Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Culture, by Patrick Anderson

New York: Random House, 2007, pp. 288.

As Washington Post book reviewer Patrick Anderson notes at the start of his book, the bestseller lists of the '50s and '60s were dominated by historical epics, family sagas and the lifestyles of the rich and famous--the exotic, the sweeping, the glamorous. Books like James Michener and Harold Robbins and James Clavell used to write, for instance. Thrillers were certainly present, of course, but are comparatively much more prominent now, gone from being a category to arguably defining the mainstream (along with romances, one ought to note, given that these seem to be an even bigger business).

When I first started going through it I found the book a disappointment, for two principal reasons. The first is that the title implied a portrait of the transformation of American culture (or at least of publishing) during the past half-century. The broad cultural history, the sociology--they just aren't there.

The second is that Anderson's discussion of the thriller struck me as overly narrow. While the title is something of a misnomer, the book lives up only too fully to the implication in the subtitle, specifically in its focus on crime fiction, the only branch of the thriller that gets anything like comprehensive treatment. By contrast, spy novels, legal thrillers and military "techno-thrillers" (a term Anderson himself coined in a 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Tom Clancy) each get a bit of patchy attention, and many other subgenres--such as the Michael Crichton-style scientific thriller, the Robin Cook-style medical thriller, and with few exceptions, the action-adventure thriller (let alone anything more likely to be labeled speculative fiction, though it very regularly operates in the thriller mode)--are all but ignored.

Additionally, particularly after the introductory discussion of the genre's history from Poe to noir (the first four chapters or so), Anderson's personal likes and dislikes increasingly dominate the bulk of the narrative. (Anderson, quite up-front about this, identifies his tastes as middlebrow, though it should be noted that his preference--to go by what he praises--is specifically for stylishly written, character-oriented fiction, with a tone of either gritty realism or dark zaniness. By highbrow what he is referring to is Pynchonian lit crit-theory sorts of stuff.)

The letdown was, admittedly, a bit personal. Back when I read many more thrillers than I do now (and certainly more thrillers not readily categorized as science fiction), I never took much interest in crime fiction. I was much more attracted to action thrillers, and stories of international intrigue, and particularly to authors who combined the two--like Clive Cussler, for instance, or the techno-thriller writers I discussed in my article in The Internet Review of Science Fiction last year. Portraits of mean streets, neo-noir, the latest iteration of Jack the Ripper, cops in police stations and pathologists in morgues--these things had little fascination for me, certainly next to the spectacular action, exotic settings, cool toys, and giant plots of the Cusslers and Clancys and the rest. A bit later, I found myself drawn to the international thrillers of the '70s, less heavy on action and high-tech, but which I enjoyed for their political savvy and jet set flair (and in my favorite of these authors, Trevanian, his hugely underappreciated penchant for satire).

Nonetheless, Triumph did give me an introduction to a fair bit of pop culture history I knew only dimly, and a good many authors I knew nothing about. (And admittedly, the truth is that Anderson's tastes are far more in line with the thriller market than mine, his distaste for James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell and a few other Big Names aside, so that his history of the field is more representative than one reflecting my own preferences would be.) There is a lot of summary of key works here, but Anderson's writing is always lucid, brisk and highly readable.

Additionally, when doing more than retelling stories, Anderson is an astute critic, quite conscious of the silliness of so much thriller convention (the detectives whose brilliant deductions are just a combination of the obvious with wild guess disguised as intuitive leaps; the routine involvement of P.I.s in murder investigations), and also of genre politics (Anderson commenting on the challenges confronting a would-be liberal thriller writer). By and large, his criticism is also persuasive, at least where I've been in a position to judge the works in question for myself. Clancy, while recognized by Anderson for his research, large-scale plots and over time, somewhat improved prose, is taken to task for beating his readers over the head with his politics in books that were increasingly "too long, too preachy, too jingoistic, and sometimes just too silly," as well as too repetitive in its observations and expressions ("not since Chandler has [a major American writer] . . . been in such urgent need of an editor"); his tendency to present foreigners and villains as crude, propagandistic--even racist--caricatures, a point highlighted by the epithets his heroes casually toss off (which shameless pandering to prejudice drew yet another comparison to Chandler); and his "efforts to be hip," which "are a wonder" (as he says in a rather funny response to a rather anachronistic exchange in 2003's Teeth of the Tiger). Anderson also has a good eye for interesting, relevant trivia (seeing in the success of Patterson, a highly successful adman, the embodiment of "the belief that you can sell books the way you sell dog food").

The result is that rather than the epic history promised, the reader gets a number of sketches of major authors out of thriller history inside a hodgepodge of observations and comments, which offered just enough of interest to have been worth my while in the end.

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