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...
(The entire section is 921 words.)