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A Gifted Thriller Novelist Names 5 Great Thrillers

By Alan Hruska
Published: Mar 29, 2015
Category: Thrillers

Guest Butler Alan Hruska wrote a thriller I actually finished. And liked. A rare event. I asked him why someone so talented would write a thriller. This is his reponse.
Good fortune — kind words from respected critics — recently smiled on two of my novels, Pardon the Ravens and Wrong Man Running. In the same breath, however, one reviewer warned, “Don’t write too many of them — I have a thing about thrillers.” Most readers do. Thrillers are categorized as genre fiction, which is a pejorative term. Even the publishing industry draws a distinction between genre fiction and “literate fiction.” And booksellers distinguish between genre and “literature” — implying, of course, that genre is something other than literature, which is the ultimate put-down.

In point of fact, some forms of fiction called genres are actually basic plot structures. Learned tracts have been written identifying six such structures, or 36, or 100. Some classic forms include: boy-meets-girl (and then either loses her and wins her back, or goes unrequited); the hero’s (or anti-hero’s) grab for power; his or her quest (for a place, an artifact, a person, you name it); mistaken identity; switching identities; a fish out of water; the whodunit; the thriller (legal, spy and other); and so on.

The point of those plot structures is narrative drive, without which there is no story. Indeed, through the ages, any plot structure that achieved narrative drive has been added to the list. So if anyone writing fiction thinks he or she has something important to say, he/she is best advised to say it in one or more of those basic plots. Otherwise one is better off writing essays — without narrative drive, fiction puts readers to sleep.

There is a notable exception, which is poetry. A problem with pure poetry, however, apart from its difficulty, is that, unless you are supremely gifted, there is usually an inverse correlation between the elegance of the poem and the size of the audience. Of course short stories and even novels may be written in poetic prose. Lorrie Moore is a good example. So is David Smith, who wrote perhaps the quintessential prose-poem, In Parentheses, which is also the ultimate WW1 story (and has been either forgotten or undiscovered by almost everyone). For writers blessed with that level of talent, prose-poetry is not an option, but something they must do — and no doubt the best way they have to say what they want to say in the form of telling a story to an audience that can truly benefit, as wide or limited as that audience might be.

But very few of us, no matter how intelligent we may think we are, are gifted (supremely or otherwise) in the writing of poetry or prose poems. Yet there are many novels published each year that strive for that level and totally eschew standard plot structures. Many of these are critically acclaimed and shelved by bookstores in their “literature” section, but as they ramble in plot and lack truly good poetry as well, they don’t make very interesting reads.

Let’s face it, the books that hold and thrill, and thus communicate to their readers what their authors wish them fully to understand, are those that that are crafted from one or more archetypical plot structures. For example, Wolf Hall works because, at its most basic, it is the story of a man rising to power and falling from grace. To Kill a Mockingbird works because it’s a legal thriller. Cold Mountain is both a classic love story and a quest. The Goldfinch is a story of unrequited passion, in the tradition of Dickens, with elements of the mystery and the thriller. Obviously those four novels, and many others in that splendid sphere, have a great deal going for them in addition to a basic plot. But without that element, they wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun to read, nor considered at the top of the “literature”

Why do authors write thrillers? For the same reasons anyone writes any fiction at all: to try to say something worth saying about people, the planet and life, while at the same time telling a good story. Those that succeed are likely to be hailed as having “transcended” the genre. But I do think that misses the point. In those cases, it might be more insightful to say that the author used basic elements well (plot, characterizations and dialogue), and put a little poetry in it.

Examples of great thrillers? Here are five of my favorites:

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban
Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow
Red Flags, by Juris Jurjevics
Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

and, just because, one movie:

The Lady Vanishes, directed by Alfred Hitchcock