The Magazine

Thrilled to Death

Three new titles on the crime fiction list.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By JON L. BREEN
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Red Cat

by Peter Spiegelman

Knopf, 304 pp., $22.95

The War Against Miss Winter

by Kathryn Miller Haines

Harper, 317 pp., $13.95

Chain of Evidence

by Garry Disher

Soho, 375 pp., $24

"Thriller" is the label du jour for commercial crime fiction, favored over "mystery" or "novel of suspense." There is absolutely nothing new in the novels being advanced as thrillers, though some would have you believe otherwise.

Promotional copy for a Manhattan bookstore event during the ThrillerFest convention in July included the following absurdity: "In the wake of the runaway success of such titles as The Da Vinci Code, a new genre of popular fiction was embraced by millions of Americans." In fact, Dan Brown's novel works best as an old-fashioned clued detective puzzle, albeit an unusually badly written one.

Far from being a new genre, thrillers can trace their lineage at least as far as 19th-century dime novels, which offered fast pace, physical action, danger, pursuit, and clear good guy/bad guy demarcations. In the 20th century, the term was used in Britain to denote the whole broad field of crime fiction; but more pointedly, it was usually applied to intrigue and espionage fiction and given added literary credibility by writers like Eric Ambler and John le Carré.

The rather vague definition of thriller today has been expanded to include serial-killer novels, some police procedural and private-eye sagas, romantic suspense, tales of medical menace and legal maneuvering, and supernatural horror.

The only 21st-century thriller elements that could be counted as remotely innovative are the least salutary ones: increasingly higher page counts, cruelly severe and repeated trauma and soap-opera travails visited on series characters, increasingly explicit violence, cinematically choreographed action scenes, and hyped-up suspense designed to artificially elevate reader anxiety. All the worthwhile elements contained in contemporary thrillers have been present in crime or espionage or detective fiction for a very long time with varying degrees of emphasis.

Many excellent writers produce books that are called thrillers by publishers or critics. But the celebration of the thriller--and its implicit denigration of the mystery, though essentially a matter of commercial labeling--should concern anyone who takes crime fiction seriously as a literary genre. Very few of the classics of the past emphasize the kind of "thrills" that seem to activate the present market. Their most important attributes always lay elsewhere: in the evocation of time and place, in the illumination of character and society, in the challenge of problem solving, in the sheer joy of language, in all the other literary values that characterize good fiction, whatever the genre.

To put it even more baldly, the whole idea of thriller centrality serves to trivialize crime fiction, whether hard, uncompromising, mean-streets noir or sophisticated intellectual puzzle.

In 2004, some thriller writers who felt their vital genre needed differentiating from the tired old mystery--including, of course, a new set of annual awards--formed the International Thriller Writers, Inc. Their ranks include many talented and distinguished writers, and the effort to advance the careers of their members is laudable. But the organization put its commitment to quality in doubt when, out of all the distinguished veteran writers to whom they could have given lifetime achievement awards, they chose two of the most literarily undistinguished denizens of the bestseller lists, writers who, for all their page-turning prowess, studious research, and other sterling qualities, turn out numbingly flavorless prose and dialogue: Clive Cussler and James Patterson.

Three recent books--a private eye novel, an amateur-detective historical, and a police procedural set in Australia--demonstrate the attributes of first-rate mystery fiction that are sometimes overlooked in today's rush for thrills.

Peter Spiegelman's Red Cat is the third novel about New York private detective John March. His brother and client, David, so abrasive and annoying that only ties of blood could explain March taking his case, is being stalked by a woman he knows only as Wren, a meant-to-be-casual sex partner he met online. March is an old-style private eye in a present-day setting. He uses the Internet as a prime investigative tool, and the plot concerns a sick variation on the video art that has so many contemporary galleries in its thrall.