Thrillers Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Like the detective novel, the thriller is a special branch of crime fiction. Closely related to mystery stories as well, thrillers portray worlds in which protagonists are pitted against fast-breaking events, convoluted criminal and political conspiracies, spies, and serial killers. Thrillers may be set in almost any period of history, but the genre itself developed out of the eighteenth century gothic novel that was pioneered by writers such as Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1765). Although Walpole’s fiction inspired a generation of stories about haunted castles, tormented heroes accused of unspeakable crimes, and other corrupt behavior, the mainspring of the thriller in his novel concerns the commission of a murder that may lead to other homicides and to a complicated course of threatening and baffling events. In subsequent thrillers, the family, the government, or society itself may be at risk if a terrifying series of crimes is not solved and the perpetrators imprisoned or annihilated. The ordinary procedures of detectives will not suffice, and unorthodox—even illegal—actions may be necessary to stem the onslaught of evil. Like Jack Bauer, in the Fox network’s popular series 24, heroes in thrillers may have no choice other than to become renegades and go underground, assume false identities, and engage in conspiracies of their own to restore civilization to normalcy.

Nearly all thrillers have a political dimension, even when they are not specifically about politics or political processes. Thrillers, in other words, view society as a polity, an intricate and fragile network of standards, laws, rules, and codes of individual behavior that can be grievously damaged or destroyed by monomaniacs driven by insane ambition and rage. In modern society, since the American and French Revolutions, the notion that peoples’ daily lives are under threat of massive conspiracies fomented by unscrupulous masterminds has taken hold. So, too, has the legend of the loner hero—like the title character of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, the leader of a small society of aristocrats who banded together to rescue compatriots from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The Pimpernel’s true...

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Thrillers and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the late 1920’s, Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, began writing a series of crime stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask that shattered the cozy confines of the mystery genre. After watching Pinkerton agents break up strikes and side with employers, Hammett became revolted by his own participation in this brutal world in which the privileged exploited the powerless. He then devised a form of the detective story that exposed corruption and injustice. His detectives are not aristocrats like Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, or aloof intellectuals like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, they are rather disaffected loners. Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1929-1930) is an example. Hammett’s detectives are more likely to be found in alleys than in posh homes, and their quests to find murderers involve them in a maze of interlocking conspiracies that reflect Hammett’s own cynicism about the degraded state of capitalist society.

Hammett set his novel Red Harvest (1927-1928) in a corrupt Montana mining town. Donald Willsson, an idealistic young newspaper publisher, launches a campaign to clean up the town, unaware that his own father is at the root of its decay. In this criminal and violent setting, Willsson discovers that as an investigator he cannot begin to understand the network of crime unless he immerses himself in it. Thus begins the modern thriller’s questioning of the hero’s own bona...

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Thrillers and the International Novel

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

W. Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler, and Graham Greene moved thrillers onto the international stage, linking traditional mystery stories and crime fiction with complex plots involving espionage and political assassination. Their novels—as well as the work of John Buchan and Richard Hannay—resulted from the events of World War I, such as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Germany’s spiriting of V. I. Lenin in a sealed train to Russia, and efforts of Western governments to overthrow Russia’s new Bolshevik government both through traditional military means and through a network of spies working in secret to undermine communist governments.

Under the cover of writing as a journalist, W. Somerset Maugham worked for British intelligence during the 1917 Russian Revolution. He is often credited with writing the first modern spy story, Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928). Unlike the heroes of traditional mystery and detective fiction, Maugham’s spy often has only a sketchy idea of his mission. He receives orders from above (a British colonel named “R”), and recognizes that he is only a small part of a much larger enterprise. It is no wonder, then, that he is skeptical, aloof, and wary. In Maugham’s world of intrigue, the wrong man can be murdered because of faulty intelligence, and missions fail (as in Ashenden’s efforts to prop up the Kerensky government and forestall a Bolshevik takeover). The spy novel in Maugham’s hands becomes suffused with mysterious contacts with Russians, Americans, and strange Englishmen. Moreover, the thriller’s thwarting of the traditional mystery’s tying up of loose ends and the identification of the “real” criminals is firmly established in Maugham’s ironic prose.

Eric Ambler heightened the excitement of thrillers. His stories treat spying as very elaborate games, tests of wits, and traps for innocents whose simplistic worldviews are shattered by the machinations of rogue...

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Cold War Thrillers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The Allied victory over Germany and Japan in 1945 was the result of a so-called “good war” that saw the Western powers collaborating with the Soviet Union in a triumph over fascism. Almost immediately afterward, however, there was a new era of suspicion, espionage, and high tensions, and this, in turn, inaugurated a new era in thriller writing. By the late 1940’s, China and most of the Central and Eastern Europe nations had communist governments, and American and British thriller writers began exploiting the public’s concern about an endangered “free world.” Readers were concerned about questions such as whether the Soviet Union was intent on world domination. In Greece, Korea, and Vietnam, the communists seemed to be on the march. Were they all part of the same world conspiracy? What about the British and American intelligentsia, which often seemed to excuse Soviet behavior, suggesting that the Soviet arms buildup was a response to America’s possession of a huge nuclear arsenal and military bases abroad. Westerners wonder how the Soviet Union was able to develop its own atomic bombs so quickly. In 1952, two Americans, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for conspiring to pass atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. At the same time, there were rampant charges that other spies had infiltrated the U.S. government. Alger Hiss, who had been a highly placed official in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, went to prison for conspiracy to commit espionage. All these and other developments made millions of Americans gravely concerned about the security of their nation and of their own families. Similar developments in Great Britain caused the British people to be equally concerned about the extent to which communists had compromised their government’s intelligence services.

Ian Fleming exploited Cold War tensions in a series of cloak-and-dagger thrillers featuring one of the most famous series characters in the history of the thriller: James Bond. Code-named Agent 007, Bond is a superhero who is virtually always in danger. He is forever a romantic object, an escape artist blessed as well with good fortune. At the same, he is also obviously a fantasy figure—but one who appeals not only to a huge worldwide audience but also to real-life spies and political leaders, including Allen Dulles, the first head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and President John F. Kennedy.

Fleming himself, who died in 1964, before his books reached the full extent of their fame, never made great claims for his fiction. He said that he simply found his work “fun.” However, his idea of fun took the form of Cold War allegory, a melodrama in which Bond represents the free world’s indomitable individualistic spirit and perhaps, as well, a nostalgia for days when Rule Britannia was a fact, rather than a fiction of Fleming’s invention.

John le Carré, the successor to Maugham and Greene, also worked for British intelligence. He brought the thriller back to solid ground, and that seems to be one reason why his work presents a much more sober and realistic view of spying than Fleming’s adventure stories. Le Carré’s series hero, George Smiley, is middle-aged, overweight, a brooder, and a cuckold. Although he has become an intelligence agent in order to support the forces of right, he often has doubts about his missions and is skeptical about the measures his own side uses against the Soviets and their collaborators. He wonders if one can fight evil without also becoming implicated in the same evil. This age-old question makes le Carré’s thrillers much more complex than those of Fleming. Indeed, le Carré’s nuanced narratives have convinced many critics that his work transcends the formulas of the thriller and should be regarded simply as mainstream literature in the same league with that of other great contemporary writers. However, other critics have rated his achievement a little lower, suggesting that he has merely broadened...

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Legal Thrillers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason is the most famous lawyer or detective in the history of thrillers that create suspense through courtroom dramas. Gardner favored plot twists, fast-paced action, and intriguing characters. Although he produced well over 150 novels—as many as three in a year—the consistency of his performance is phenomenal. His work sustained the genre because he kept inventing new situations that called on the suave Mason to finesse potentially losing cases and solve crimes with an agile legal mind. Gardner did not, however, attempt to examine the legal process itself, to make it an integral part of his action. However, no other writer did so either, until judge John D. Voelker, under the pen name Robert...

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Tom Clancy’s Techno-Thrillers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In the writing of thrillers, Tom Clancy seems to be in a class of his own. His first novel, The Hunt for Red October (1985), is a gripping tale about the search for a runaway Soviet submarine with advanced technology that is headed toward the United States. Clancy, who had never been aboard a submarine, nevertheless brought the environs of his subject to life with meticulous research and gripping detail. His work is about the romance of equipment, a material world that defines the parameters of his series hero’s action. Jack Ryan, a favorite character of President Ronald Reagan, is the all-American hero, the fearless patriot appealing to one of the oldest impulses in the thriller genre: to project into the hero the...

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Feminist Thrillers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Patricia Highsmith, P. D. James, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell, Lia Matera—to name just a few of the many superb writers of thrillers who happen to be women—have crossed genre boundaries by creating series characters who are lawyers, detectives, coroners, and career criminals. It is probably misleading to identify them as a separate group except insofar as women and women’s issues enter into their work.

Highsmith began writing during the late 1940’s, attaining her first success with the riveting Strangers on a Train (1949), which Alfred Hitchcock transformed into a memorable film. Two strangers who meet on a train agree to murder each other’s intended victim. Highsmith’s focus in her...

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Horror Novels and Thrillers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

With his Hannibal Lecter series, Thomas Harris raised thrillers to a new level of gruesome violence. Lecter is not only a cannibal and a dangerous serial killer but also a fiendishly enticing interlocutor who snares the imagination of neophyte agent Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1988). He is at once an intellectual, a charmer, and a provocateur who has a strange hold over Starling—a sadomasochistic pull that Starling cannot seem to escape. Harris’s sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal (1999) is even more violent and more reliant on the staples of horror fiction—such as the demon-like character who keeps surfacing somehow, no matter...

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Thrillers as Literature

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After lavishing praise on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, literary critics have debated whether certain writers of thrillers deserve the same attention as mainstream writers of literature. They ask whether a writer such as Hammett merits a place beside Ernest Hemingway. The styles of both these authors are similar: clipped and understated with sharp-edged dialogue and sentences linked together by simple conjunctions such as “and” and “but.” Writing in the Hammett tradition, Chandler superbly evokes the urban ambiance of cities such as Los Angeles. These writers are read, in other words, for their literary value.

In The Triumph of the Thriller, Patrick Anderson argues that the thriller has emerged...

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Thrillers Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Lively survey of the thriller, beginning with its nineteenth century origins but weighted toward a discussion of modern American thrillers. A thriller writer and book reviewer for the Washington Post, Anderson provides a knowledgeable, though rather casual, guide to the genre. He does not supply notes, bibliography, or index but does include a list of his personal favorites.

Freeling, Nicolas. Criminal Convictions: Errant Essays on Perpetrators of Literary License. New York: David R....

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