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A speechwriter for Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, an author himself of thrillers during the 1980s and 1990s, now a book reviewer for The Washington Post, Patrick Anderson gives us an eminently readable, jargon-free overview of the thrillerís importance in contemporary American letters. He argues that "thrillers are now the mainstream of American popular fiction. We need to recognize that the best of them are as impressive as the best literary fiction." For him writers such as Thomas Harris, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, and Dennis Lehane rank not just with Chandler but also with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dreisner.
Anderson scolds the literary establishment for disparaging such writers because they are best-sellers, but reminds us that "literary elites . . . are not that different from political elites or sorority-house elites; they seek to accumulate and keep power, and they favor their friends." Therefore, he clearly does not expect to change highbrow opinion. Still, he maintains: "We need, in all realms of creativity, less emphasis on genres and more on excellence."
In a refreshing move, which I wish more authors would emulate, he begins his study with a brief personal biography. He says: "This book is not about me . . . but it is indisputably BY me, so I think it reasonable to say a little about my background, preferences, and prejudices. The central fact is that, as reader and reviewer, I fall into three related categories: bookworm, middlebrow, and writer." Anderson also admits to being a "yellow-dog Democrat," but the fact does not stop him from admiring many an ardent Republican. In fact, a high number of writers of thrillers turn out to be quite right wing.
Anderson takes a rapid look at the origins and development of the detective story from Poe through Collins, Doyle, and Christie to Hammett, Cain, and Chandler. In particular, he grants an extended treatment to Chandler, who he admits "troubles" him and whom he returns to repeatedly in the remainder of the book. From there he sprints through the 1950s with brief summaries of the particular importance of Mickey Spillane, John D MacDonald, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, and Charles Willeford.
The rest of the book is dedicated to the thriller per se. Citing the change in America wrought by the "madness" of the assassinations in the 1960s, the disillusionment created by the Vietnam War, and the cynicism left behind by Nixon, he contends that "noir was the new reality." Often relying heavily on his own reviews and interviews with the authors, he looks rapidly, one after the other, at Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton and other "Dangerous Women" (Iím using his chapter titles), Scott Turow, John Grisham, and similar "Lawyers at Large," the "Spy Masters" who followed in the wake of British writers John le Carrť and Frederick Forsyth, and the writers of "Literary Thrillers," before homing in on his big four: Harris, Pelecanos, Connelly, and Lehane.
In another refreshing departure, throughout his study Anderson is willing to acknowledge how the film version of a novel affects the ultimate impact the book has on readers. His approach to Lehaneís MYSTIC RIVER is typical. He writes: "It is fascinating to read the book and then watch the movie. The novel provides vastly more detail about the lives and thoughts of the characters, while the movie offers images that give the story a new dimension."
There then follow reviews of writers who he thinks deserve more than mention, including a brief look at several British masters. ("Those damn Brits Ė they write so well.") He includes in this number Ian Rankin, John Lawton, John Burdett, Val McDermid, Adrian McKinty, and Jake Arnott.
In a hilarious chapter entitled "No More Mr Nice Guy," he takes on writers who dare publish a book that "insults [the readerís] intelligence." Most scorn is bestowed on James Patterson, whom he calls "the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, scuzzy, assembly-line writing." David Baldacci does not escape lightly either when he stoops to an unbelievable plot gimmick: "Beating odds of probably a billion to one, the two bullets had collided." (Anderson writes: "Beating odds of probably a billion to one, I survived this novel with my sanity intact.") Others to receive the brunt of his disdain include Patricia Cornwell, David Lindsay, Jeffrey Archer, and Nicolas Sparks.
Throughout the book the author teaches the reader a great deal about the art and craft of writing as well as the problems of finding a publisher. He theorizes that "the ability to write exceptionally well is innate" and avows that there are no "rules to writing except what works Ė and what works is subjective." But he also says that "style doesnít necessarily sell books" and therefore "itís fine to keep the writing plain vanilla if you have a good story to tell." Above all, it is clear, Anderson cares passionately about readers.
Random House itself did readers a disservice by not providing Andersonís book with an index.
Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, May 2007
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