Let us explore the genre Thriller. The only book I’d read before (that I recall) that could reasonably be called a ‘thriller’ is “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, but I didn’t read that as a thriller so much as a publishing phenomenom. I enjoyed it, and could see why it’s so popular: solid characters, rich descriptions, a convoluted but compelling plot (not to mention great packaging). That’s how I likes me novels, no matter what Christopher Hitchens says. But everybody has read that book already (and probably the next two, even if I haven’t), so it’s not really helpful for me to Regard it here. To that end, I recently picked up three paperback thrillers, essentially at random. Behold! My ‘first impressions’ description as I got through the opening of each one, with a little parenthesis of ending thoughts.
“Hour Game” (David Baldacci)
Two former Secret Service agents who apparently featured in a previous book pursue a serial killer who imitates other serial killers. Complicated rich family of The South recurs throughout. Sometimes told from the clouded perspective of the killer. (Dramatic lightning!)
“The Last Juror” (John Grisham)
A lawyer foils a serial killer, then lives in the town for a really long time. (It gets better?)
“The Alienist” (Caleb Carr)
Young Teddy Roosevelt takes time off from enforcing the blue laws of New York City with an iron fist to investigate some mysterious killings with the help of an alienist, which is the olde-timey word for psychologist or profiler. I kept expecting a Lovecraftian horror to break out. (That would have been awesome.)
I judge every book by how much it makes me want to put it down and read Huck Finn, and there were some rough patches in these that tempted me. Heck, one of the books had one that tempted me to jump ship to Tom Sawyer, even. Still, all three were good in total, as one would expect from professionals. Not a waste of my time. Yet, the ANALYSIS:
Loads and Loads of Description
The thing that’s stuck in my mind is the sheer weight of description and info-dumping and just general scenery that’s in all these books, along with an adjective appended to almost every noun. This works much better than I would have expected, and I’d guess it’s because atmosphere is very important to the whole ‘thrill’ point. It never exceeds Hard SF descriptions, in any case. I’ll probably steal this technique and give it a try in works other than my Hard SF. We Shall Attempt ATMOSPHERE.
The First Rule of Thrillers
That being, apparently, that the serial killer must inevitably turn out to be whatever character I, David, liked the most. I presume that this is the universal law by which it is decided whether the book is a ‘thriller’ or ‘just a book with some killings in’. Whether that’s disturbing or just annoying is something I’ve decided not to spend too much time pondering. This is in direct contradiction to TV dramas of the CSI ilk, where the killer inevitably turns out to be the character I barely noticed. TV is dumb.
This was the major bone I had to pick (good image, eh?) with these thrillers. The dialogue blows. There are plenty of instances where the dialogue dragged me completely out of the story as I tried to work out how somebody would go about formulating one statement or another, and then saying it out loud. Since a major portion of my reading pleasure and writing joy is centered on dialogue...well, that’s a major problem. I don’t expect pithy dialogue festooning every page or scintillating wit emitting from every character orifice, but I need more than...well, than what I’m getting, which I got. Hard.
I do not like serial killers. I mean in general. I’m sure YOU’re nice. (Please don’t kill me.) I especially don’t like long lingering passages where the serial killer goes about describing how easy it is to be a serial killer and how unlikely it is that you aren’t doing something right now that makes you a target for a serial killer, and generally makes me nervous and twitchy. I know that I can be killed at any moment for any reason in this uncaring universe full of assholes. Stop reminding me, dammit. And for the record: I, being dead, could care less if you catch the particular asshole who killed me. As for the actual ‘thrill factor’ of following the serial killings, books full of them do not hold a candle to the shiver that goes up and down my spine everytime I recall this conclusion I came to one dark night while reading a medieval history:
There have always been serial killers; since the dawn of man, lurking, killing for reasons of their own, leaving a mutilated mystery behind and disappearing into the forest and the next village over. Yes, there have always been serial killers: It’s only now some of them get caught.
I have often thought that this would be an excellent opening for a novel, I’ve merely recoiled from actually writing that book. I’ll add it to the queue and let it percolate.
Thrillers should not be written in the first person. That is all.
Reader Dave Doesn’t Like Mysteries
In an overall reading scheme that is more interested in characters than plot, it’s natural that I’m annoyed with a broad ‘reader-mystery’ when it interferes with my understanding of the characters’ reactions to the mystery. Obviously, a narrow ‘reader-mystery’ gets a pass. That’s suspense, and noble. Obviously, each of these thrillers had a broad reader-mystery and thus annoyed the heck out of me. To use illustrative examples from TV, these thrillers were plot-oriented ‘who-done-it?’ in the style of CSI or Law&Order:SVU or Criminal Minds (whatever franchise that’s attached to), whereas I prefer the character-oriented ‘how-catch-em?’, i.e. Columbo. More recent examples would be Flashpoint or (at least in the character-oriented sense) The Mentalist. You’re not watching Columbo or The Mentalist to solve the mystery per se, you’re in it to see what clever scheme Columbo or Jayne will concoct. In the latter case, the strong supporting characters hook in more interest. So, yes.
All these characteristics together make it highly unlikely that I’ll ever read these books over again. When the only draw is the plot-mystery, and I know the mystery...well. I’m a person who reads books I like over and over again to tease out details. I suppose I could reverse-plot one of these thrillers. But it wouldn’t take that long.
Whatever, man. Just because it turns out my entire thriller experiment resulted in “I prefer it on TV” doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. I’ve written a whole article about Thrillers and nobody was lurking in the bushes ready to strike with-wait, what’s that?!? Oh NOOOooo...
[The queasy of stomach can here insert the Thriller music video and get the same effect]