Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I’m Not Thrilled

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.


John McFetridge said...

Dana, I was at a meeting with a young TV exec a couple weeks ago and I brought up Alistair Maclean and he said, "Who's that?"

I think a lot of the books are apocalyptic because that's what "event" movies need and so many of the books are just movies-in-waiting.

Maybe there'll be an "indie-thriller" movement someday... ;)

Anonymous said...

There is the opposite tact, where you get the younger disciples of McLean and LeCarre (and you can toss Fleming in there as well). They are so mournful over the end of the Cold War that they tie themselves into knots trying the make Russia the Evil Empire with its ready-made overlord, Vladimir Putin.

It kind of looks pathetic when you read them, knowing that the only one who probably enjoyed it was Vladimir Putin.

Dana King said...

I was once at a book signing by Robert B. Parker, who told the story of a Hollywood pitch he and a producer gave to a young studio exec for a Western. She sat patiently and listened for half an hour, then said, "This all sounds great, but who's this Wyatt Earp guy?"

I know these guys are young, but this is their chosen career; take an interest in its history. It's depressing to see directors who are film school graduates and can break down movies from 80 years ago scene by scene pitching ideas to MBAs whose idea of a classic film is CON AIR.

Dana King said...

Good point, Jim. I'll give my unnamed author credit. he didn't do that. Part of what irritated me so much about the book was it was this close | | to being good on multiple levels, but never went for it. No money in it, i guess. Even if he'd tried, the marketing people might well have shot it down.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, your comment are pertinent to my current reading. Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens are they very opposite of the contracted-out, brand-name-stamped, convention-following, blastfests you mention. And the protagonists, among other things, are not sociopaths raised in bozes.

Dana King said...

It's been more movies than reading lately. TINKER SAILOR SOLDIER, SPY; HARRY BROWN; IN BRUGES; THE GUARD; LONDON BOULEVARD. Americans don;t seem to want to make those kinds of movies anymore. I could have to retract my comments about British thriller writers, as the three I listed are all more or less past tense now. though your mention gives hope more are out there.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, one of my guys is dead, another is a poet and also dead, so don't get your hopes up too high.

Dana King said...

Ah, but I've not read them yet. To me, they've barely been born.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Amd he who's not busy being born is a-busy dying. (It's all right, ma, I'm only reading.) Lawton is still around (tangible evidence at ). He has a new book due out in September.

Cary Watson said...

Excellent post, Dana. All you points are bang on. You might want to try Jean Patrick Manchette, a French thriller writer who, unfortunately, is dead, but he did a nice job of rubbishing the conventions of the genre. Here's my piece on him.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I second my compatriot's thumbs-up on Manchette.

Dana King said...

I read Cary's review and will have to give Manchette a whirl. Everything described sounds like something I'd like.

I like the idea of using genre conventions or stereotypes as the framework. After all, they came about for a reason. It's what is done with them that matters, and how it's done.

You also hi another of my hot buttons, which applies to both thrillers and series: how violence and betrayal never seem to have any effect on the heroes. Too many of these heroes are essentially machines, which is, as much as anything, responsible for the exhaustion of most series after a while.

"For all I know Heckler & Koch could be an Austrian ventriloquism act." Priceless.