Saturday, 10 April 2010

What is a crime thriller?

What is a thriller, anyway?

Last year, during Thrillerfest in New York, the question was posed to me: What’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller novel? Although my answer may have been a little pithy, I explained that in my opinion a mystery had a problem to be solved while a thriller had a problem to be dealt with and overcome.

Of course, this is a very limited manner in which to describe the differences. You can of course have a thriller that contains a mystery, and also most mystery books are thrilling by the very virtue of their subject matter. I’ve pondered quite a lot on the subject since, and thought it time that I put some of my conclusions on record – all of which I hasten to add are probably subject to change.

Because ‘a mystery’ pretty much tells us what to expect, I thought of which ingredients I found were necessary to make a thriller and the first thing that I came up with was that the term is very subjective. Thriller books transcend genre: we can have crime thrillers, action thrillers, adventure thrillers, historical thrillers, supernatural thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, romantic thrillers...and the list goes on. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the genre, it’s the structure and driving force behind the book that defines it as a thriller.

We can trace the thriller genre back to the earliest written tales, including The Oddessy, and the other Greek myths. Think about Theseus and the Minotour, or Perseus and the Gorgon and these were archetypal thrillers of their age. In more recent centuries we had books like Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers etc, and throughout the 20th and early part of this century we have grown familiar with the ‘thriller’ heading on books. You only have to think of The Da Vinci Code, and you'll recall all the blurbs.

Basically, a thriller can be set any where, any time, but they all have a commonality. The books are fast-paced with plenty of action and generally hold a sense of impending menace or doom.

Usually a thriller focuses on the emotion and inner workings of the protagonist who is often running away from or running towards something that is both very dangerous and life-threatening.

There is generally an under-current of good versus evil.

Many thrillers are about ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances, and are typified by the protagonist running for their lives, before turning to face and ultimately triumph over the danger. Others, like my books, tend to follow a protagonist with the skills to fight back, but who is facing overwhelming odds.

Often there is a mystery to be solved, but sometimes the danger is out there in the open for all to see and the protagonist’s story follows his/her attempts to put an end to it while also trying to stay alive or to save someone or something else.

The protagonist often has some kind of weakness – often a burden on his/her soul – and during the events of the thriller he/she must contend with and often overcome this weakness in order to avail against the danger.

Thrillers are often full of reversals and twists, that ramp up the pace as the protagonist must find new ways to contend with these surprises. Often there is a ‘ticking bomb’ where time – or the lack of – becomes an enemy in itself.

There is generally an expectation of impending violence around each corner. Violence may not always be physical – but may be delivered by way of plot twists or surprises that crash and burn their way through what the protagonist or (more importantly) the reader expects.

Tension is maintained by conflict, and by posing questions of when, where, why, what and, probably most importantly, how? (i.e How on earth is the hero going to get out of this one?) These often form the basis of a cliff-hanging chapter ending.

My list isn’t exhaustive. There are many other factors that make a thriller, and there is a huge likelihood that other thriller authors will disagree with some of my points and come up with some salient ingredient that requires adding to the pot.

So what is a crime thriller?

Ok, so taking all of the above into account, a crime thriller is basically a thriller that concentrates on the impact of a crime on the protagonist. It is not always necessary that the perpetrator of the crime be kept secret - as in a mystery novel - though this can also be a staple ingredient. (James Patterson’s early books about Alex Cross were both mysteries and thrillers). However, as long as a crime forms a backdrop to the thriller plot, then I believe we have ourselves a crime thriller. Most of the books I write involve the ‘man or woman in peril’ formula, but they are generally running for their lives due to some criminal activity or other. Some other authors I believe write crime thrillers (as opposed to straight crime procedurals) are Robert Crais, Lee Child, John Connolly, Jeff Abbott, and Simon Kernick. Other authors who might not be immediately apparent, and don’t usually appear in the ‘crime’ section in book shops, are Stephen Leather and Vince Flynn, their books being labelled as straight thrillers, and Dean Koontz, whose thrillers often get placed on the ‘horror’ shelf, even though most of their books are crime thrillers.

I'm not averse to reading any of the other style of thriller, but the contemporary setting of the crime novel, mixed with the ingredients of a thriller novel always keep me enthralled.

(A slightly shorter version of this blog originally appeared at The Thrill begins)


Glaznost said...

I have to say that i think you've hit the nail on the head. I think the shortened version is that a thriller is a story that thrills...

David Barber said...

Great post Matt. I recently read James Herbert's "Crickley Hall" which is on the horror shelf but just because it has a ghost or 2 in it doesn't mean its horror. It was a really fast paced book that was also thrilling and had some good action in it too??

I'm over half way though Slash & Burn and I have to say, it's the best of the three. DMD and J&W were good but I think you can see how you have grown as a writer in this one and (not saying this in a 'suck-up' way) you are certainly at the top of your game. From page 1 it has been non-stop and I'm extremely impressed.

Already looking forward to 4 & 5. Oh, forgot for a mo...6 & 7.

Regards, David.

Col Bury said...

Excellent post, Matt.
I'd say you covered all bases on this. The novels that grab me are invariably 'crime thrillers' and I agree there are varying degrees of 'the thriller' which are actually hard to pigeon-hole.
But if you take the crime thriller, add some snippets of procedural along with a running mystery, and top it off with sprinkles of dark humour then (hopefully) you have the novel I'm writing!
Time will tell if this mix works...
Ps. Like Dave, am lovin' S&B.

Sue H said...

I remember watching the snippets of authors answering that question, Matt.

I think the answer that stood out for me (can't recall who said it) was:

A 'mystery' makes you think.
A 'thriller' makes you sweat.

As a basic rule of thumb I've found that quite useful, esp. at work whe customers need guidance over chosing books.

And of course, the best books, to my mind, are those that make you think AND sweat - talking of which, I'm back off to the couch with S&B ;-)

Matt Hilton said...

Thanks for the feedback, folks. I confess that none of these answers are any sparkling insights that were culled singly from my own mind, but through talking to and reading a host of thriller authors over the years. I just ordered what I'd learned and put them in a list, so thank you for your take on the subject as well, it helps to continue answering the question. Glad you're all enjoying S&B, too.