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Review: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads

July 2, 2010

There’s little better in the way of beach reading than a fast-paced thriller, but with the seemingly endless titles out there — muscling competitors out of the way not just on bookstore shelves but at newstands, supermarket checkout aisle, airport kiosks and more — how do you know what’s really good? Never fear: This summer brings a guide from the experts. Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner (and to be released on July 5 by Oceanview Publishing), features some of the finest names in the genre, members of International Thriller Writers, writing about their own favorites over a period of 35 centuries. (And yes, you read that right: 3,500 years. More on the time frame in a moment.)

As expected, some of the best-known and best-loved classics of the genre are included. After all, what would such a collection be without John Buchan’s seminal The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) or Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (also 1939) or Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (also 1939) or…. well, just from 1939’s output, you can see that as we move through the 20th century, the genre becomes dense with notable books.

From the 1940s: Cornell Woolrich’s “Rear Window,” Vera Caspary’s Laura, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock.

From the 1950s: Graham Greene’s The Third Man, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate

From the 1960s: Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain

In the 1970s, you’ll find works by Frederick Forsyth, Peter Benchley, Wiliam Goldman, James Grady, Jack Higgins, Joseph Wambaugh, Clive Cussler, Ira Levin, Robin Cook, Ken Follett, Ross Thomas, and John D. McDonald. In the ’80s, Robert Ludlum, Thomas Harris, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub. In the ’90s, Grisham, Patterson, Baldacci, Deaver — writers so well-known already that even the last name is enough. And then comes that most influential of 21st-century thrillers: Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Importantly, the list of contributors is an equally impressive who’s who of writers: Baldacci and Deaver again and James Grady and Katherine Neville (among the several writers on both sides of the discussion here), as well as Joe R. Lansdale, Lincoln Child, Max Allan Collins, P.J. Parrish, Tess Gerritsen, Hank Phillipi Ryan, and many more.

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Edward Burne-Jones

What’s surprising about a simple listing, however, are the choices that aren’t so obvious. Take the first of the essays here: Lee Child writing about the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, dating back to 1500 B.C. — again, 35 centuries ago. Taking a cue from critics of detective fiction (who are often apt to locate the roots of the modern mystery in Oedipus Rex), Child finds in a series of mythic paradigms the contours of the contemporary thriller: “Two superpowers in an uneasy standoff; a young man of rank acting along and shoulder personal responsibility for a crucial outcome; a strategic alliance with a young woman from the other side; a major role for a gadget; an underground facility; an all-powerful opponent with a grotesque sidekick; a fight to the death; an escape; the cynical abandonment of the temporary female ally; the return home to a welcome that was partly grateful and partly scandalized.” Enough said? Well Child takes it even further. At the same time he was reading Plutarch in school, he was reading James Bond on the bus home, and the parallels between Theseus and the Minotaur and Dr. No make for fine examination.

Similar kudos go to William Bernhardt for his look at Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and to Andrew Klavan for his thoughts on Beowulf, especially for his defense of the Burton Raffel translation over Seamus Heaney’s version and his astute explanation of why the recent Beowulf movie is a disservice to the original. Even when we get to more recent (and more commonly accepted) historical milestones — like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year — the insights offered by each author-critic are compelling, and the authors seem well-suited, personally, critically and professionally. For example, Douglas Preston, writing about Collins’ book, recounts his own first encounter with a dog-eared paperback of the book (a personal revelation:”one of my memorable literary moments”), discusses the structure of the novel as a precursor to modernist experiments a half-century later (“in many ways it was more radical than… Faulkner’s narrative shifts in As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury“), and then reveals how he and Lincoln Child borrowed heavily on that most villainous of villains, Count Fosco, for a major character in their own Brimstone, “pet mice and all.”

Another great pairing with an unexpected entry into the thriller category: R.L. Stine writing on P.G. Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning. “I know that Wodehouse’s novels cannot be considered thrillers,” Stine writes. “So, that’s the challenge I gave myself: to use Summer Lightning… to prove my theory about the close relationship between comedy and thrillers.” Do I entirely buy that theory? No. But it’s great fun to watch Stine make his case.

As a guideline for books worth reading, this anthology is a great resource. But it’s also welcome reading for those who’ve already explored these titles and want to revisit them through another’s perspectives. After reading J.A. Konrath’s essay, I appreciated anew – and in new ways — John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, the first Travis McGee that I read back as a pre-teen lurking in the adult section. And for anyone who wants to write thrillers, hearing these contributors comment on the genre’s history and their own craft is priceless.

In short: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads is, yes, a must-read itself.

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