Recent sales figures suggest that as high as 80% of fiction sales are thrillers. This begs the question, what is a thriller? I suspect that to make any sense of it you need to add a qualifier – spy thrillers, adventure thrillers, detective thrillers, horror thrillers, even literary thrillers. This of course reduces the word to not much more than the equivalent of “story” and this is neither meaningful nor helpful.
In the real world we all know what a thriller looks like. It will often (perhaps inevitably) involve a plot driven story and have a clear protagonist who drives that plot forward, very often taking action that most of us would find extreme. There will usually be a villain against whom the hero must pit his wits and strength, often against unlikely odds (the police procedural in pursuit of the serial killer follows a contrary route of course.
Why do we like thrillers? Well, the successful thriller is a page turner above all else. I couldn’t put it down, we say. It will usually have a high octane ending, sometimes with a twist. Not all twists are believable but by then we don’t care because the story has us in its grip.
There is a wonderful book called simply Story by Robert McKee which makes the point on page after page that what we yearn for in a book is a story that will have us gripped. He is too polite to say so, but he is implicitly critical of the sort of literary fiction that doesn’t achieve that, substituting instead sometimes beautiful language and in depth characterisation but which is a chore to read.
Violence too is a feature of the modern thriller. I haven’t read it read but the latest thriller to be hyped on the Underground is Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen and if the early reports are to be believed it is very dark and very violent.
Mark Billingham’s books are pretty violent too.
But it wasn’t always like this. Dennis Wheatley’s occult thrillers had me on the edge of my seat but the violence was restrained. Likewise the most successful thriller writer of the eighties – Alistair Maclean – managed it all without gruesome detail as did Desmond Bagley from the same era. In the Golden Age of detective thrillers Lord Peter Wimsey, Raffles, Bulldog Drummond and a hundred others all managed to get the job done without making us squirm.
Don’t get me wrong. We live in a world where we are all desensitised to some extent to graphic violence. Both TV shows and films routinely portray images that would have been banned only a few years ago. Violence has its place in the thriller too – to demonstrate the evil perpetrated by the villain and make us root for the hero and to justify extreme measures taken by the latter.
At the edges there are some interesting crossover writers. Benjamin Black writes intelligent thrillers which he describes as his day job (meaning they pay the bills) whilst his literary alter ego John Banville is praised for his fine writing.
Kate Atkinson’s four book Jackson Brodie detective series is a literary tour de force but just as important is as page turning as any James Paterson (albeit without the patronising short chapters and cliff hanging last lines).
Well, that’s enough rambling I think. The reason for making such a song and dance about thrillers is that I have just added a Thrillers tab to the website. Take a look if you have a moment or add yuor comments here