The Triumph of the Thriller

Patrick Anderson is a sometime novelist, speechwriter, and book reviewer who wrote a book, The Triumph of the Thriller, a couple of years ago–I just recently encountered it in the library. His topic: how crime thrillers have taken over the bestseller list.

Top-selling crime novels are not new. Between 1947 and 1952, Mickey Spillane, amazingly, came out with 7 of the 28 bestselling books in the history of U.S. publishing. The titles of his books: “I, the Jury,” “The Big Kill,” “My Gun is Quick,” “One Lonely Night,” “The Long Wait,” “Kiss Me, Deadly,” and “Vengeance is Mine.” I think you get the picture. Meanwhile, from the 1930s onward, Erle Stanley Gardner published over 100 crime novels, among which an incredible 91 sold over a million copies each. So, not new at all.

What’s new is not the presence of the thriller but its triumph. James Patterson’s books sold 14 million copies in a single year more than Grisham, King, and Brown combined. (And, of course, each of these benchmarks is himself a writer of thrillers.)

I decided to play Anderson’s game and look up today’s NYT fiction bestsellers. Here’s the hardcover list:

1 HOUSE RULES, by Jodi Picoult. (Atria, $28.) A teenage boy with Asperger’s syndrome is accused of murder. 1
2 THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett. (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, $24.95.) A young white woman and two black maids in 1960s ­Mississippi. 2 49
3 FANTASY IN DEATH, by J. D. Robb. (Putnam, $26.95.) Lt. Eve Dallas investigates the murder of a fantasy-game entrepreneur; by Nora Roberts, writing pseudonymously. 1 2
4 ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, by Seth Grahame-Smith. (Grand Central, $21.99.) Lincoln fights the undead; by the author of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 1
5 WORST CASE, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. (Little, Brown, $27.99.) A New York detective raising 10 children alone investigates a string of kidnappings and killings of teenagers by a villain with unusual motives. 6 5
6 BIG GIRL, by Danielle Steel. (Delacorte, $28.) A woman with weight issues learns to accept herself. 5 2
7* BLACK MAGIC SANCTION, by Kim Harrison. (Eos/HarperCollins, $25.99.) A witch who is also a bounty hunter is shunned by her kind; the eighth Rachel Morgan book. 3 2
8 SPLIT IMAGE, by Robert B. Parker. (Putnam, $25.95.) Jesse Stone, the police chief of Paradise, Mass., copes with divorce, the bottle and the murder of a mob soldier. 4 2
9 THE LOST SYMBOL, by Dan Brown. (Doubleday, $29.95.) Robert Langdon among the Masons. 8 25
10 THE POSTMISTRESS, by Sarah Blake. (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, $25.95.) Ordinary life in a Massachusetts small town and an American radio reporter in England in the 1940s. 10 4
11* WINTER GARDEN, by Kristin Hannah. (St. Martin’s, $26.99.) After their father’s death, two sisters must cooperate to run his apple orchard and care for their difficult mother. 9 5
12 THE MAN FROM BEIJING, by Henning Mankell. (Knopf, $25.95.) A massacre in a tiny Swedish village has roots in the past and on other continents. Excerpt 7 3
13 THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, by Stieg Larsson. (Knopf, $25.95.) A Swedish hacker becomes a murder suspect. Excerpt 13 21
14* THE THREE WEISSMANNS OF WESTPORT, by Cathleen Schine. (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) Two sisters — one logical, one emotional — move in with their mother when her ex-husband kicks her out of the family apartment; a tribute to Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” 2
15 POOR LITTLE BITCH GIRL, by Jackie Collins. (St. Martin’s, $26.99.) Hollywood murder, three beautiful 20-something high school friends, a hot New York club owner.

Everything’s coming up Tarslaw, indeed.

I don’t know enough about these books to be sure, but I’m guessing that #1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, and 13 are thrillers. With the rest being chick-lit, I guess. Going down the list from #16-35, we see a lots more.

In the trade paperback fiction list, I see 5 out of the top 15, and in the mass-market fiction paperback list, jackpot! 11 out of the top 15.

Anderson doesn’t really offer any systematic thoughts on all this, beyond suggesting that a higher quality of talent goes into thriller writing than before. He writes that, 50 or 70 years ago, if you were an ambitious young writer, you might want to write like Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Salinger (if you sought literary greatness with the possibility of bestsellerdom too) or like James Michener, or Herman Wouk (if you sought fame and fortune with the possibility of some depth as well) or like Harold Robbins or Irving Wallace (if you wanted to make a business out of your writing). But the topselling authors of mysteries were really another world entirely–even though their books were ubiquitous in drugstore and bus-station bookracks, and even occasionally made their way onto the bestseller lists, they barely overlapped with serious fiction, or with bestselling commercial fiction.

Nowadays, though, a young writer seeking fame and fortune (or, at least, a level of financial security allowing him to write and publish what he wants) might be drawn to the thriller, Anderson argues, for its literary as well as commercial potential. At the very least, why aim to be a modern-day Robbins or Michener if instead you can follow the footsteps of Scott Turow. And not just as a crime novelist, but as a writer of series: “Today, a young novelist with my [Anderson’s] journalistic knack for action and dialogue would be drawn to a crime series; if not, his publisher would push him in that direction.”

Anderson summarizes: “In short, thrillers are now the mainstream of American popular fiction. We need to recognize that the best of them are as impressive as the best literary fiction.” I don’t quite agree with that. Or, maybe I do, but the thrillers are generally “impressive” in a different way. The standards of characterization etc. are a bit lower (as with comics and popular songs; see point 3 here).

In any csebut he has some interesting stories to tell. On holmes boucher

P.S. Near the very end, Anderson criticizes a National Book Award panel for nominating “five little-known women writers who all live in New York City” for a fiction award. Only one of their books had sold more than two thousand copies. In a bit of uncharacteristic populist posing, Anderson characterizes the nominees as “five white chicks from the Big Apple.” Well. I think the comment about the low sales is legitimate–the Book Award people are making a choice, and maybe not a good one, by focusing on books that had not achieved commercial success. And the Big Apple crack is fair too: it might very well be that personal connections are what it’s all about. But “white chicks”? Something like 99% of the authors mentioned in Anderson’s book are white. And, judging from the author photograph, so is he.

On the next page, Anderson quotes a long paragraph from near the beginning of The Corrections (not so identified, but I found it via Google), a paragraph written in a bit of a faux-Nicholson Baker style, and shuts off discussion with a McEnroe-like outburst: “Is this man serious? After repeated readings, I [Anderson] have a vague sense of what he’s trying to say . . . Still, I was grateful to him for giving me fair warning of what lay ahead. I murmured my thanks and quit his novel right there, on page two, because life is too short to spend it wrestling with sentence like that.” That’s an interesting reflection of Anderson’s taste, but it seems a bit silly to me. Not every book begins with, “They threw me off the hay truck around noon.” In fact, earlier on, Anderson wrote quite perceptively about the ways in which many modern thriller writers are self-confident and feel free to be discursive.

P.P.S. Anderson is extremely critical of James Patterson’s moral and literary failings but perhaps unfairly is comparing him to other novelists rather than to “alternative activities such as watching television or staring blankly.”

4 thoughts on “The Triumph of the Thriller

  1. A nice thing about detective series these days is that there is one or more set in just about every city in America. As a native of Los Angeles, I always appreciated that Raymond Chandler had provided artful portraits of my hometown. Now, most Americans can find a detective series that tries to do for their hometowns what Chandler did for LA.

  2. The downside is that there aren't enough of the right kind of murders anymore (a rich person murders somebody in a complicated plot) to support all the detective thrillers and TV police procedurals.

    I recently spent many hours looking through the LA Times' Homicide Report at 2,704 homicides committed in LA County over the last three years. What a depressing catalog of stupidity. For glamor, Michael Jackson's death was in the list of 2,704 homicides, and there was a top lawyer who was shot in his driveway in Palos Verde, execution-style, and there were a few intriguing Armenian Mafia rub-outs, but the vast majority of homicides were stuff like one tagger shoots another tagger in a dispute over who has rights to put up graffiti in an alley.

    Philip Marlowe wouldn't even put on his trenchcoat for the vast majority of them

    Most of the few middle class domestic murders immediately turned into murder-suicides, so there wasn't much to solve.

  3. My girlfriend is from italy while i'm from austria. We regularly have a similar discussion as to why thrillers and crime stories are so popular in the german speaking world. While german best seller lists, similar to the US, are dominated by thrillers italy prefers romance and drama. This is even more evident when looking at tv production. While italy barely produces any crime investigation series germany and austria produce hardly anything else.
    I never really questioned the triumph of the thriller since i my self prefer it for light reading. Seeing this large discrepancy between cultures however i started to question myself why the german speaking world is so obsessed with murder (especially since the number of people killed in crime series dramatically exceeds the true incidence of fatal crimes).

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