By Art Taylor,
an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and a contributing editor to Metro Magazine in Raleigh, N.C.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER
How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction
By Patrick Anderson
Random House. 272 pp. $24.95
"It is not true . . . that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. . . . Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more fortunately, have been unpopular. . . . The trouble in this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil."
So wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1902, and perhaps little has changed in the reading public's disconnect between so-called high literature and genre fiction. In "The Triumph of the Thriller," Patrick Anderson, who's had the "thriller beat" at The Washington Post since 2000, reflects that he himself felt for years "a tremor of guilt when I stooped to popular fiction and certainly to thrillers." But while Anderson recognized this tendency even in himself, he also noticed in recent decades a "transformation in America's reading habits" toward embracing novels once relegated to "the genre ghetto." While the blockbuster novels of the 1950s and '60s "rarely concerned themselves with crime," Anderson estimates that about 40 percent of the bestselling hardback novels in 2005 can be counted as thrillers, and he states that talented young writers' eagerness for the genre has made it "the white-hot center of American fiction."
To chart shifts in readers' tastes and authors' intentions, Anderson steps back to discuss Poe, Doyle and Christie, Hammett, Cain and Chandler, and then a group of "tough guy" writers led by Mickey Spillane. He turns to several variations of the modern thriller, which encompasses "spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers," and samples writers from each subgenre: Scott Turow and John Grisham, for example, or Charles McCarry, Daniel Silva and Alan Furst. At times, broad critical assessments touch on historical, social and cultural factors, with Anderson noting, for example, how the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and Watergate influenced American culture: "Cynicism was in our bones; noir was the new reality. . . . Evil lurked out there and readers were ready to embrace it."