I used to love thrillers. Grew up reading them in what I think of as the Golden Age of the genre: Alistair MacLean, Ken Follett, and the master, Frederick Forsythe. To me, the crowning achievement in the history of thrillers is Forsythe’s Day of the Jackal, in which (not really a spoiler alert) the reader is kept on seat’s edge, even though he knows this is not how DeGaulle dies; what the hell happens? (The movie, starring Edward Fox as The Jackal, is just as riveting.)
More than any other genre, thrillers depend on suspension of the reader’s disbelief. Some would say it’s science fiction that carries this burden, but in sci-fi you can create a world with your own rules. So long as you stay within the rules you set up, you’re fine. Need a spacecraft to fly at several times the speed of light and still get radio communications? No problem. Life expectancy of 150 years? Child’s play. Be fair with the reader and you can get away with just about anything. (Play fair, though. Sci-fi fans can be vindictive SOBs.)
Thriller writers have to live in the world we do, with all the limitations of the laws of physics, yet still keep you thinking, “Yeah…yeah, he could do that.” MacLean can have a handful of commandoes who’d never met before parachute into a mountain-top German compound to rescue a captured British general and get him back to England safely, with one spy on the team and another back at headquarters, and the reader thinks, “Damn. These guys are good.” (This is the basic storyline of Where Eagles Dare, another great book and movie combo.)
Not anymore. Modern thriller writers aren’t interested in working around the suspension of disbelief; they’re writing for a public that will believe anything. I was asked to review such a book last week. It hit all the major food groups that make modern thrillers what they are(n’t):
· Protagonists with bizarre backstories. In this, the male lead was raised as a sociology experiment, in a box. Alone. Swear to God. His female partner has a freakish gift for seeing patterns in data and images. And she has a serious martial arts background.
· Of course, they have sex.
· Gruesome levels of detail. No one has a pair of binoculars; they have Nikon Prostaff 12x25 binoculars. Julbo Micropores sunglasses. Two pages are spent describing a character getting out of the car, removing something from the trunk, and walking thirty feet to a motel room. True, she’s taking hi-tech counter-surveillance measures, but Jesus Christ, two pages? Later we’re treated to a page-and-a-half of the hero hitting someone. Once. Yes, with a ruler, but, still.
· The bad guys work for a private company to which much government security and intelligence work has been outsourced. (Okay, I believe that part.) They have an uncanny ability not only to track our heroes, but to get where they’re going first, even when our heroes didn’t know where they were going until they left.
· The scenario is, of course, apocalyptic. The other bad guys—not the ones who are chasing our heroes, who hired them in the first place and are pretending to be good guys—aren’t going to steal a bomb or sabotage a reactor; they stole a reactor.
· The puppetmaster who sets this world-wide operation in motion leaves obscure clues our heroes unfailingly interpret correctly, and in the nick of time. Everyone ends up where he wanted them to go, and does what he wanted them to do, even though the puppetmaster died before the two protags got together.
The end result is a little like The DaVinci Code meets Terminator 2.
To be fair, the author pulls this off pretty well. It is explained why several groups of killers are so easily dispatched. Sure, they’re incompetent, but he tells why such boobs were sent. The writing isn’t nearly so mind-numbingly repetitious as Dan Brown’s. When [author’s name redacted] allows himself to write, and not worry about contemporary conventions of the genre, things zip along nicely.
I’ve tried to be careful not to spoil the plot for anyone who comes across this book; it’s not really a fair review. These kinds of things are not my cup of tea. Anyone who has read the book will recognize it. If you enjoyed it and my grousing harshes your mellow, my apologies.
Thrillers used to be about suspense, and how the story layered it so it built at a pace to hold the audience. Now they blow shit up and kill people, hoping against hope things move so fast, or are so impenetrable to read, there’s no time to realize what’s being described makes no sense.
Maybe this bothers me so much right now because the day I finished reading this book, The Beloved Spouse and I watched the 2011 version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. More of a suspense story than a thriller, I still spent more time on the edge of my seat during those two hours than during the entire time reading [book title redacted].
Is it just me being more of a grouch than usual? Does anyone else think we need a new name for the thriller genre? “Horseshit” comes to mind, but I’ve been wrong before.