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The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fictionby Patrick Anderson
"The Triumph of the Thriller is full of interesting trivia and analyses for genre fans — who may find new titles they'd never heard of (while, perhaps, bristling at certain omissions) — and it also works as a terrific primer for those who haven't glanced at crime fiction since their brief, preadolescent Agatha Christie phase. It doesn't exactly break new ground in its assertions, but it provides absolution to thriller fans who no longer want to feel guilty for their reading pleasures." Chris Bolton, Powells.com (read the entire Powells.com review)
Synopses & Reviews
There's been a revolution in American popular fiction. The writers who dominated the bestseller lists a generation ago with blockbuster novels about movie stars and exotic foreign lands have been replaced by a new generation writing a new kind of bestseller, one that hooks readers with crime, suspense, and ever-increasing violence. Patrick Anderson, the Washington Post's man on the thriller beat, calls this revolution "the triumph of the thriller," and lists among its stars Thomas Harris, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton, and Elmore Leonard.
In his provocative, caustic, and often hilarious survey of today's popular fiction, Anderson shows us who the best thriller writers are — and the worst. He shows how Michael Connelly was inspired by Raymond Chandler, how George Pelecanos toiled in obscurity while he mastered his craft, how Sue Grafton created the first great woman private eye, and how Thomas Harris transformed an insane cannibal into the charming man of the world who made FBI agent Clarice Starling his lover.
Anderson shows Scott Turow inventing the modern legal thriller and John Grisham translating it into a stunning series of bestsellers. He casts a cold eye on Tom Clancy's militaristic techno-thrillers, and praises Alan Furst and Robert Littell as world-class spy novelists. He examines the pioneering role of Lawrence Sanders, the offbeat appeal of Dean Koontz, the unprecedented success of The Da Vinci Code, and the emergence of the literary thriller.
Most of all, Anderson demands that the best of these novelists be given their due — not as genre writers, but as some of the most talented men and women at work in American fiction. Don't trust the literary elites to tell you what to read, he warns — make up you own minds. The Triumph of the Thriller will convince many readers that we've entered an important new era in popular fiction. This book can be your guide to it.
"The reader who isn't a thriller fan but is curious about this enormously popular genre couldn't ask for a better introduction than Anderson's lively and informative survey. Anderson, the Washington Post weekly thriller reviewer and self-described 'middlebrow,' explains why the genre has come to dominate bestseller lists in recent years: 'Decades of war, recession, and political and corporate corruption have made Americans more cynical — or realistic — and thus more open to novels that examine the dark side of our society.' Then he quickly covers the 19th-century pioneers (Poe, Collins, Conan Doyle) and the early 20th-century greats (Christie, Hammett, Chandler). The book hits its stride with a chapter on the modern thriller's birth in the 1980s. The author champions such contemporary writers as Thomas Harris, George P. Pelecanos, Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane, but isn't afraid to condemn the work of such bestsellers as James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell. While the generous plot descriptions might spoil a novel like The Silence of the Lamb for those who have never read Harris, this personal, opinionated guide will satisfy even those well versed in the genre. Anderson is also the author of The President's Mistress and eight other novels." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'It is not true ... that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. ... Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more fortunately, have been unpopular. ... The trouble in this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) devil.' So wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1902, and perhaps little has changed in the reading public's disconnect between so-called high literature and genre fiction. In 'The Triumph of the Thriller,' Patrick Anderson, who's had the 'thriller beat' at The Washington Post since 2000, reflects that he himself felt for years 'a tremor of guilt when I stooped to popular fiction and certainly to thrillers.' But while Anderson recognized this tendency even in himself, he also noticed in recent decades a 'transformation in America's reading habits' toward embracing novels once relegated to 'the genre ghetto.' While the blockbuster novels of the 1950s and "60s 'rarely concerned themselves with crime,' Anderson estimates that about 40 percent of the best-selling hardback novels in 2005 can be counted as thrillers, and he states that talented young writers' eagerness for the genre has made it 'the white-hot center of American fiction.' To chart shifts in readers' tastes and authors' intentions, Anderson steps back to discuss Poe, Doyle and Christie, Hammett, Cain and Chandler, and then a group of 'tough guy' writers led by Mickey Spillane. He turns to several variations of the modern thriller, which encompasses 'spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers,' and samples writers from each subgenre: Scott Turow and John Grisham, for example, or Charles McCarry, Daniel Silva and Alan Furst. At times, broad critical assessments touch on historical, social and cultural factors, with Anderson noting, for example, how the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and Watergate influenced American culture: 'Cynicism was in our bones; noir was the new reality. ... Evil lurked out there and readers were ready to embrace it.' Similarly, he explains how the female private investigators of such writers as Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky stemmed inevitably from the feminist movement and how Tom Clancy's success coincided perfectly with the Reagan era's rising patriotism. Elsewhere, eschewing a historicist approach, Anderson offers what amounts to reviews of individual books (and sometimes movie adaptations) with extended plot summaries, examinations of character and theme, and assessments of stylistic worth. He also provides biographical information, excerpts from interviews and small bits of trivia to summarize many writers' careers, with full chapters devoted to Thomas Harris, George P. Pelecanos, Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. At its best, the book sets forth some key reasons for the thriller's success today. Authors have realized that they can use the genre to broadcast ideas and issues to a sometimes staggering number of readers. 'The Da Vinci Code' delivered a 'scathing attack on Catholicism,' and Dan Brown's 'inspiration was to present his case through the most popular form of fiction we have.' Likewise, Walter Mosley uses 'more or less conventional private eye novels as vehicles for political statements that, in the context of mainstream American politics, can only be called radical.' And several authors are commended for attempting a brand of 'social realism ... that today's literary writers rarely attempt.' Take D.C."s own Pelecanos, who strives, in his own words, 'to humanize and illuminate the lives of people who are typically underrepresented in American fiction.' With authors strategically using the genre, and with readers responding in mass numbers, Anderson's case for the triumph of the thriller might seem open-and-shut. But his arguments sometimes seem to contradict themselves, and his focus wanders so widely from any core thesis that his message risks getting lost. What constitutes triumph here? Anderson often touts sales figures to build his case but then shuns those figures when they don't fit his tastes. Though Anderson labels Pelecanos 'outstanding,' the author's novels 'have not sold as well as those of many less talented writers,' and Anderson ventures to suggest that perhaps 'the reality of black America is one many readers prefer to ignore.' At the other extreme, Anderson dismisses mega-best-selling writers such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson — the latter termed 'the lowest common denominator of cynical, skuzzy, assembly-line writing.' Anderson bemoans that 'it is nice to think that, as years go by, public education will provide rising levels of taste in America, but there is evidence to the contrary.' But where does Patterson's success fit with the 'transformation in America's reading habits'? Or is it simply that there are still good devils and bad devils, some popular, some not? Anderson is an astute reviewer, but sometimes he gets in the way of himself as a critic in the larger sense of the word — personal opinions competing with broader insights into the thriller as a historic, social and cultural phenomenon. It would be a shame, however, to let the sometimes awkward relationship between the book's thesis and its contents undermine his ultimate authority on the topic. Readers who share his enthusiasms will appreciate his suggestions for books and authors to seek out or to avoid. Those who may have considered genre fiction a lesser literature should view Anderson's points as a challenge to the ever-blurring distinctions between so-called high and low art. There are indeed good devils and bad devils out there and, if nothing else, he knows a fine thriller when he see one." Reviewed by Art Taylor, an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and a contributing editor to Metro Magazine in Raleigh, N.C., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The book suffers from way too much plot summary (spoilers galore!), which slows the otherwise jaunty pace, but that aside, Anderson offers an informative and insightful guide to the world of thrillers." Booklist
"Anderson has a great subject, but this lazy compendium of picks and pans barely scratches its surface." Kirkus Reviews
"[S]ometimes [Anderson] gets in the way of himself as a critic in the larger sense of the word....It would be a shame, however, to let the sometimes awkward relationship between the book's thesis and its contents undermine his ultimate authority on the topic." Art Taylor, The Washington Post Book World
"Whether one agrees with his selections or not, no one can dispute Anderson's premise that the thriller has become the heart of mainstream fiction." Library Journal
"Considering the thriller's cultural pervasiveness, its newfound sales and quality, it deserves a more rigorous workout than this walk-through." Newsday
"After reading it I know more names of thriller writers than I could previously recite, and have a small list of writers I'd like to check out...but I am no closer to knowing 'how cops, crooks, and cannibals captured popular fiction.'" Luc Sante, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Patrick Anderson is the weekly thriller reviewer for the Washington Post. He is also the author of nine novels and three previous works of nonfiction and was at one time a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Al Gore, and others. In addition to the Post, he has reviewed books and written articles for the New York Times Book Review, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Playboy, the Washingtonian, and other publications.
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