Every publishing season, they appear in droves: well-designed and spottily-edited novels with broad-shouldered men and leather-jacketed women on their covers, with titles like “The [Something-Something] Gambit” or “The [So-and-So] Protocol” or “The [What-Have-You] Legacy.” They’re hardly ever stand-alone novels; each is almost always the latest in a series going back years. They often have a distinctly international vibe, with action careening from thesouks of Dubai to the slums of Kolkata to the slopes of the Himalayas. Their tough-talking protagonists rack up frequent flyer miles, body counts, and bar tabs, and despite the fact that they’re almost always described as strong, silent types, they have a tendency to opine – often when in the presence of the operatically over-the-top nasty specimens they draw as arch nemeses.
We all know these books. We can spot them easily, even if they aren’t our preferred reading. These are thrillers, and they arrive in bookstores every season in flocks.
But what is a thriller, anyway?
It’s been over 70 years since Harper’s magazine ran the now-classic essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” in which no less a personage than the poet W. H. Auden made some general comments on the classification of the broader mystery genre, whose DNA he parsed like this: “A murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”
Within that broader category are many sub-categories including the thriller, which had an active readership even back in 1948. In his essay, Auden glances at the key distinction: in thrillers, he writes, “the identification of the criminal is subordinate to the defeat of his criminal designs. The interest in the thriller is the ethical or eristic conflict between good and evil, between Us and Them” (I’ll save you the trip to the dictionary: “eristic” means “of or characterized by debate or argument”)(what can I say? Auden could be a handful).
In other words, if traditional murder mysteries are chiefly characterized by the methods a sleuth uses to find a killer, and if they mainly entertain their readers with the challenge of seeing if they can find the killer first, thrillers are chiefly characterized by the atmosphere of the crime itself. Thrillers usually tell readers up front who the killer is – indeed, many of them open with a cinematically clear account of the first crime taking place. They don’t care about the suspense of revelation; they’re entirely concerned with the thrill of danger – and they provide heaps and heaps of danger.
If we’re looking for some modern version of Auden’s consideration of the mystery story (minus the eristic, thanks very much Wystan), who better to consult than the great Otto Penzler? For an essay on Crimereads in 2018, he took a decidedly cranky view of the rise in popularity of the thriller sub-genre, a view that boils down to “kids these days”: “Bombarded daily with a few lines
of social media, quick cuts of movies, television programs and commercials, [readers] are unwilling to work through discussions of railroad timetables, tides, or how long it takes for a sprig of parsley to sink into a bar of butter on a summer day,” he writes. “They seek movement and action – hence the increased popularity of the thriller.”
Even if we don’t agree that readers these days are Internet-addled adrenaline-junkies, even if we resist the urge to grouse “they just don’t write ‘em like they used to,” there’s no denying that last bit, about the increased popularity of the thriller. You only have to glance at the New Release section of any bookstore to see that the sub-genre is thriving.
Just in the last month, for instance, we’ve seen Blood Truth, the fourth volume in JR Ward’s “Black Dagger Legacy,” which is itself a spinoff of the 17 books in her “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series. Since Blood Truth resembles all the other books in the series by featuring sexy modern-day warrior-vampires, they might at first seem unlikely candidates for the sub-genre, but Ward almost always mixes thriller elements with her supernatural goings-on. In this latest book, a vampire named Boone teams up with a former homicide cop to hunt a serial killer – standard stock-in-trade for thrillers.
You might think Blood Truth might read different from most thrillers because Boone, being a sexy immortal, never misses what he aims at and is essentially bulletproof. But that just means you’re not reading enough contemporary thrillers: most of their heroes, while allegedly mortal, share exactly those two traits: they never miss what they aim at, and they’re basically bulletproof. They routinely take high-caliber slugs to the leg, shoulder, arm, abdomen, and even head (and sometimes all in the same book) and barely need to skip a meal, let alone bow out of a climactic clash with the bad guys.
They’re usually strapping specimens, as well. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for instance, is a veritable sasquatch (despite having been played by the, er, modestly-proportioned Tom Cruise on the big screen), and he’s not alone. Take former Navy SEAL Rob Tacoma, the star of Ben Coes’ new thriller The Russian: “Tacoma’s dirty-blond hair was brushed back over a thick cowlick that jutted up slightly at his forehead, parted to the left, dangling Down [sic] to the lower ends of his ears,” we learn. “His face was tan. His was clean-shaven, with a sharp nose and big lips. Tacoma was thick and athletic, all muscle. The blazer pressed out, a little tight, accentuating Tacoma’s body.”
And then there’s former US Army Ranger Quinn Colson from Ace Atkins’ new book The Shameless: “Hewasatallish,muscularmanwithachiseledfaceofsharpplanesandedges, dark green eyes with a hard glint in them. He had on bluejeans and a starched sheriff’s office shirt, despite it being nearly a hundred degrees.”
“Nobody who knew me – certainly none of my superiors – would have accused me of being a stickler for protocol,” muses game warden Mike Bowditch in Paul Doiron’s new thriller Almost Midnight, and hoo-boy, does he have that in common with all the other chiseled heroes and
heroines of modern thrillers. They’re mavericks; they’re rule-breakers; they’re iconoclasts; they’re lone wolves; they don’t care which fork is for salads and which for fish; they march to the beat of their own drummer, and when the drummer dies in a hail of gunfire from a ruthless Herzegovinian drug cartel, you can bet your last spent shell casing they’ll track down every one of those scumbags and mete out the kind of frontier justice that would land you or me in the nearest jail for a few centuries.
And it never seems to bother them much. When we find these heroes and heroines at their leisure, they seem as tranquil as Buddhist monks. Take gunnery sergeant Bob Lee Swagger, the indestructible hero of his 11th adventure, Stephen Hunter’s Game of Snipers: “What was there to complain about? The view from the rocker was superb, prairie meadows giving way in the distance to the mountains, snowcapped (as was he) and remote (as was he), been there forever (as had he).”
In fact, with all due respect to Otto Penzler, this very quality might do as much work in explaining the booming popularity of thrillers as their frenetic action-pace. Not only are these books in which right and wrong are clearly, even childishly delineated, but they’re books where the good guys never have any trouble telling the difference. No matter how many bad guys they shoot, defenestrate, or impale on icicles (don’t ask), they always always sleep the untroubled sleep of the just. In the 21st century? Talk about wish fulfillment.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.