Literary Thrillers vs. Thrilling Thrillers

As you’ve perhaps noticed, we don’t pan books in the newsletter. We’re here to sell books and advance the mystery genre, after all, and if we don’t like a title, there’s no point in publicly knocking it when there are so many other mysteries that we DO like and are more than happy to recommend and sell. I just finished a recent release that seemed promising and began pretty engagingly, but by the time I reached the end, had me wanting to throw it against the wall. I then read a review by a mystery maven who I admire, and was quite surprised to find that she praised it, not as a mystery exactly, but as something she could relate to and a fine example of a “literary thriller.”

This made me wonder what exactly a “literary thriller” is. The “literary” novel (O.K., I’ll drop the quotation marks now) is a relatively recent classification – novelists in the past wrote novels without a lot of marketing labels. Now it’s a defined genre like any other, with conventions as strict as Romance or Western. First, and for me most positively, there’s close attention to the prose itself. This is something I think I’m more picky about that most people. There are some extremely popular writers I can’t get more than a few paragraphs into because I’m allergic to cliché and malapropism. Stephen King once wrote a guide for writers in which he basically told people to use the first word they think of because it doesn’t make that much difference anyway, which for me pretty much encapsulates Stephen King.

Of course you can go too far with this. In long passages where nothing happens the language itself, no matter how lyric, can become enervated, and a literary type, as Mrs. Henry Adams said of Henry James, quite often “chews more than he bites off.” I’d put the prose of James Lee Burke, William Kent Krueger or Megan Abbott up against any of the fashionable literary stylists, and there are very few out there as consistently audacious and experimental as James Ellroy.

Unfortunately nothing happening can also be a hallmark of the literary genre. Mild boredom is considered a necessary sacrifice for the virtuous pursuit of literature. In many ways it’s seen as the badge that distinguishes the emperor from the commoners. It’s somehow declasse to have an eventful narrative with a vigorous tempo. “Plot driven” has become a veiled put-down, which is a problem for the literary thriller because they’re expected to be, you know, thrilling. The slow boil can be an effective tactic to generate suspense, but if a writer waits until the final chapters to reluctantly advance things in a dramatic way, this lobster will have climbed out of the pot and crawled away long ago.

Instead of being plot driven, the literati like to claim that their work is character driven. I would argue that the series format allows mystery writers the opportunity to develop character in unheard of depth over time and circumstance. Besides, I believe that character is most authentically revealed in the stressful life or death situations found in thrillers rather than the neurotic moping literary characters revel in.

This emphasis on character causes far too many writers, mystery and otherwise, to indulge in lists of likes and dislikes, detailed personal histories of not only the main character but minor characters as well, and other things that seem more like writing seminar exercises than things the reader needs to know. Raymond Chandler and Loren D. Estleman can establish memorable characters with one phrase or sentence, while the writer whose book I just finished felt the need to tell me not only how the heroine lost her virginity but how her best friend did too, information that advanced neither the plot nor any crucial understanding of their characters an inch. In a generally dark book haunted by serial killers and child murders the narrator pauses to impart the secret of making good cupcakes or painting sinks. The character may be driving but the vehicle is going in circles.

And then there’s Chevy Stevens. I think with really good authors I’m never quite sure how they get away with it. Chevy Stevens confronts sensational, almost melodramatic material that should be exploitative or distasteful but somehow remains compelling and very, very real. She’s not afraid to inhabit her characters, to push them into the abyss, and as a reader I’m more than willing to follow. Her forthcoming book Those Girls (St. Martin’s, July release) starts with three sisters in rural Canada who are being abused by their widowed father, forced into violent action and attempt to flee to the big city. Unfortunately, the road is not often kind to teenage girls who are on the run with something to hide, and they end up in an even worse circle of hell.

Eventually they escape physically, but Stevens is very good at portraying the lasting scars of abuse, and when one of the sisters travels back to confront the past it feels inevitable. What is even more wrenching is that she’s followed by her niece, daughter of the principle narrator, and history threatens to repeat itself.

Steven’s vision is unflinching and immersive and her books always capture me from the first sentence. Her characters don’t lie in bed musing about things they may or may not have seen, they act, swept by events from one place to another with a nightmare immediacy and the reader is swept with them. She avoids all the things the literary thriller is so afraid of, like sensationalism and cliché, yet she remains thrilling and suspenseful. And Stevens has just as much to say about the victimization and powerlessness of women in contemporary society, but because her portrayal is more dramatic, it is more powerful.

Endings are another thing the literary have problems with. Bringing things to a conclusion is somehow seen as artificial or inauthentic, overlooking the fact that a novel is fiction, inherently an artifact. I don’t care if a book is like real life or not—because it can’t be real life, even if it’s non-fiction. For me, no matter how realistic it is, I’m not satisfied with an anti-climax, an ending where you don’t learn much for sure and the creepy guy who has you trapped in his house says You think I won’t let you go? And then does. It’s hardwired, beyond all academic theory—we need to see the monster unmasked and dispatched. Besides we all already have real life, probably too much of it. What we need, and have needed since caveman days, are credibly shaped stories. (Jamie)