Patrick Anderson's The Triumph of the Thriller carries the subtitle How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. It was not always thus; in the 1950s and '60s, the fiction bestseller lists were dominated by sweeping, dramatic (not to mention thick) novels: Michener's Hawaii, Uris' Exodus, Gann's The High and the Mighty. By comparison, of the top 16 books on the New York Times bestseller list the week this review was written, an incredible 14 fall into the mystery/thriller genre. Anderson, the thriller reviewer for the Washington Post, draws upon his years of covering this oft-maligned genre to explain what accounts for this phenomenon.
He starts at the beginning, critiquing the suspense works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From there, he explores the beginnings of modern detective fiction: Hammett, Chandler, Cain. World War II ushered in the era of the tough guy; descriptions of sex and/or violence only hinted at by Chandler or Cain were spelled out in graphic detail by the likes of Mickey Spillane, Ross Macdonald and Ed McBain. Anderson devotes a chapter apiece to George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Thomas Harris, four of his favorites (and mine). Additionally, he offers up a list of his recommendations for the fledgling thriller reader.
More importantly, he gives us a list of stuff to avoid at all costs: For the most part, I try to find the best books I can, both because I don't want to spend my time reading bad books and because I want to alert readers to good ones. As a result, I write a good many favorable reviews, which might give readers the impression that I'm a nice guy. I'm not a nice guy. I grow surly and vindictive when obliged to read a book that bores me or insults my intelligence. What's more, it makes me crazy when people surrender $25 for some piece of crap. Amen, brother! BookPage Whodunit? columnist Bruce Tierney grew up reading the Hardy Boys.