to disagree with this proclamation. In fact, this issue of Deadly Pleasures contained so many recommendations – so sweetly urged! – that I experienced a sort of crisis that could perhaps be  termed, Compulsive Reader’s Nervous Breakdown (CRNB?). And wouldn’t you know it – there was more to come:

In “Memories of Thrillers Past,” Mike Ripley enthuses about his latest publishing assignment, which is to select outstanding British thrillers from years past and have them be part of a new imprint called “Top Notch Thrillers,” to be launched by Ostara Publishing. Ripley begins by voicing his incredulity that the novels of the great Alistair MacLean are currently out of print. Now I’ve never read a MacLean, but many of us who came of age in the sixties have vivid memories of a terrific World War Two action film based on his novel: The Guns of Navarone.

(Coincidentally, while I was working at the Central library several weeks ago, a patron came in asking for novels by MacLean. A search of the catalog revealed that the system owns exactly one title by this master of suspense: Santorini, written shortly before the author’s death in 1987.)

Like the other Deadly Pleasures scribes, Ripley has given plenty of thought to the question of what makes a successful thriller:

‘…plot, pace, character, setting (which could be a physical location or a historical period), humour (useful though not essential) and suspense (or tension or sudden violence). The cement to build these bricks into a readable structure coming from that indefinable thing called the author’s “voice.”

I consider that last “indefinable thing” to be absolutely crucial. It’s what is so often lacking in an otherwise passably good novel. It is, among other things, the consistent quality that keeps me returning to the work of Ruth Rendell and Donna Leon.

In the case of the books Ripley is selecting for the new imprint, there’s an additional consideration: he is drawing on the literature of the past, as opposed to that of the present day, which by necessity incorporates the latest in high tech gadgetry:

My mission, now that I had decided to accept it, was to find thrillers which touched all these bases [as enumerated in the quote above] and which were true to the context in which they were written. Yes they would  be ‘dated’ but as long as they worked as thrillers that was not a consideration. To think otherwise would be to argue that no one should ever watch (or read) The Spy Who Came In from the Cold now that the Berlin Wall has  come down.

(And really, when you think about it, has there ever been a better match of era and writer than the Cold War and John LeCarre? I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, but IMHO, the film is a work of genius. )

Clearly, Mike Ripley is reveling in this labor of love! Click here to see the current list of Top Notch Thrillers.

There’s much more of interest on the subject of thrillers in this issue of Deadly Pleasures. For now, I just want to make mention of two titles in particular.

I’m not sure why, but I decided to read The Silver Bear, George Easter’s exemplar of what he calls a “hit man thriller.” Suffice it to say that with this recommendation, Easter scored a direct hit. I had not previously known of Derek Haas. He is a screenwriter, and my guess is, that his professional savvy, along with his natural talent, have provided him with all the tools he needs to be a first rate writer in this genre. Silver Bear jangled my nerves and had me completely riveted

Interestingly, in an article entitled “Crime Jazz,” Ted Fitzgerald recommends The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Somehow this Sherlock Holmes novella is not much talked of.  Here’s what Fitzgerald has to say about it:

It’s good, old-fashioned rip-roaring storytelling that also shows the timelessness, resiliency and eternal appeal of Holmes and Doyle. It also reminds us that the subjects of political corruption, terrorism and a faceless enemy that will cross oceans and waits decades to carry out its vengeance, the meat and drink of countless present-day thrillers, were just as frightening and relevant in 1914 as they are today.

The Valley of Fear has been re-issued by Hard Case Crime:

How about that cover? It’s an attention-getter, at any rate.

****************************************

I’ll be revisiting the subject of thrillers. For one thing, I have much to say about The Silver Bear, a novel that packs a wallop all out of proportion to its slender size. And then, there’s this: . I was so excited about this book that I ran and bought it. But after  my dizzying immersion in Deadly Pleasures, I’m afraid to open it, lest it trigger another attack of CRNB! (see above.)

5 Comments

  1. Mike Ripley said,

    What a kind mention for Top Notch Thrillers; thank you so much. What we are trying to do is celebrate the heyday of British thriller writing, which I put as the 1960s and 70s, when the British detective novel was going through a lean period and thrillers dominated sales worldwide. (And the US has the edge on us now). Many of these were unofficially classified as ‘boys’ books’ with the emphasis of daring tales of spies or wartime action, but I think the range of titles we’ve chosen go beyond that. I would highly recommend, for newcomers to (old) thrillers, the books of Francis Clifford, George Sims and Geoffrey Rose, for they were seriously good writers.
    For news of new titles in the UK, may I recommend my monthly “Getting Away With Murder” column on http://www.shotsmag.co.uk ?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Mr. Ripley,

      Thank you so much for this gracious comment, and the interesting information included in it. I commend you and your fellow crime fiction enthusiasts for the great work you are doing!

      I’ve ordered Time Is an Ambush and am very much looking forward to reading it.

  2. Derek Haas said,

    Roberta,
    Thanks so much for the nice words about THE SILVER BEAR. I’m thrilled you enjoyed it.

  3. End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a recent post on thrillers, I praised The Silver Bear by Derek Haas. I’d like to take this opportunity to enlarge on […]

  4. Books with a Past; hope for the future of the book, in whatever form it may take « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] find several paperbacks by Francis Clifford. This is an author I had never heard of until reading Mike Ripley’s praise of this British thriller writer in the Summer 2010  issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Now a more recent issue of that […]

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