Sunday, October 10, 2010


NPR's audience picks 100 top 'thriller killers'  
Some thoughts (partly revised, with second to the last paragraph newly added, at 10.10.10, at 11 pm):

That number one choice, it's not bad. Thomas Harris writes well enough, knows his crime and law enforcement, even knows his weapons--guns, knives, killing techniques, so on. Have a problem with his writing such a monstrous hit that the 'genius serial killer' has become a tired, creaking-old cliche; have an even bigger problem with the subsequent books that turn his genius killer into tragic hero (it's not that Hannibal Lecter's appetites are so abnormal, Harris seems to say, but that we are so narrow-minded). 

To his credit, Jonathan Demme's movie adaptation added two elements that I think improve on the original: a grounded portrait of middle-class America (the landscape across which the killer operates, middle America being a Demme specialty), and a realization of Harris' thriller setpieces so cleanly staged that it pretty much renders the original novel redundant (I'm not even going to try touch on the charges of homophobia leveled at the picture--that's a whole other can of worms).

I wouldn't call it great; lacks heft and substance, I think. But can a thriller be great? By definition a thriller should cause one to turn the pages quickly; can it acquire enough mass (thematic, social, political) to be substantial as well? Some tangential questions: can a thriller book provide more or better thrills than, say, a film? Perhaps offer something a film might not be able to offer, and hence be unadaptable?

A lot of the list you can pretty much throw by the wayside. Michael Crichton, John Grisham and Tom Clancy can't write for beans but they at least do decent research, and are good for a provocative after-dinner conversation or two (Crichton I think has the edge over Clancy has an edge over Grisham because--see if this makes sense--science rules a far grander dominion than the military, which in turn blows things up, a far cooler ability than anything lawyers can do in a court of law). Dan Brown I won't even bring up in polite conversation because his research is crap (Priory of Scion my ass). I'll give Crichton and especially Grisham this much--their books can make terrific movie adaptations (including the only Joel Schumacher movie I'll ever probably like).

Scott Turow is a little different--he knows how to build a miasma of guilt around his hero so thick you couldn't sip it through a straw. He can write, I guess; I remember how I felt reading Presumed Innocent better than I can any specific passages. Throw in Scott Smith, who wields a suitcase filled with money (A Simple Plan) the way Turow does his femme fatale (Presumed)--turning a man's previously peaceful life upside-down.

Stephen King can write too. He's good at dipping into the stream-of-consciousness of American adolescents, and on occasion can produce an entire good novel (I'd say Firestarter, not included on that list, was his best--a refinement and expansion of the girl-who-is-monster theme that is the basis of his first novel Carrie). Beyond that he doesn't inspire much more response from me than the occasional: "oh, man that is gross!" I'd say he's another writer whose work improves with translation--Kubrick, De Palma, Carpenter, Cronenberg and Romero have all taken a crack at him, with excellent to great results.

Robert Ludlum--eh. The word 'disposable' comes to mind. At least Sam Peckinpah revealed The Ostermann Weekend for what it is--nasty, trashy fun, with what style and wit there is in it largely provided by Peckinpah.

William Goldman can't write--not like King--but he can plot, and he comes up with clever ideas (though my favorite of his isn't on the list, isn't a thriller and isn't even in book form: Rob Reiner's terminally clumsy, mysteriously appealing The Princess Bride); ditto with Frederick Forsythe, whose Day of the Jackal is as brutally efficient as its eponymous killer (I got to say, though, that my favorite Forsythe again isn't on the list, and isn't a book: John Irvin's much underrated The Dogs of War). 

Arthur Conan Doyle--I admit, I just don't get the love. Or, I think I do get it--clean prose, vivid characters, an unerring sense of what can hook a reader or not--but just don't see these in sufficient quantity or quality to love him. Or I read him at the wrong age. Or the chemistry was just wrong.  

Agatha Christie had a more potent hold--the story plotter sans rival, with a deft way of introducing the lively detail that makes a character memorable (Hercule Poirot with his thick mustache, his bon mots, his flair for the theatrical). And in at least four of her novels--The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Curtain--a finale  strong enough to lift you off your chair and a few inches into the air, slapping your forehead in sheer astonishment.

Ira Levin and Richard Condon can write and can plot, and along with Thomas Harris form a sort of middle-guard of solid craftsmen whose work end up as great thriller films (Prizzi's Honor, The Manchurian Candidate, Rosemary's Baby). Throw in Arturo Perez-Reverte with his wayward seeming, deceptively leisurely narrative (in his case however I can't say Roman Polanski's transformation of The Club Dumas into The Ninth Gate resulted in a great thriller).

Ian Fleming I judge by a simple criterion: he can make a game of baccarat--which I haven't the slightest idea how to play--riveting (Casino Royale); he can spin out a game of golf (which I find unutterably boring) over four chapters and impel you to devour every page to learn who wins (Goldfinger). And he can plot: the narrative of Goldfinger unfolds like a telescope revealing action on an ever grander scale, with stakes that much more momentous (a card game--a golf game--an international gold smuggling intrigue--world economic chaos!). Guy Hamilton's movie adaptation was grand fun, with wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, but I still find myself drawn back to the book (despite the misogyny, despite the racism) because of Fleming's compulsively readable vodka-and-cigarettes prose.
Robert Bloch is, in my opinion, sui generis. Can he write? He's okay. Can he plot? Yes, and the plots have their share of twists. But it's his sensibility that is most memorable, a sensibility that Hitchcock captured well in one film (Psycho), but not in all its variations (he's a deft fantasy writer too, as his short story "The Hell-Bound Train" demonstrates). He's a writer of old-fashioned techniques, but what he writes about, what you feel coming off of his writing, like the exhalation from a block of ice, is pure malevolence, a malevolence at home in both the nineteenth and twenty-first century.  

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler--for a number of reasons I find movie versions of their novels more fascinating than the novels themselves, partly because of what filmmakers bring or at least try to bring to the table. Is it that their leanness has to my tastes become too stringy, requiring the fatty drippings of  film adaptation? Not necessarily to improve, but to allow the meat to slide easier down the modern-day throat? Is what Robert Altman and Howard Hawk bring to, say, The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep respectively, or what Huston's direction of Humphrey Bogart and the excellent cast (Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet) adds to The Maltese Falcon juicer than the--blasphemy, blasphemy--to my mind dessicated originals? I don't know; I can only ask.

Daphne du Maurier--loved Rebecca back when I read it in high school, loved the rich prose, the Gothic sensibility. Could even retell the story from memory and once kept a small audience riveted for about thirty minutes (if I remember right), dying to find out what happened to the nameless heroine by book's end. A little of that admiration died when I finally read its prime influence, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre--but is Jane a thriller? I don't know--there are moments, passages where the atmosphere was especially dark, and the dread quickened the pulse...but I keep thinking you need a more updated or at least leaner, more agile prose to keep the modern heart rate elevated. I read Bronte's great novel as the adventure of a memorably willful woman, a heroine of her day and age, of any day and age--but a thriller? Maurier's variation at least had the feel of one.

Cormac McCarthy is a good writer who produces lean, minimalist books. No Country for Old Men is a good thriller and good fit for the Coen brothers, who respond to its understated humor. If I seem grudging in my praise, that may be because there's something too studied and deliberate about McCarthy's prose that doesn't sit well with me. He knows how to push my buttons; I don't think he quite knows yet how to inspire me. 

And then we come to the Nobel Prize-winning writer who arguably gave us the modern-day version of the thriller. Ernest Hemingway's lust for plainness, for the "true and good," so to speak, pretty much influenced everyone from Chandler to Hammett to McCarthy; his short story "The Killer" is a perfect noir gem (and in fact was made into a feature at least twice, by two excellent filmmakers). Arguably one of his best-known books For Whom the Bell Tolls falls into the genre category--it's about a secret mission into Fascist Spain where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, with moments of breathless suspense (the bombing raid on a hill for one, and the last ten or so pages). Hemingway is so caught up in his definition of the perfect man it can be laughable if you want to laugh, but the prose is near-perfect, each word as precisely weighed and judged and mounted into the page as a semiprecious stone. 

John le Carre I'd call one of the finest writers of espionage alive; The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and the Karla trilogy far as I'm concerned represent the peak of his writing. No, they're not that exciting on the surface: too dense, too concerned with a wealth of realist detail, too in love with a fatalist outlook on life (thanks to spymaster and eternal cuckold George Smiley). But the depth of description is deceptive; le Carre's prose doesn't so much plod as pace, like a stalking cat, and its density allows richer setting and characterization--to the point that the novel starts reaching for a pinnacle of artistic achievement most thrillers don't even aspire to achieve (nevertheless you can sense the casting of covetous glances in that general direction).

What does le Carre have that Bronte doesn't? I don't know...a more contemporary prose, maybe? More attention paid to the occasional violent setpiece? An audience with shortened attention span, appreciative of the relatively leaner text?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold at one point notes that "there had never been a death more foretold". That said, the real thrill of the short novel isn't what happens in the end but how the victim arrives at that end, despite all warnings. Can he escape the inescapable? Part of the suspense is in watching him try; part is in watching Marquez transform the known ending from liability into asset--making us witness in horror a creature's struggle against forces larger and more powerful than he is, like a bug on a pin.

Beyond Marquez and le Carre (and I think it's a crime he's not at all represented here) there's Graham Greene, patron saint of humid, Third-World Roman Catholicism, with a prose style at times too beautiful, too lyrical for the pulpy material he's presenting. Greene was famously denied a Nobel Prize, possibly because it was felt that he was not qualified (looking around, seems to me he's not in much critical favor nowadays), possibly because it was felt that his religious obsessions dominated his fiction too much (I personally find his lurid Catholicism to be the strangest, most fascinating aspect of his work). Deserving of awards or not, I do think his works are at least worth remembering: Brighton Rock; The Quiet American, The Third Man, The Ministry of Fear, Our Man in Havana (the rare espionage novel with a sense of humor), The Human Factor, the short novel The Tenth Man and even The End of the Affair (which offers thrills of an altogether different kind, more metaphysical and spiritual than merely political), and that's just off the top of my head. With Greene a spy isn't just some citizen who betrays his organization or country for another, he's a sort of Judas Iscariot who genuinely loves the man (or group, or country) he kisses on the cheek, prior to handing over to the proper authorities. 

If Alexander Dumas managed to make the list, then so I think should his descendants, those inspired by his inescapable influence. I'm thinking of Jose Rizal's El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster), a Gothic novel very much in the vein of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo

It's a fascinating book, one that really acts as sequel to Rizal's more sprawling Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), where the hapless Crisostomo Ibarra, well-meaning reformist and liberal, struggles against the established forces that rule Philippine society (the Spanish colonial government, the malevolent and all-powerful Catholic Church, the Filipinos' near-invincible ignorance)--forces in many ways still in power in the country today. Noli is a caustic epic, an at times hilarious satire with bitter undertones, where Ibarra who has everything is doomed to lose everything. El Fili is a continuation of Ibarra's adventures, and at the same time an entirely different creature--darker, more pessimistic, a novel where the words "vengeance" and "revolution" and "spilled blood" are wielded with cold deliberation, where the action has honed itself from its predecessor's many subplots into a single deadly point: Ibarra's definitive response to those who have destroyed his life.

Not perhaps as finely written as the Dumas original and definitely not as well-known--but how many novels have helped inspire a revolution, changed the course of a country's history? Gerardo de Leon's breathtaking adaptation, incidentally, is to my mind the legendary filmmaker's masterpiece, and one of the greatest Filipino films ever made.

The best thriller ever written? In my opine, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

You ask: "A great book no doubt, but a thriller?" I think so. It's long, it has its slow passages, but like many of the finest thrillers it's immersed in an overpowering sense of dread, a fear of retribution, as thoroughly marinated in those distinct flavors as a corpse in seawater. 

Like most thrillers it has an elegance of construction, a shapeliness and economy (despite hundreds of dense pages) that can be summed up thusly: a man searching for meaning in life commits a double murder, and is hunted by the police.

I'm not sure if Dostoevsky's a technically good writer; I don't know Russian, and have to depend on his many translators. From what I've read his is an extremely plain prose style, with whatever complexity in the book coming from the various debates, the symbols and symbolic actions that hang from, deflect, and at times drive the narrative. At his worst he tends to be repetitious, obvious, inconsistent, bathetic--none of which ultimately matters. Like Bloch on a larger scale his sensibility shines through, and manages to be of its time (an age of realist fiction, when the novel engaged with current philosophical, political and social issues) yet universal (Raskolnikov's desperate quest for meaning being a quest we all undertake at one time or another--and some, unsatisfied or unsatisfiable, still do).

The novel has its moments. Dostoevsky took details of his murder from the case of Pierre Francois Lacenaire, was at least partly inspired in tone and atmosphere by Nancy's lurid death scene in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (another popular thriller writer, if you stretch definitions, or at least a writer who knows how to thrill readers with specific passages in his books). The cat-and-mouse games between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, laced with menace and an uneasy camaraderie  (which Josef von Sternberg so superbly realized in his film adaptation) come out of Gothic tradition (that atmosphere of dread and approaching menace) sharpened by Dostoevsky's psychological acuity.

But there's more; it wouldn't be great if there wasn't more. Dostoevsky presents a philosophical proposition in dramatic form. Raskolnikov symbolizes man's appetite, his hunger for meaning in life--can he find this meaning? It's the most important question in the world, practically, but Raskolnikov doesn't have the leisure of time: always hanging over him is the possibility of arrest and incarceration, a deadline of sorts that Porfiry doesn't ever allow him to forget; always hanging above that is the greater deadline of a mortal life, ever ready to be cut short by accident, or murder, or one's own perverse hand (Ivanovna and her half-sister, Marmeladov and Svidrigailov's respective fates all help remind us of this). And as if this wasn't enough, Raskolnikov finds in himself the near-irresistible urge to confess--an urge that constantly threatens to cut his quest short at any moment. Dostoevsky in this novel doesn't just present a philosophical idea in dramatic form, but a philosophical idea in thriller form--a thriller of ideas, of propositions, of philosophies. A philosophical thriller, in effect.

A great book, yes--but a thriller? I think the definition shouldn't be limited to a range of subject matters (crime, espionage, violence, the threat of violence) or styles (Gothic richness, Hemingwayesque austerity). I return to our working definition: if you've managed to keep a reader turning pages for hours, perhaps even entire chapters at a time, if your structure has an elegance or simplicity about it, if you deal with extremes of human behavior (cruelty, blackmail, mental torture, murder) then you've written a thriller. Anyway, that's how I see it.


Cora L. said...

Hey Noel,

Try "World War Z" by Max Brooks and the Sigma series of novels by James Rollins. Brooks' World War Z is a homage to Romero (a global take-over of the world by zombies and how mankind as seen through peoples in different countries cope) and Rollins, though not as famous, tops Dan Brown any time, IMO.

Noel Vera said...

I'll try, though my to-read list is pretty overwhelming at the moment.