Remember the lacunal, maddening, consterning and ultimately useless lists of the allegedly best in crime fiction devised by The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian? Bad ideas sadly travel better than good wine and now we find the NPR weighing in with a list of 100 « Killer Thrillers » as selected by its audience. Like the Guardian’s round-up, it is fairly inclusive – as it happens, Jurassic Park does show its reptilian head in both. For NPR’s and its audience’s defence, it might be said that « thriller » is so nebulous a concept (much like « crime novel ») that you can put virtually any kind of book under its broad tent – and this is what happens:
Of course, there will be arguments about whether some of these books truly count as « thrillers. » (You know who you are, Shogun.) The many 19th-century novels, in particular, may raise eyebrows. But David Morrell, novelist and co-editor of the recent anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, defends such choices. « A lot of people see ‘thriller’ and think ‘spy book,’ » Morrell says. But a book like The Last of the Mohicans is « unquestionably a thriller — filled with chases and derring-do. » Morrell also mentioned Dracula (« take away the supernatural elements and it’s a serial-killer novel ») and The Count of Monte Cristo. « As long as you have that breathlessness and sense of excitement, » Morrell says, « then they’re in. »
I’m old enough to remember the time when The Last of the Mohicans was considered an adventure novel and people routinely described Dracula as horror and The Count of Monte Cristo as a story of revenge. But it was yesterday and today is a busy time, too hury to care with definitions and categories. Let’s drop them all and let’s paint everything with the same brush, the broader the better.
« Thriller » was historically meant to refer to a peculiar brand of fiction, lying somewhere between adventure and the burgeoning crime genre, whose aim was – of course – to thrill. Main features of the form included fast pacing (making up – though not always – for coherence) high action quotient (in the guise of plot) and brave, courageous protagonists facing incredible (in every sense of the term) dangers to defeat crime bosses, secret societies or evil masterminds bent on controlling/destroying the world – which at the time and the somewhat ethnocentric world of standard thriller fiction, meant Great Britain and its empire. Since those books had little time or use for subtlety, they were often crude in their effects and execution. Still, at their best they displayed a wild imagination and stamina that makes the best of them still readable after all those years – it’s no chance that Edgar Wallace, the archetypal thriller writer, still maintains a small but loyal following.
Of the NPR’s 100, only a few are thrillers in the historical sense, and the presence of Stephen King, Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Cormac McCarthy demonstrates how far the term has derived from its original meaning – or any other for that matter. Whether or not it’s a good thing, you decide.