Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thrillers and Killers: A Genre Discussion

In a Top Ten Tuesday post from a while ago, I discussed how I wasn't a fan of thriller novels.

I got a little backlash for it: for instance, my Dad said that it was that kind of attitude that would cause me to miss out on some really good authors (though, to be honest, I think he considers it his personal life goal to get me to read Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, who I dismissed for their connection to the cringe-inducing topic of drug use). He said I should take a second look at those genres I was so quick to dismiss.

However, the true catalyst for this further bookshelf exploration came when, in an additional attempt to sway my opinion, a good friend challenged my distaste for thrillers, in particular, and tasked me with reading a book from one of his favorite authors, Tom Clancy. Suddenly confronted with a genre with which I haven't had much success, I entered into a deeper evaluation, of not only my personal reader-response, but what exactly about this genre makes these kinds of books so popular, anyways.


First, let me explain what about these thriller novels ostracized a reader like me so quickly in the beginning. To me, I associate thrillers with the bold black-and-red, brick-shaped novels sold slightly above the candy bars at the end of the checkout line at QFC. They populated my dad's bookshelves in the den of our house, and he told me I couldn't read them until I was much older. When I finally was old enough to read them, I finally understood why this specific set of books was held off limits for so long.

They were full of hurting people. It's not a topic I love to read about. There were violent men toting guns and lacking morals, there were helpless prostitutes getting killed on every dark street corner, and there were druggies who shivered and shook on stoops in the night only to be used as mules, enslaved by those who produced the very drugs that ensnared them.  In fact, a lot of the same reasons I didn't like about thriller novels are other topics that I listed disliking in that same Top Ten Tuesday post, or essentially, anything that was involved in Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I actually regret having read that book, which isn't something I say, ever).

In terms of the foundation of the storytelling itself, my experience with thrillers was that they primarily sacrificed construction for the sake of action. They were mass-produced, ready-made worlds occupied by the standard stock characters and tropes, with questionable motivation and murky back stories, left unexplained at the expense of story integrity, just so they could fit in one more car chase, one more dead hit man, one more head-whipping change of direction.

And, let's face it: I've never felt that I ever was the ideal demographic for the majority of this kind of writing. I'm a nineteen-year-old college girl... tragic things befall people like me in these kinds of books. Who wants to read about stuff like that?


Now, I'm not saying I entirely dislike them. There's definitely some aspects of the novel that are specifically geared towards the sort of things I really enjoy. 

For instance, in between the sniper shooters and Big-Brother-esque organizations, and drug mules, and swooning, useless female counterparts, there's a semblance of the grand romantic pattern. The underdog who proves himself, the man who recovers from immense tragedy to fight the battle anew, the knight in rusty armor: he's the kind of guy to be found saving the world in thriller novels. Saviors and heroes, hope and triumph... there's dragons to slay, and a damsel to save. It's not an exact match, but there's enough comparable material that I can say that there's a correlation between the two writing forms, of the thriller and the fantasy. 

And the same writing elements that make fantasy such a successful genre, are here as well: the foundation of fantasy isn't the unbelievable nature of magic and mayhem, but the fact that humanity can be transposed into such a radically different reality. We didn't love Harry Potter because he was a wizard, we loved him because he was, in most ways, just like us, but placed in such amazing and different circumstances. Similarly, we don't love the thriller hero just because he can kick butt and take names like no one we've seen before, but because of what motivates him to do so: love, honor, sense of civic pride and familial duty, the heart of gold. The world the thriller operates in is gritty and real, to be sure, but it is simultaneously exaggerated and extravagant... a world wholly unreal to us, but carrying elements that are completely real and relatable, as well.


The interesting thing is, there's more to thrillers than just the standard setup and familiar tropes I found so two-dimensional... there's a lot that has changed, and is changing, in this genre.

For instance, thrillers can still be found in the checkout lines of supermarkets, but that says a lot more about the dedication of their fan base than the quality of their components. They are still considered a "mainstream" material, but that's because their fan following is singularly immense. This fan dedication serves as quality control... if they don't like something, then they're going to tell the author exactly how they feel and what they think. The high standard these fans hold the books to ensure that they are constantly upheld to the status at which they were originally read. No one's allowed to be lazy when you've got two million copies to move on your first printing.

Similarly, those same tropes that I held to be true, aren't the only viewpoint in the thriller genre. "Big, strong man saves hopeless girl while shooting some things and blowing up others" isn't the only premise that drives these books. Case in point: Sue Grafton's Alphabet series, starring Kinsey Mallone, has entranced readers from A through W (W is for Wasted is the most recent title), and her heroine isn't the only cool girl on the block. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, which started off with One for the Money in 1994, has amassed a massive following as well (and while I'm still not a fan of this series, I am, however, a huge fan of absolutely terrible Katherine Heigl movies).

It's getting pretty meta out there, too. For instance, fans of Castle on ABC have been treated to the works of the TV show's lead character, the fictional author, Richard Castle, through the Nikki Heat novels Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, and Frozen Heat, with a fifth novel, Deadly Heat, set to be released this year. The novels are published in the world of the show, and the lead character of the novel is based off of Castle's love interest, Kate Beckett. The actual, "real life" author of the novels is a closely-gaurded secret, though fans of the show have their own guesses: James Patterson, Micheal Connelly, and Dennis Lehane have all had cameos on the show as friends of Castle's. And the books are held to similar caliber as the works for which those men are responsible.


In the end, I'm left to collect my own opinion on the matter. They may not make it to the top of my To-Be-Read list, but like the Agatha Christie mystery novels I've been collecting since I was in the sixth grade, these are novels that definitely belong on people's bookshelves.

My distaste for some of the rougher elements of the genre is simply similar to why I don't like watching CSI, NCIS, or most other procedural crime dramas on TV. They just aren't what I'm interested in. But that doesn't mean that there aren't elements of the genre that do actually interest me. In fact, there's a couple of books in the genre that I feel are especially worth reading, whether you're a fan of it, or not:
The Firm, John Grisham, which made me kind of want to be a lawyer, for at least five seconds in my sophomore year of high school.
Without Remorse, Tom Clancy, which reminded me of why some of my friends like Homeland so much.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, a New York Times best seller that topped seemingly everyone's summer TBR list.
and The Cuckoo's Calling, J. K. Rowling, which justified my use of Harry Potter as a reference earlier in this post.

So, hopefully, my Dad and my friend feel at least a little bit justified. They were right: there are thrillers out there, that are actually really cool, and that I think I'd enjoy. And, let's be honest, they're probably the only people who made it all the way through this mountain of writing. Thank you Dad and Steve. :) 

1 comment:

  1. Your welcome.

    Wow, very thorough piece. I didn't know if I should grade it after I finished reading it and kept looking for footnotes and references.

    I can see where a certain degree of sensitivity to violence make this a difficult genre for some, however if it isn't "Justified" in the story then the quality isn't there. My justified quote was a next step for you to talk in this genre if you are steeled up for it. Elmore Leonard is a great and prolific author who just passed away recently. His short story "Fire in the Hole" is what kicked off the series "Justified" (awesome show) which has much of the quality of his works. Try "Get Shorty" or watch the movie and see if you can handle the pain. In the midst of that, as you pointed out about, is some great storytelling.