Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: A Critical Look at 100 Must-Read Thrillers

As I’ve noted here before, I believe thrillers are an art form. Thrillers are like jazz to literary fiction’s classical music.

I devoured thrillers when I was a teenager and I still read and love them today.

So I was very interested in reading Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads (Oceanview), edited by thriller writer David Morrell and critic Hank Wagner.

The book offers interesting essays by noted thriller writers on 100 selected thrillers deemed “must-reads” by the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization. With each selection, the essayist offers a short biographical passage on the thriller’s author and provides an historical and literary perspective to the selected thriller.

Any list of best (or worst) of anything is open to debate, and this list of must-read thrillers is no exception. But the essays here are well written and thought provoking, even if I didn’t agree with the writer or the selection.

Storytellers were thrilling their audiences before we learned to write, David Hewson, a British thriller writer, notes in his introduction to the book.

“Today, thrillers provide a rich literary feast embracing a wide variety of worlds - the law, espionage, action-adventure, medicine, police and crime, romance, history, politics, high-tech, religion, and many more,” wrote Hewson in his introduction to Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads.

“But old or new — and this vibrant field never remains still — all thrillers share certain characteristics. Like Homer trying to keep his audience captive while telling his tale in ancient Greece, thriller authors are constantly aware that their readers want them to provide the sudden rush of emotions: the excitement, suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly, with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace. By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job.

“But thrillers are also intensely human stories, allegories that find truths in fiction in order to tell us more about the world we inhabit and the kind of people we are,” Hewson explained. “The thriller is the oldest kind of story — rooted in our deepest hopes and fears, for ourselves, those we love, and the world around us.”

According to the editors, Morrell and Wagner, the 100 thrillers were chosen on the basis of the impact each had on the genre.

“Did the author contribute a new subject, direction, character, and/or technique that had a lasting effect?” the editors asked. “Did a work make such an impression that it had that it was frequently imitated?”

One may be surprised to see Homer or Shakespeare included in this book, but the essayists explain why the classics have all of the elements of a thriller. Some other selections, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes and H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, may also surprise the thriller reader.

I was pleased to see Rudyard Kipling’s Kim included, as this was perhaps the first spy thriller I read. My father had a bookcase in our living room that held many of the children’s classics. I read them all at a very young age, but Kim was a special favorite. This was a thriller that grabbed my young mind and imagination.

In the early 1960s I saw Sean Connery as James Bond in the film Dr No and I quickly read the Ian Fleming thrillers. I discovered that the novels were darker and more complex than the films and I remain a Fleming aficionado today.

I’m glad that the editors included Fleming’s great Cold War thriller From Russia With Love. Raymond Benson, who authored several of the Bond continuation novels, wrote the essay about the thriller.

Benson wrote that Fleming created a new genre with the “fantasy” spy novel. I don’t agree with this label. From Russia With Love is a realistic and hard-edged 1957 novel that I would stack up against any of the other Cold War thrillers.

A World War II naval intelligence officer and a journalist before and after the war, Fleming knew crime and espionage. Although he wrote unabashedly entertaining thrillers, most of his ideas were in fact based on true events. On occasion, Fleming noted, a news story would “lift a corner of the veil” and reveal the real world of espionage

“Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” Fleming wrote.

Although some of Fleming’s other thrillers included fantastic elements, his novels were always grounded in reality (unlike the silly films). For example, Goldfinger’s plot to rob Fort Knox of America’s gold reserves may seem fantastic, but then a story comes out that reveals that Gustav Steinhauer, a German spy before and during WWII, plotted to blow up the gold reserves at the Bank of England.

There are also essays on other Brit thriller writers and wonderful thrillers that I grew up with. There is an essay on Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, an essay on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden of the British Agent, and an essay on Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

On the American side, there is an essay on America’s answer to Graham Greene, Charles McCarry.

Hank Wagner wrote an essay on McCarry’s great thriller The Tears of Autumn. There is also an essay on Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. The police thriller is represented here by Joseph Wambaugh’s great satiric novel, The Choir Boys.

I particularly enjoyed reading about several thrillers I knew only from the film adaptation. I have to now pick up copies of the thrillers these films were based on.

Of course, with 100 thrillers, I can’t list or comment on them all, but if you love thrillers, Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads: you will want to read and have in your library.

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