In the past, thrillers were considered the poor cousins of “real literature”. In his tour de force,” The Triumph of the Thriller“, Patrick Anderson submits that, while this may have been true fifty years ago, thrillers have increased in complexity and sophistication and are no longer an inferior branch of fiction.
Anderson is certainly qualified to voice his opinion since he has reviewed mysteries for the Washington Post for several years. At one time, he was a mystery writer and, early in this book, there is an amusing anecdote that perfectly illustrates the changing attitude towards thrillers. When Anderson’s political thriller The President’s Mistress was published in 1976 the Washington Post’s reviewer extolled it, declaring that she locked herself in her office until she had finished it . She called it “a Mt. Everest among thrillers ” but then spoiled it all by saying “Of course, I always did like Chinese food.” However, the same reviewer, in a piece written several years later, confessed that , after much soul searching, she had decided that it was all right to enjoy popular fiction. All right ?! Of course, it’s all right. As an inveterate reader of all kinds of mysteries and thrillers, I welcome this change in popular perception. No longer do I have to feel guilty about what I enjoy reading.
Anderson traces the rise of the thriller from it’s early beginnings ( Poe, Conan Doyle, Christie) through it’s early American period ( Hammett, Cain, Chandler) and it’s tough guy phase. He has chapters on the meteoric rise of thrillers in the 70’s and 80’s, women authors, legal thillers, spy fiction and literary thrillers. He has a chapter on each of four authors whom he considers modern masters and one chapter each on his favorites among American and British thriller writers.Nor is Anderson shy about voicing his opinions. In the chapter No More Mr. Nice Guy he tells us about the authors he doesn’t like and the reasons why he doesn’t like them.
In each chapter, Anderson deftly sketches the role of a select few writers in the continuing evolution of the thriller. He describes the source of their inspiration, gives us a capsule review of their chief works and a telling analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.For instance, in the chapter on legal thrillers, he starts out with Scott Turow whose novel Presumed Innocent he feels was a remarkable blend of craft and commercialism. He then sketches John Grisham’s career and lauds him as a great storyteller but a “middlebrow”, a solid writer whose work is not on a par with that of John Lescroart. I agree. I think that Lescroart’s protagonist Dismas Hardy is more finely nuanced and that Lescroart’s writing is superior. The chapter concludes with riffs on five lawyers-turned-novelists whom Anderson likes.
As a mystery reviewer, Anderson has been able to interview and interact with several authors. He skilfully incorporates this knowledge into this book. For example, in the chapter Dangerous Women we are treated to a detailed description of Sue Grafton’s colorful life and how it influenced the creation of her protagonist, Kinsey Milhone. Another interesting tidbit – Michael Gruber , now a successful writer in his own right, was initially a ghostwriter, teaming up with his cousin, the lawyer Robert K. Tannenbaum, to produce a series of mysteries about N.Y Asst. D.A Butch Karp which were published under Tannenbaum’s name. I’d read several of the mysteries without being aware of their provenance.
In his career as a reviewer Anderson must have read hundreds , perhaps thousands, of thrillers and his experience and erudition are apparent in The Triumph of the Thriller. I was happy that most of my opinions coincide with his. He considers Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels ” the best American crime series now in progress” and I couldn’t agree more. He favors James Lee Burke, Ed McBain, Ian Rankin and John D. McDonald – as do I. Interestingly, some of the authors that he pans ( Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, David Baldacci) I have instinctively steered clear of. I disagree with a few of his picks and pans but that’s only to be expected.
There are some surprising omissions but the thriller field is so large that it is impossible for one man to cover it all. I would have liked to see a more in-depth treatment of British writers and perhaps a short chapter on historical mysteries, a rapidly growing subset in recent years. There is also only a passing reference to Robert D . Parker and Stuart Woods, two prolific authors the quality of whose work has tapered off dramatically. (This will be the subject of another post). One thing that I sorely missed was an index. Without an index, it is difficult to track scattered references to the same writer or whether or not the book covers a particular writer.A minor annoyance : in two places Ed McBain’s protagonist is wrongly identified as Frank (rather than Steve) Carella.
Except for the lack of an index, these are all very small omissions. The Triumph of the Thriller is a must read book for all lovers of mysteries and thrillers. It’s an encyclopaedic overview of the genre and gives you an opportunity to see whether your favorites match those of an authority on the subject.An added bonus is that you will get leads to several authors that you might not have been aware of. I know that I did.
The Triumph of the Thriller. Patrick Anderson. Random House (2007). $ 24.95.