The Triumph of the Thriller

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Patrick Anderson is a reviewer of thrillers for The Washington Post. He has also written thrillers. As critic and practitioner, he is in an excellent position to provide a survey of the best work in the genre. He is not much interested in judging his contemporariesalthough he does chide popular authors who have become too formulaicsuch as James Patterson (machining plots of violence and gore), John Grisham (who forsakes the grittiness of his early work), and Tom Clancy (too mechanical and lacking in character development).

Anderson’s main concern is to highlight the best-written thrillers and to account for their dominance of the best seller lists, especially in the last three decades. His argument is not simply that thrillers are, on the average, better written and more widely read than ever before. Rather, he believes that the genre at its best has become a part of mainstream American fiction. Though he cites important English writers, he clearly suggests that the most important development of the thriller has occurred in the United States. Indeed, he believes it is time to consider certain thriller writers as just great writers deserving of the elite literary awards that have been reserved for so-called mainstream fiction. His main candidates for honors are Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, and Michael Connelly.

Anderson’s definition of the thriller is quite elastic. It encompasses writers as various as Wilkie Collins and Mickey Spillane. Indeed, Anderson is short on definitions and explorations of what precisely the thriller is. Although it has emerged as a dominant category in contemporary fiction, he still seems to regard the thriller as a subgenre evolving out of the mystery story as pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. It seems quite a stretch to trace contemporary thrillers to these writers rather than, say, the eighteenth century gothic novel or an early crime novel such as William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794).

Rather than evolve a theory of the thriller or ground his definition of the genre in carefully chosen works that comprise its history, Anderson prefers to describe what thriller writers do while taking a rather ahistorical view of literature. Thus, Poe, for example, is faulted for drawing out the story in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), as if he should be judged by the lean and mean prose of more recent thriller writers such as Elmore Leonard, one of Anderson’s touchstones. Even a classic writer like Raymond Chandler gets a drubbing when compared to later novelists such as James Ellroy.

Part 1 of The Triumph of the Thriller is divided into four chapters, the first introducing Anderson’s brief for the superiority of the contemporary thriller, the second presenting a swift and rather superficial examination of Poe, Doyle, and Christie, the third presenting their hard-boiled, tough-guy counterparts created by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Chandler, and the fourth presenting the postwar grouping of Spillane, Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, and Charles Willeford. Willeford, known mainly by devotees of the genre, has been rediscoveredmuch to Anderson’s pleasure. Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, is included in the Library of America’s collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950’s (1997). Originally published in cheap paperback editions, his novels now seem destined to surpass the reputation of Ross Macdonald, whose Freudianism, Anderson suggests, has become dated. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, on the other hand, seems timeless to the critic, a detective who has become the epitome of a certain male confidence that Anderson admires.

In part 2, chapter 5, Anderson claims that the year 1981 represents a “tipping point” in the history of the thriller. Mainstream writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were employing the true crime reportage in In Cold Blood (1966) and The Executioner’s Song (1979) that had earlier been the province of genre writers. James Dickey produced the “quintessential literary thriller” in Deliverance (1970). Soon a new generation of writers like Scott Turow, Connelly, and...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2007): 40.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 24 (December 15, 2006): 1249-1250.

Library Journal 131, no. 20 (December 1, 2006): 124.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (February 18, 2007): 12.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 45 (November 13, 2006): 42.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 34 (February 10, 2007): P8.