Tales that titillate: Required reading for fans of fearsome fiction
These days it seems there’s a club for everything and everyone, but perhaps the coolest association you’ve never heard about is the International Thriller Writers (ITW). First founded in 2004, ITW is now made up of the best writers whose main aim is to get the pulses of their readers thumping. BookPage spoke with David Morrell and Hank Wagner, the co-editors of Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, a compendium of essays by today’s top thriller authors on the books every fan of the genre needs to read. Together, Morrell and Wagner discuss the origin of their book, sexism in the genre and how thrillers have changed over time.
How did the book come into being? Did you approach each author who contributed essays with a particular title, or did each author bring their own favorites to the table?
Hank Wagner: The book came out of David asking several [ITW] members for their “Top Twenty” thrillers of all time. When he called me, I suggested expanding the list, because 20 titles wouldn’t cover the topic properly. When we decided on 100, it occurred to me we should do a book similar to others I had enjoyed over the years, namely Horror: 100 Best Books, and similar tomes on the science fiction, mystery and fantasy genres. David liked the idea, and presented it to the ITW board, who embraced it.
Armed with suggestions from ITW members and friends, we crafted the final list, which we then presented to members of the ITW, suggesting to those interested that they submit their top three choices to write about. We then tried to accommodate everyone as best we could in handing out assignments. Of course, some essays screamed to be written by a particular author—the essay on From Russia, With Love written by Raymond Benson, for instance. Raymond is an expert on the character, and has written several Bond novels himself.
Your book covers thrillers from 1500 B.C. to present-day novels—how would you say thrillers have changed (or stayed the same) over this huge period of time?
Wagner: Thrillers have stayed the same in that their basic goal—to give readers a thrill, to create a feeling or sensation of excitement—has remained constant. How individual thrillers accomplish that goal has evolved over the decades. In former times, the appearance of a monster, or a ghost, or a man being stranded on an island was enough to do that. Now the stakes have risen; it’s usually about a race against time or, literally, about the impending end of the world. The amazing thing is that ITW members keep coming up with new ways to engage increasingly demanding audiences.
Were there any titles you would have liked to see included that didn’t make the cut?
Wagner: This is precisely why we called the book 100 Must-Reads, rather than 100 Best Books. Of course there are books we, or some of the other contributors, would have liked to have squeezed in; we all love the genre, and we’re all passionate about books. There were several long, sometimes heated discussions about this book or that: Is it really a thriller? Did we cover that ground through another title? Was a particular book truly unique or groundbreaking? Right to the end, we’d often slap our foreheads in disgust, lamenting, “How could we have forgotten such and such a book?” In the end, we think we came up with a list that’s truly representative of the genre, demonstrating its breadth and potential. Still, it only presents the keys to a vast kingdom; we’re confident that readers can use this tome as a springboard to further reading in the genre. Think about it: We list 100 great books and stories right off the bat; many of the authors who penned the essays are successful novelists, with numerous works to their credit; and finally, the essays themselves mention dozens of titles as reference. All we can say is, “Bon appetit!”
Often there can be a kind of snobbism in the literary world, with certain readers turning their noses up at particular genres. Do you think this affects the thriller genre?
Wagner: Certainly not in terms of sales, based on recent scans of the bookracks and the bestseller lists. Most of the alleged snobbism turns up in reviews, but readers are a bright bunch—they can and do make up their own minds about what they want to read. Personally, David and I are always on the prowl for a good and interesting read, and find things to like about each book we pick up, whether it be the use of language or a creative plot, clever cultural references or just well constructed set pieces/scenes. If you are lucky, the book you are currently reading does all these things well.
Do you think thrillers are easily translated to film, or is there something special about the thriller in book form that gets lost in the conversion?
Wagner: It depends on the property, and the individual creators, whether a book translates well into film. It’s the eternal debate: What’s better, the book or the movie? Both forms try to accomplish different things; both have their own advantages and limitations.
What makes a great thriller?
David Morrell: The genre’s name is self-defining. A thriller must be thrilling. A mystery may or may not be a thriller depending on how much breathless emotion it has, as opposed to cerebral calculation. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is on our list because it’s as breathless and scary as it is puzzling. Of course, what’s thrilling to one generation might not be thrilling to the next. Similarly, one generation’s idea of fast pace might be different from a later generation’s. In fact, that’s one of the points in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads—that this type of fiction evolved, and that it’s entertaining to chart the evolution. In 1860, Wilkie Collins was credited with inventing ”the novel of sensation” in The Woman in White. Contemporary readers found the book shocking, but today we appreciate it more for its place in literary history. Once we pretend we’re in 1860, the book becomes shocking again. So much depends on perspective.
On another level, a thriller becomes great when it carries a feeling of reality and truth. That’s one reason John le Carré’s work is admired. He not only delivers intrigue, but he also teaches us about our world.
Do you think that male and female thriller authors approach the genre differently?
Morrell: Twelve of the books on our list are by women. They include Mary Shelley, Baroness Orczy, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Daphne Du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Helen MacInnes, Very Caspary, Patricia Highsmith, Katherine Neville, Sandra Brown and Gayle Lynds. Why isn’t the ratio more balanced? Because, until recently, publishers didn’t encourage (or sometimes even allow) female authors to work in the genre. Frankenstein was published anonymously and was well-received. As soon as it became known that the author was a woman, critics found fault. Writing Frankenstein wasn’t a ladylike thing to do. Fortunately, things have changed. A lot of that is due to Gayle Lynds, co-founder of International Thriller Writers. Gayle used to be a newspaper reporter and had a security clearance when she later worked for a think tank. But when she submitted her early espionage novels, editors and critics stupidly complained that a female author couldn’t possibly know about the world of espionage. Gayle’s career helped to change these attitudes and opened the way for a lot of current women thriller authors.
With hundreds of years of thrillers behind us, how can thrillers continue to be relevant and fresh?
Morrell: At their best, thrillers not only entertain. Ideally they also reflect the society in which they are set, analyzing our fears and how we perceive the world. Author/law enforcement officer James O. Born wrote an essay about Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys (1975) in which he points out that Wambaugh’s novels were the first honest insider dramatizations of police work. They were set against the major social changes of the 1970s. Wambaugh made a huge difference in how we look at law enforcement personnel. As long as thriller authors teach us about our world, they’ll be relevant.
Do you remember the first thriller you ever read?
Morrell: It seems tame now, but Nancy Drew and The Hidden Staircase really made an impression on me when I was a boy. By comparison, I don’t think the Hardy Boys novels were as exciting. After that came several Tarzan novels and The Lone Wolf and The Saint. But as an adult and an apprentice writer looking for a direction, I was most impressed by Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a 1939 novel about a British big-game hunter who stalks Hitler on the eve of WWII. Household’s outdoor action scenes, with their mystical evocation of nature and the primordial relationship between hunter and hunted, showed me a path that I continue to explore more than 50 years later.
Wagner: The first thriller I ever read (also the first novel I ever read, also the first novel I ever bought with my own money) was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The fifth-grade me couldn’t put it down; I read it obsessively during class, hiding it in my lap, near the opening of my desk. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with books. I quickly moved on to Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, The Shadow and Doc Savage, and countless comic books.
If you had to choose, who are your favorite thriller writers? All-time favorites.
Morrell: Geoffrey Household will always be important to me. Rogue Male is on the list, and I was delighted to write the essay about it. My Penn State master’s thesis was on Hemingway’s style, and parts of his work—sections of To Have and Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example—demonstrate a high caliber of action writing that continue to influence my writing. I also learned a lot from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which is on our list. And Dracula. People who know various movie versions don’t really know the story. Stoker displays a remarkably sophisticated technique, and his chase scenes are exemplary. Take away the vampire element, and you have one of the first novels about a serial killer.
Wagner: If I had to choose one, I’d go with William Goldman. I was lucky enough to do an essay on his classic novel Marathon Man for 100 Must-Reads. It was a joy to reread that book; he really caught lightning in a bottle there, and it still holds up. Magic is another classic. Other top choices would include Stephen King, Peter Straub, John D. MacDonald and a fellow named . . . David Morrell!