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Saturday, February 17th, 2007
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The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction

by Patrick Anderson

Guilt-Free Pleasures

A review by Chris Bolton

There are readers who simply can't get enough of novels with unreliable narrators, beautiful sentences packed with vivid, poetic prose, and lofty themes about the power of language and society's collective ennui.

And there are other readers who prefer a nice, juicy murder.

For the latter, it can be a strange and lonely journey. Sure, the books they prefer often reside at the top of the bestseller lists, but they rarely merit a mention in the New York Times Book Review, let alone on shortlists for prestigious awards. More often than not, when they're even mentioned in literary circles, it's in a scornful tone or referenced as a "guilty pleasure."

I think that's a crime. So does Washington Post book critic Patrick Anderson, a one-time novelist who believes some of today's strongest, freshest, and most vital writing is being hidden in plain sight, in the much-maligned category of genre fiction.

The Triumph of the Thriller is Anderson's impassioned chronicle of the emergence of the thriller novel -- which, in his estimation, encompasses detective fiction, espionage books, police procedurals, and, well, almost anything that's more fun than work to read. Anderson writes:

It annoys me to see fine writers dismissed as genre writers...by those who salivate over the latest incomprehensible postmodern gimmickry. A book is a book is a book. Labels are necessary to organize bookstores, but serious readers should pay them no mind.

While award-winning literary novels occupy themselves with such white-knuckled matters as "what separates art from reality" (as if that could be an issue of genuine concern anywhere but in literary fiction), Anderson believes that the social novel has gone underground in recent years and resurfaced in the guise of genre books.

He notes that the crime novels of George Pelecanos (including Hard Revolution and The Night Gardener) offer scathing insight into the current, tenuous state of race relations in the shadow of our nation's capital -- and, in a larger sense, the entire country:

[Pelecanos] and Richard Price and others are writing in the Steinbeck tradition of those who care about dispossessed Americans. The question is whether the people who write about fiction understand the power and importance of his uncompromising bulletins from the front.

He calls Dennis Lehane's Mystic River "an American tragedy" on a par with the work of Graham Greene and Theodore Dreiser: "Insofar as Mystic River is a crime novel, it is one that transcends and transforms the genre, as Hamlet transcended and transformed the revenge plays that inspired it."

To its credit, The Triumph of the Thriller never sinks to the level of apologia. Instead, Anderson argues that the first-rate writing that occupies so many genre shelves exists on its own merits, and that enjoying these books needn't involve the word "guilty" outside the context of a courtroom thriller.

Anderson opens with a brief history of crime fiction, touching on early contributions by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Christie, before expanding on the evolution of the detective novel through Chandler and Hammett up to present-day luminaries like Michael Connelly.

In my review of City of Bones, I said that the [Harry] Bosch novels were "the best American crime series now in progress." Several novels later, I'll go further and say that if we consider the depth and seriousness that Connelly has brought to Harry's characterization, the excellence of his plotting, the precision of his writing, his unsurpassed grasp of the police culture, and the moral gravity of his work, the Bosch novels are the finest crime series anyone has written.

Anderson acknowledges there is much bad writing alongside the good -- often to better sales. He devotes an entire chapter to a handful of writers whose work he considers deplorable, singling out one-man industry James Patterson for particular scorn.

James Patterson is possibly the best-selling writer of fiction in America today. He is also, in my view, the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, scuzzy, assembly-line writing. If, on the bullshit scale, people like Pelecanos and Leonard rate a perfect 0, Patterson is the other extreme, a bloated, odiferous 10.

Well, he certainly doesn't mince words -- but at least he provides ample, cringeworthy evidence to support his assertion.

I have a friend who is constitutionally incapable of reading any novel that isn't written in the most poetic of language; she simply loses interest in "plain" prose and couldn't get involved in a genre novel if she tried to force herself. On the other hand, I revere Elmore Leonard's tenth rule of writing: "Leave out the part that readers tend to skip." When it comes to many literary novels, I tend to feel that the rule encompasses nearly everything between the first and last pages. (I wish all ten of his rules were taught in creative writing workshops.)

However, Anderson is a lover of all good writing, and doesn't intend The Triumph of the Thriller as an argument for the irrelevance of literary fiction. "I don't expect everyone to agree with my views," he writes. "We all have different tastes, often amazingly so." Readers who dismiss thrillers as a waste of paper aren't likely to have their minds changed by Anderson's book, though I suspect several might reconsider their positions.

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.


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