Reading Thrillers (1990)
In a well-known passage in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, the narrator explains how for him the really memorable poetic moments in his life have been things like John Wayne killing the three badmen with his carbine during the showdown in Stagecoach or the kitten (cat?) rubbing up against Orson Welles’ feet in The Third Man as he watches in the shadows. I know what he is talking about.
I also know what Richard Usborne is talking about in his entertaining book on British thrillers, Clubland Heroes (1953) when he recalls packing his family into a cheap used car immediately after World War Two and heading off to Provence, like the heroes of Dornford Yates in the Twenties in their Bentleys and Rolls Royces.
I myself once caused my wife some bemused merriment by dragging her around Chicago in the August heat to find two or three of the locations in the thrillers of Jonathan Latimer.
And Provence for me, the Provence of the mindscape, is still partly the Provence of John Welcome’s splendid Stop at Nothing, with its Fifties Bentleys and pastis and shimmering heat and dramatic hither-and-yonings, along with the actual Provence where we were staying for the summer when I bought a copy in Aix.
Like Usborne, I began reading thrillers early. ‘Sapper’s’ Bulldog Drummond book The Black Gang was the first, and I was nine at the time, and it was the first grown-up book that I read. And from then on until I was sixteen and started turning into an intellectual of sorts, my favourites too were John Buchan, ‘Sapper,’ and Dornford Yates, though I also devoured anything by Edgar Wallace, Leslie Charteris, and the like that came my way.
I returned to thrillers in the early Fifties when I arrived in New York to go to Columbia, and since then hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t read or reread one or wished I had one to read.
In The Allegory of Love, his best book of literary criticism, C.S.Lewis says that perfect happiness for him would consist of sitting by a window with a view of the sea and reading Italian romance epics eight hours a day.
I despised the statement when I read it as an undergraduate. But I have sometimes thought since that for me it would be perfect happiness to sit in a Provençal garden, after a day’s writing, with an inexhaustible supply of good new thrillers by Geoffrey Household, Peter O’Donnell, Martin Woodhouse, Simon Harvester, Adam Hall, Ross Thomas, and others.
I have never “studied” thrillers; I have enjoyed them. And I know that they have played an indispensable role with respect to my mental well-being.
When I say that, I am of course partly talking about “escape.”
I am speaking of the kinds of novels in which one or two well-defined central consciousnesses are involved in some way or other with illegality and are themselves at risk. From this point of view it is immaterial whether the characters are private detectives, spies, cops, professional criminals, unjustly accused jockeys, etc.
What counts is what happens next—and next—and next, and having numerous suspense points, large or small, at which one’s anxiety increases. Being able to step through a door into that kind of experience and lose yourself there for an hour or two can be a blessing.
Other people lose themselves in other ways. I lose myself in thrillers, and emerge from them relaxed and refreshed; as did Wittgenstein, presumably, after reading Black Mask magazine.
Or go painlessly to sleep.
Unfortunately it is an experience that I find increasingly rare these days, as the supply of good new thrillers in the local bookstores dwindles, partly, perhaps, because of marketing policies. (Maybe it’s time I took out a subscription to Crime Time and tried figuring out which reviews sound trustworthy. Paperbacks are no longer cheap thrills.) But for awhile thrillers sustained me while I was engaged in some reasonably strenuous intellectual activities—getting a Ph.D. in English; publishing articles and a book or two.
And what interests me here are certain value-charged patterns in them that make them more than “mere” entertainment; that enable them to connect up in indirect ways with my serious reading and my own real world.
The kinds of thrillers that matter to me most and that I can keep rereading are what I have come to think of as Homeric ones. They are full of physicality, of a vivid rendering of place, of the pains and pleasures of the senses, including, often, the pleasures of relaxing after effort, the pleasures of good food and drink, of sleep, of love.
“My” thrillers take me into John D. MacDonald’s Florida and John Welcome’s Provence, into the various exotic countries visited by Adam Hall’s Quiller and Simon Harvester’s Dorian Silk, into the comfortable American bars and lounges of the old Gold Medal paperbacks. And they celebrate, in one way or another, the vigorous movements of more or less healthy bodies.
But if they are works of action, there are some complexities to the idea of action. What matters in them is not simply dramatic action in the plot-summary sense.
What is desirable, to begin with, is a convincing sense of a live, muscled body and an individual consciousness engaged convincingly in doing something physical with complete concentration, and doing it well.
It is an experience that I myself have had only rarely, it seems to me good in itself, and it can be refined all the way up to the kind of self-transcendence described in Eugen Herrigel’s classic Zen in the Art of Archery.
In thrillers the actions of that sort need not be violent, though an element of risk is important.
There is nothing violent about the unforgettable episode in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the book that first introduced the term “secret service,” in which a small-boat enthusiast, with the narrator to do the rowing, brilliantly navigates a dinghy across ten miles of thinly covered North Sea sandbanks in an impenetrable fog.
Nor is there violence in the scientist Giles Yeoman’s three-day cross-country hike over the mountains into Yugoslavia in Martin Woodhouse’s Bush Baby, or the times of boyhood happiness out by the Humber estuary, with their secretly saved-up-for shotgun, that Jack Carter recalls spending with his brother in Ted Lewis’s great Jack’s Return Home (superbly filmed by Mike Hodges as Get Carter, with Michael Caine).
And part of the many charms of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise books is the many episodes in which she and Willy Garvin engaged in sporting activities—hang-gliding, fencing, golf, etc— for pure pleasure.
But of course it is the episodes of dangerous and high-speed action that matter most, such as the car chase through the frozen Warsaw streets in Adam Hall’s The Warsaw Document or Modesty Blaise’s various hand-to-hand combats with formidably strong and skillful adversaries.
And what characterizes such episodes is not simply violence. It is the successful solving of problems, at times a very rapid succession of problems. And those problems form part of larger sequences of problem-solving that entail a high degree of concentration.
The tautness, the concentration with which Jack Carter observes, probes, defines, deciphers, and finally uncovers how and why his brother was murdered, and then surges forward to take revenge on all those involved, entails a single-minded commitment to his brother’s memory, unshaken by his recollections of their differences and disagreements and his brother’s eventual rejection of him.
The Modesty Blaise books preeminently are distinguished by their presentation of protagonists who live in a Zen-like fashion that enables them to move, without any strain, from small pacific enjoyments to large-scale dangerous action.
At times, too, as it does in Jack’s Return Home and the Modesty Blaise books, the problem solving can have considerable elegance, in ways that recall the movies of Chaplin and Keaton or a classic silent comedy like René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat.
The episode near the end of Geoffrey Household’s incomparable manhunt novel Rogue Male, for example, in which the narrator uses the corpse of his beloved cat companion, wantonly killed by the Nazi agent who has trapped him, to escape from his filth-caked burrow has the neatness of the manoeuvre in Easy Street by which Chaplin as a rookie cop on a tough beat cons the towering neighbourhood bully into gassing himself with a street lamp.
And I never tire of the ingenious improvisings and transformation of a man-on-the-run book like Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, wherein the hunted man “becomes” almost instantaneously a milkman, a road-mender, etc., or the robbing-the-bank ingenuities of Richard Stark’s Parker novels.
As times, as in Stark’s Butcher’s Moon, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (his best novel), and Ross Thomas’s glorious The Fools in Town are on Our Side, the large-scale problems posed—clean up the town, wipe out a gang—lead to solutions of baroque complexity.
But it is also satisfying to read less dramatic things like the account in Butcher’s Moon of how a professional criminal in an unfamiliar town goes about finding clandestinely an unoccupied apartment from which he can carry out his campaign.
Large or small, it is comforting to be reminded that problems are sometimes soluble; that closure is possible.
Risks, skills, and problem-solving are also on display in the writing of thrillers.
Like the hero or heroine, the good thriller writer must have the kind of kinaesthetic grip upon the physical world that is a sine qua non of all effective action and most good fiction.
Writers like those that I have referred to project themselves (via their narratives) into the physical world, holding as a unity in their minds the physical setting and the movements and feelings of the characters in it.
The opening pages of Rogue Male are unforgettable for Household’s self-projection into the dazed, half-animal consciousness of the narrator after he has fallen from the top of a cliff into a saving patch of marsh, with frightful lacerations to his buttocks and hands, and knows only that he must hide from the German officials who will soon be on his track.
And a passage like the following from Donald Hamilton’s Line of Fire likewise gives us the sensation of simply being there:
They were leaving now. Two of them had the girl and were leading her to the car… The third man had the sister and kids backed up against the kitchen door like a family portrait. I could just barely make it all out at the distance, as I ran diagonally across the field toward a spot from which I could cover the dirt road leading out of the place. The furrows were straight, and deep for running. The young corn was just coming up. Habit had me trying to avoid the plants as I ran, which made it something like a game of hopscotch. I stopped that foolishness.
Because of the self-projection that the form demand, there are also special risks for the writer.
A good thriller writer can obviously enjoy an agreeable feeling of plenitude. He or she (but it is almost always a he) can give full rein to his desire for physical competence (including sexual competence), and for effectiveness in general—for what Erich Fromm describes as the feeling of being able to advance “toward a goal without undue hesitation, doubt, or fear.” And he can do so in the knowledge that he will have the approval of his readers and the respect of his fellow professionals.
He can also, in a first-person narrative, inhabit at his keyboard a voice possessing the vitality and self-confidence that he would like to possess himself.
And thrillers are works in which a good deal of creative shaping is possible, works in which style, craft, and artifice matter a lot.
The chapter as a shaped unit, preferably with a decisive click at its end and with uninteresting material omitted in the spaces between chapters, matters as it does in novels like The Great Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. An intricate interconnection of events is also possible, as in those two elegant works. And the agonistic relationships between most of the characters makes, as in Hammett and Thomas, for a pleasurable use of dialogue, dialogue falling into clear stretches, each with its own closure.
The writer knows, too, that his readers are likely to be familiar with similar situations in other thrillers, such as the robbing-the-bank caper or the need to deal with someone holding a gun on you. Like a soloist in traditional jazz, he is interestingly challenged to avoid the obvious without departing too far from the familiar melody.
But as I said, there are also risks.
If you aspire to the kind of tautly voiced and full-bodied physical doing that I have described, you are also committing yourself to respecting scrupulously the rules that you yourself establish at the outset of a book, and are increasingly bound by the realities that you have created. Given this, then that is impossible. And when you do make a mistake it will stand out.
In Latimer’s The Lady in the Morgue, for instance, a work packed with realistic detail, the plot hinges at one point on the private detective Bill Crane’s being with a woman in settings—a dance hall, an elevator—that are simultaneously so dark that she doesn’t recognize him and so bright that he can see the colour of her eyes.
And in Donald Hamilton’s early and very interesting Date with Darkness, the four bilingual French Resistance hunters of a former collaborationist in America never speak French to each other when they are alone with the non-French-speaking hero and don’t want him to know what they are up to.
Fluffs like that are a bit like what happens in a formal poem when an essential rhyme is achieved only at the expense of a wrenched syntax.
Or like that section in The Great Gatsby in which, after committing himself to having Nick Carraway tell us only about things that he himself has witnessed or that others have told him, Fitzgerald is obliged to provide a detailed account, with verbatim dialogue and descriptions of the characters’ feeling, of what goes on between garage-owner George WIlsan and his neighbour when they are along together.
With some slippages you not only have odd gaps opening up in reality. You also have the feeling of a yearning endeavour that has stubbornly refused to come out right, or (worse) a problem that did not become apparent until the writer was too far along in the work to scrap what he had done.
Furthermore, when a thriller writer’s powers of invention start flagging, it will be all the more obvious when he is still working inside the conventions, and with the same characters, that gave him his initial happy successes. And the flagging thriller-writer cannot do what the flagging “serious” writer can do and make a subject of flagging and failure.
Things are specially hard if he is expected—and would like to be able—to continue the jaunty first-person tone and the stylist elegance with which he began and finds himself no longer capable of.
George Orwell said of committing yourself to writing clearly that “You cannot speak any of the necessary [jargon] dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious even to yourself.”
It is something like that with failures and fumblings in thriller-writing. And there are no safety-nets and alibis. If readers decide that they’re not enjoying a writer any more, there’s an end to it.
There are also certain moral strains that a thriller-writer may have to cope with with respect to violence.
These days, as the daily news overtakes the imaginings of thriller-writers, and terrorism and treason and assassination and torture become the staple of news commentators, people are less shockable than they used to be.
But turning your unconscious loose and allowing things to go the full distance demanded by plot and character—as writers like Céline and Hubert Selby, Jr. did in serious works—can still involve a revelation of disquieting potentials in yourself.
In Jack’s Return Home, for instance, after Carter has chased to a nauseated standstill a broken-down, tubercular former heavy who was marginally involved in his brother’s murder,
I walked towards him. He fell on his knees and tool hold of my trousers and began to cry…I took hold of Albert’s hair and pulled him to his feet and pressed him against the [clay] pan.
I gave him the knife. I put it in just below the ribs, thrusting upwards. Albert’s eyes and mouth opened wider than they’d done at any other time in his life. I left the knife where it was for a moment or two then I pulled it out very slowly, then put it back. Albert began to slide down the slide of the pan in silence. I pulled the knife out for the last time and stood back and watched him die.
Though it seems to me a crime-novel rather than a thriller, Jim Thompson goes even further at one point with the sociopathic small-town sheriff in his very disturbing The Killer Inside Me—disturbing because, as in a horror movie like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, the horrors are all too convincingly real.
There are problems, too, with respect to a “good” hero’s systematic disregard for—or at least refusal to be bound by—the legal decencies, whether done with the Neanderthal certainty of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer or the intelligent articulateness of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm.
Like Lewis, Hamilton, with his principled contempt for liberal-pacifist pieties, has for years run the risk of genuinely offending a number of readers.
And because of all this, there can be a special pleasure in following the careers of writers whose heroes, especially serial heroes like Helm and Parker, are morally vulnerable in various ways, but who—the writers, I mean—are able to keep going and resist the downpull of emotional entropy.
Like Raymond Chandler, writers like Hamilton and Stark and MacDonald have obviously thought through and become at home in what they are doing by means of their heroes, and can introduce and cope with fresh intellectual problems from the changing social world.
Which is why, too, intelligent younger writers like James Crumley and Jonathan Valin have been able to commit themselves to private-eye series in the seemingly unpromising Seventies and Eighties.
It is especially heartening when a writer of a series does what Stark did in Butcher’s Moon and James Mitchell in Smear Job and Hamilton in The Avengers after more than twenty years of Matt Helm, and comes out with a generous complexity of plotting, abundance of incident, and enriched prose that goes way beyond the needs of the series in terms of any foreseeable increase of sales.
By now it will be apparent that I find the image of literary creativity in thriller-writing a peculiarly congenial one. I do indeed.
I myself would never be able to write a good thriller. I lack the abilities that I have been talking about.
But I wish that I possessed them and that my grip upon reality—my ability to separate out what I am seeing, and note the physical way in which things are and move, and feel my way into the minds of people very different from myself, and be able to summon back those realities in memory and create and imagine actions that are not merely photographic—were much stronger than it is.
Moreover, the qualities that I admire in thrillers are ones that they seem to me to share with a good deal of serious fiction and good poetry. In their Conradian steadiness, their lack of self-indulgence, and their concern with craftsmanship, the thrillers that I have read and reread over the years have been energizing presences for me. And I want to look a bit more at that energizing.
In Jack’s Return Home, Carter recalls at one point how when he and his brother Frank were out in the country lying on their backs in the grass on a small plateau with a large vista (“And above it all, the broad sky, wider than any other sky could be, soaring and sweeping, pulled along by the north winds”), Frank would talk meditatively:
Jack, he’d say, those seventy-eights I got yesterday in Arcade, don’t you reckon that one by the Benny Goodman Sextet Don’t Be That Way was the best? That drumming by Gene Krupa. Hell! Wouldn’t it be grand to be able to do that? And if you could, you couldn’t do it in this hole. Nobody’s interested. They’d say it was a row. You could do things like that in America. They encourage you because they think jazz is dead good. America. That’d be the place, though, wouldn’t it? Imagine. Those cars with all those springs that rock back and forwards like a see-saw when you put the brakes on. You can drive one of them when you’re sixteen over there. Just think, our kid. Driving one of those things along one of those highways wearing a drape suit with no tie, like Richard Widmark, with the radio on real loud listening to Benny Goodman.
I don’t doubt that such imaginings were part of Lewis’s own adolescence. I know that they, or something like them, were part of my own.
And the glamour of art, when art began acquiring glamour for me, was a subdivision of the glamour of artistry and show-business in general—the glamour of jazz, the glamour of movie stars and movie-making, that paradigmatic creative “doing” in which you could be not only a writer-creator but (qua director of your own scripts) a man of action too.
In “Ancestral Houses,” the opening section of “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” W.B.Yeats speaks of how, “Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns” life can
…mount more dizzy high the more it rains
As if to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape at others’ beck and call.
And in a poem from the 1930s, W.H. Auden refers to the yearning for “love, satisfaction, force, delight.”
These hopes and hungers, explored so brilliantly by Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, seem to me an important part, at some stage of one’s life of the creative life of the mind. And thrillers can nourish them.
There is an interesting paradox about that nourishing, however.
I have been talking about the possession by thriller heroes of effectiveness of psychological integration, of competence, of being able to cope.
Some of them, like the anonymous narrator of Rogue Male, are literally aristocrats. Others, like Harvester’s Dorian Silk, are more or less upper-class. Others again, like Woodhouse’s Giles Yeoman, or the anonymous narrator of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File which started so much going, or Americans like Latimer’s Bill Crane, have jaunty, irreverent, aristocratic-like sets of mind.
Yet it is not mere independence that is celebrated in a good many of these books. Nor is it effortlessness. When Woodhouse in Blue Bone put Giles Yeoman and his two partners in possession of a chemical formula that made them at the end of the book irreversibly the richest people in the world, he effectively wrote them out of the world of the thriller.
Thrillers are inseparable not only from difficulties overcome, and some self-doubts along the way, but from the knowledge that those difficulties have only been overcome locally and will return at the start of the next novel.
MacDonald’s Travis McGee, that ostensibly free spirit on his luxurious Florida houseboat, is nagged—at times to the point of emotional near-collapse—by the felt obligation to justify his freedom from the duties and routines of ordinary people.
And just as MacDonald, after a book or two in the series, furnished McGee with the lovable economist Myers to give him a permanent attachment and someone to whom he is accountable, so Richard Stark in his Parker series felt obliged after awhile to provide the otherwise wholly alienated Parker with both a civilized woman, Claire, with whom he can enjoy something like normal domestic life at times, and a professional associate, the lighthearted actor Grofield, who comes close at times to evoking in him a feeling of fraternal concern.
A recurring theme in the old Gold Medal books is the embittered man, usually one who has been treated unjustly, who by the end has found love with a woman who has shared dangers with him.
But of course the commonest mode of attachment is to a group—at times the ad hoc groups of crime capers, at others, more formal and continuing ones, such as the cops in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, or the Continental Detective Agency in Hammett’s Continental Op fictions, or the secret service or something comparable.
Such organizations can offer agreeable sub-sets of relationships, such as peer relations, or relationships between the Napoleonic spider-figure in his office—Hammett’s Old Man, Hamilton’s Mac—and the operatives out in the field. And the organizations are high-energy and purposeful ones.
However, the relationship of the hero to the organization is rarely one in which he acquires power simply by virtue of belonging to it. There has never, that I can recall, been a distinguished thriller whose hero is an FBI man.
And if the administrative figures in the kinds of thrillers that I have been talking about fall towards the Napoleonic end of the martial spectrum, the operatives fall towards the soldier-of-fortune end.
Adversarial and agonistic relationships are generally involved, not only between “our” side and theirs but inside “our” team.
The hero’s subgroup is frequently at odds with other subgroups inside the organization or nominally allied with it.
The hero himself is likely to be a maverick by temperament who would prefer to be operating solo and is skeptical or hostile concerning those with whom he is obliged to cooperate.
And he is also likely to be at odds at times with his controllers, either because they have dragooned or conned him into action or because, once embarked on in a mission, he prefers his own judgment to theirs.
He may also, of course, have to cope with the possibility of subversion inside his organization—of boxes within boxes.
The absence of such patterns helps explain the relative feebleness of the Bond books. And the patterns bear on the kinds of gratifications that thrillers provide.
For me, at least, a book is not a thriller if it is depressing.
In saying that, I am not thinking simply of whether the hero or heroine wins or loses, lives or dies.
I am thinking of crime novels like James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and John Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron, and Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, in which the room for effective choice and commitment is shrunken, the options narrow and unexciting (and growing narrower as the book proceeds), and the outcome disastrous.
There are borderline works, of course. In several of Eric Ambler’s novels, rather ordinary people like you and me discover that their initial sense of being captains of their fate is unwarranted, and become dependent for their survival on the good will of others.
But the larger actions of his books are full of dramatic possibilities, and the protagonists emerge unscathed at the end after showing unexpectedly admirable character traits.
In the good thriller it is always possible for improvements to occur. The innocent man on the run is exonerated, the kidnap victim is rescued, and the kinds of organization that I have described have the power to leave things a bit better at the end than at the beginning.
They are not simply dominance structures.
Inside them, too, the hero often has the freedom to do things that he enjoys doing, instead of being locked into the daily suburban task of satisfying the insistencies of others.
And there are no intimations that the world is ruled by forces leading inexorably to the thwarting of efforts and the defeat of the aspiring. The books are not defeatist, any more than The Great Gatsby and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are defeatist.
In A Portrait of the Artist, Stephen Dedalus grows up between two poles.
On the one side are images of human potency and potentiality—military heroes like Napoleon, soldier-saints like Loyola, hero-artists like Byron, hero-philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas, heroic politicians like Parnell.
On the other side is the “real” world, a world of family bickering, schoolmasterly pettiness and cruelty, uneasy vulgar machismo, clerical unimaginativeness, the narrowness of the already conforming young; and the Dublin of failed ambitions, frustrated rebellions, and diminished expectations that Joyce had anatomized in Dubliners.
All Stephen’s energies are thrown into denying the authority of that so-called reality and affirming the validity of the self-affirmations of the heroes.
And a good deal of Joyce’s own energies go into disrupting the ostensible stylistic realism of Stephen Hero and Dubliners and creating instead a variety of styles, none of which claims to be the representative of reality, so that reality can remain open.
Good thrillers likewise challenge the downpull of “realism”—the assumption that pride will inevitably have its fall, that human relationships will always turn out badly, and that if you look too deeply into things you will become paralyzed or cynical.
They also challenge the idea of a reality governed by irresistible forces—psychological, social, etc.—and the alternative idea of a reality in which everything is infinitely malleable according to the individual’s desires.
To talk in such terms, however, is to raise again the question of the relationship of thrillers to reality.
So far as I am concerned, the relationship has been a strong one.
And if I have problems with the genre approach that approximates thrillers to light opera, or to the circus, or to a play like The Importance of Being Earnest, it is because for me thrillers are not innately unrealistic.
There is nothing innately unrealistic about novels in which a running man instinctively dodges the plants in a field of young corn, or in which (as in Woodhouse’s Bush Baby), “the stewardess announced our landing …and we slid down towards drifting plumes of smoke and municipal spiderwebs of roads and railways a mile below us.” Good thrillers do connect up with what I think of as the real world.
For one thing, I am conscious of the sheer amount of information that I have absorbed from thrillers over the years, information more substantial than that the best bourbon is Wild Turkey (Richard Starnes), the best gin Plymouth (John D. MacDonald), and the best rum Mount Gay (Donald Hamilton), and that when you throw a knife properly it makes one complete revolution every twelve feet.
Provence for me is the Provence not only of Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Jean Giono, but of John Welcome’s Run for Cover and Stop at Nothing, which I read while my wife and I were spending a summer in a Provençal village, and which fitted admirably into, and helped shape my perception of, the region.
And because thrillers have not disappointed me about places that I have visited—the Chicago that I dragged my wife through in the heat was still sufficiently Latimer’s—I trust them with respect to places where I haven’t been.
I am quite sure that had I been sailing among the North Sea sands and the Frisian Islands in the early 1900s, they would have been as they are in The Riddle of the Sands, and that the Australian outback—its fires, and droughts, and boredom, and so forth—would have been as Arthur Upfield evokes it in his Bony books. I trust such writers, just as I trust D.H.Lawrence on the flowers of Tuscany.
I also think that I have learned more about Middle Eastern mores and politics from Harvester’s novels than I would have got from reading several serious books on that part of the world. And there is an abundance of information about horse-racing in Dick Francis’ movies—and about high-speed driving in Adam Hall’s, and sailing in Charles Williams’, and a whole variety of matters in John D. MacDonald’s—that I would not normally have come across.
Moreover, when a thriller reader hears about things like the Anthony Blunt case in England, the kidnap-killings of judges in the States, the aborted raid to free the American hostages in Iran, the shooting of the Pope, the blowing-up of Earl Mountbatten, the commando-style freeing of the Iran embassy in London, the elaborate French bank robberies, the Patty Hearst case, the Jonestown massacre, and the reported connections between government figures and the Mafia, he or she is hearing about the kinds of things that have already figured in thrillers.
And the logic of how real-life incidents replicate or surpass the kinds of doing imagined by thriller writers is reasonably clear.
Artists are, as I.A.Richards said of poets, the antennae of the race.
Thriller-writers, being better able to give shapes to their desires than most people, imagine comporting themselves freely and if necessary ruthlessly against the constrictions of an increasingly rationalized world. And as the pressures of “order” increase, other people come to have similar imaginings and to put some of them into practice, assisted at times by fictional doings such as those in caper movies like Jules Dassin’s Rififi.
In their large-scale imaginings, as in the kinds of thrillers involving the taking over of a family home by criminals on the run, or the homicidal persecution of an ordinary person by a psychopath, thriller writers can also take potentials to the limit, in terms of flesh-and-blood individuals, and bring up significant questions about the limits of legality and the justifiable use of defensive violence.
One way and another, a number of moral dilemmas get explored in thrillers.
Some of the other explorings of social order in thrillers can also be educational. At least, they have been so for me.
The irreverence with respect to bureaucratic realpolitik and power-seeking that began with Deighton’s Ipcress File—a bracing irreverence because not programmatically bleak and cynical—seemed to me applicable in part to the academic world as I came to experience it.
And in the Gold Medal kind of paperback I had earlier found a world below the world of respectable academic-intellectual discourse and the New York Times kind of Progressivism—a blue-collar world of cheap bars, long-distance truckers, returned veterans, police corruption, cops as instinctive adversaries of anyone dressed out of the ordinary, a small-town distrust of strangers, a resentment of the condescending Eastern well-to-do.
The authors of such books, who included some of the best thriller writers, were obviously writing out of their own experiences at times—returned veterans themselves, with a strong sense of discrepancies between the official American ideals and the actualities that they had encountered.
Spillane belonged to that generation, as did the more interesting John McPartland, whose disturbing Mafia novel The Kingdom of Johnny Cool in the Fifties was an early-warning signal of what was to come.
These books not only testified to the lure of the fast buck, the slick deal, the drug-smuggling operation, and so forth, and to a resentment of establishment hypocrisy. They also testified to the hunger for peace, for freedom from government interference, and for a more decent—i.e., crime-and-corruption-free—environment.
To have read such books left me unsurprised by the police brutalities against “nice” people during the later Sixties. It also left me not at all surprised by the resentments and yearnings that came to a head in Reaganism and are still with us.