Daily Archives: June 15, 2018
By Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department
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When confronted with a thriller, I used to think, “Here’s a novel that features guns, bombs, and lies. Probably some politics, too.” And while those elements might feature in some bestselling books, I now know how narrow my perception was. For I have probed past the whims of pop culture, and discovered some of the fascinating premises to be found within the realm of suspense, thriller, and crime novels. While this genre may not be new to you, I hope you’ll follow along with this two-part post, and perhaps leave your best recommendations at the end.
“Crime pays,” says journalist Anita Singh, writing for The Telegraph: “thrillers and detective novels now outsell all other fiction.”  It’s a broad category: these novels might be packed with fast-paced action (the Jason Bourne series), psychological drama (Gone Girl), or military intrigue (The Hunt for Red October). With high stakes and life-or-death outcomes, thrillers often become the basis for hit movies. And while supernatural or dystopian tales may have had a surge in popularity over recent years, thrillers continue to enthrall us because they could happen. Grounded in reality, often set in present-day, they let us imagine what life would be like if we got on the wrong side of a corrupt government – or a jealous lover.
But why would anyone want to do that? The late novelist and critic Mary McCarthy explained it this way: “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour….” And, as writer Lisa Gardner adds, “…one of the appeals of suspense is [that we can] safely explore our innermost fears.”  In other words, we all live with a high degree of uncertainty in our lives. The more nervous, fragile, lonely, pessimistic, or uninformed we feel, the more we fear that uncertainty. When fiction addresses that primal fear, it allows us to take a breath, say to ourselves, “OK. What if?” and confront those worst-case scenarios. Fear often shrinks under scrutiny. And if we vicariously reach a satisfying solution through the deeds of our literary avatars, so much the better.
Today, we’ll start with the heavy hitters: the names that even I recognized! Then we’ll look at the classic works of literature that paved the way for those authors. Next week, we’ll scrounge up a few “deep cuts” – lesser-known works of suspense by authors who usually fit into a different genre. And we’ll highlight some of the women authors who are shaking things up in the realm of suspense.
- Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond Casino Royale is a classic. Fleming said, “While thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as ‘thrillers designed to be read as literature’.” 
- Robert Ludlum, creator of the character Jason Bourne. Ludlum died in 2001, but the wildly popular Bourne series continues, thanks to a collective of authors who carry his torch.
- Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series also continues posthumously, following the success of Larsson’s first three novels, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
- Tom Clancy created the Jack Ryan character in The Hunt for Red October. There are now more than 20 novels in the series.
- John le Carré introduced British intelligence officer George Smiley in Call for the Dead, and he appears in nine other novels, perhaps most famously in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
- The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad. A tale of terrorism, anarchy, and political intrigue, set in 1880s London.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Although many modern reprints give this gothic work the appearance of a romance novel, it’s a psychological work that led to a rather faithful film adaptation by that master of suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
- A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, star of four novels and many short stories by Doyle. Fans of the BBC series Sherlock may find the differences – and similarities – amusing.
- “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe. Before there was Sherlock Holmes, there was C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s amateur detective with uncanny skills of deduction. Dupin appears in two more of Poe’s stories.
- A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (also titled The Mask of Dimitrios). Charles Latimer is a mystery novelist becomes intrigued by a dead man’s past, which leads to dangerous consequences. The story is described as a hybrid of “spy thriller” and “detective noir.”  There is a sequel, The Intercom Conspiracy.
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. This is a “quintessential Gothic romance,” with a young heroine in both physical and psychological danger. Austen, Poe, and others were heavily influenced by Radcliffe. 
- The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. “Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, [it] is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.” 
That’s all for this week. Check back next week as I do my best to turn up some unexpected finds, and explore the success of women authors in this genre. Don’t forget to share your favorites (especially classics) in the comments below!
* A line you will recognize from either The Importance of Being Earnest or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, depending on your tastes.