The other night I introduced you to the website and writing of Englishman John Fraser. I've continued reading his various essays and found all of them to be remarkable as examinations of the type of fiction we care about. I'm excerpting here part of a long essay on thrillers and thriller writers.
John Fraser: http://www.jottings.ca/john/thriller_main.html
I am speaking of the kinds of novels in which one or two well-defined central consciousnesses are involved in some way or other with illegality and are themselves at risk. From this point of view it is immaterial whether the characters are private detectives, spies, cops, professional criminals, unjustly accused jockeys, etc.
What counts is what happens next—and next—and next, and having numerous suspense points, large or small, at which one’s anxiety increases. Being able to step through a door into that kind of experience and lose yourself there for an hour or two can be a blessing.
Other people lose themselves in other ways. I lose myself in thrillers, and emerge from them relaxed and refreshed; as did Wittgenstein, presumably, after reading Black Mask magazine.
Or go painlessly to sleep.
Unfortunately it is an experience that I find increasingly rare these days, as the supply of good new thrillers in the local bookstores dwindles, partly, perhaps, because of marketing policies. (Maybe it’s time I took out a subscription to Crime Time and tried figuring out which reviews sound trustworthy. Paperbacks are no longer cheap thrills.) But for awhile thrillers sustained me while I was engaged in some reasonably strenuous intellectual activities—getting a Ph.D. in English; publishing articles and a book or two.
And what interests me here are certain value-charged patterns in them that make them more than “mere” entertainment; that enable them to connect up in indirect ways with my serious reading and my own real world.
The kinds of thrillers that matter to me most and that I can keep rereading are what I have come to think of as Homeric ones. They are full of physicality, of a vivid rendering of place, of the pains and pleasures of the senses, including, often, the pleasures of relaxing after effort, the pleasures of good food and drink, of sleep, of love.
“My” thrillers take me into John D. MacDonald’s Florida and John Welcome’s Provence, into the various exotic countries visited by Adam Hall’s Quiller and Simon Harvester’s Dorian Silk, into the comfortable American bars and lounges of the old Gold Medal paperbacks. And they celebrate, in one way or another, the vigorous movements of more or less healthy bodies.
But if they are works of action, there are some complexities to the idea of action. What matters in them is not simply dramatic action in the plot-summary sense.
What is desirable, to begin with, is a convincing sense of a live, muscled body and an individual consciousness engaged convincingly in doing something physical with complete concentration, and doing it well.
It is an experience that I myself have had only rarely, it seems to me good in itself, and it can be refined all the way up to the kind of self-transcendence described in Eugen Herrigel’s classic Zen in the Art of Archery.
In thrillers the actions of that sort need not be violent, though an element of risk is important.
There is nothing violent about the unforgettable episode in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the book that first introduced the term “secret service,” in which a small-boat enthusiast, with the narrator to do the rowing, brilliantly navigates a dinghy across ten miles of thinly covered North Sea sandbanks in an impenetrable fog.
Nor is there violence in the scientist Giles Yeoman’s three-day cross-country hike over the mountains into Yugoslavia in Martin Woodhouse’s Bush Baby, or the times of boyhood happiness out by the Humber estuary, with their secretly saved-up-for shotgun, that Jack Carter recalls spending with his brother in Ted Lewis’s great Jack’s Return Home (superbly filmed by Mike Hodges as Get Carter, with Michael Caine).
And part of the many charms of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise books is the many episodes in which she and Willy Garvin engaged in sporting activities—hang-gliding, fencing, golf, etc— for pure pleasure.
But of course it is the episodes of dangerous and high-speed action that matter most, such as the car chase through the frozen Warsaw streets in Adam Hall’s The Warsaw Document or Modesty Blaise’s various hand-to-hand combats with formidably strong and skillful adversaries.
And what characterizes such episodes is not simply violence. It is the successful solving of problems, at times a very rapid succession of problems. And those problems form part of larger sequences of problem-solving that entail a high degree of concentration.
The tautness, the concentration with which Jack Carter observes, probes, defines, deciphers, and finally uncovers how and why his brother was murdered, and then surges forward to take revenge on all those involved, entails a single-minded commitment to his brother’s memory, unshaken by his recollections of their differences and disagreements and his brother’s eventual rejection of him.
The Modesty Blaise books preeminently are distinguished by their presentation of protagonists who live in a Zen-like fashion that enables them to move, without any strain, from small pacific enjoyments to large-scale dangerous action.
At times, too, as it does in Jack’s Return Home and the Modesty Blaise books, the problem solving can have considerable elegance, in ways that recall the movies of Chaplin and Keaton or a classic silent comedy like René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat.
The episode near the end of Geoffrey Household’s incomparable manhunt novel Rogue Male, for example, in which the narrator uses the corpse of his beloved cat companion, wantonly killed by the Nazi agent who has trapped him, to escape from his filth-caked burrow has the neatness of the manoeuvre in Easy Street by which Chaplin as a rookie cop on a tough beat cons the towering neighbourhood bully into gassing himself with a street lamp.
And I never tire of the ingenious improvisings and transformation of a man-on-the-run book like Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, wherein the hunted man “becomes” almost instantaneously a milkman, a road-mender, etc., or the robbing-the-bank ingenuities of Richard Stark’s Parker novels.
As times, as in Stark’s Butcher’s Moon, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (his best novel), and Ross Thomas’s glorious The Fools in Town are on Our Side, the large-scale problems posed—clean up the town, wipe out a gang—lead to solutions of baroque complexity.
But it is also satisfying to read less dramatic things like the account in Butcher’s Moon of how a professional criminal in an unfamiliar town goes about finding clandestinely an unoccupied apartment from which he can carry out his campaign.
Large or small, it is comforting to be reminded that problems are sometimes soluble; that closure is possible.
Risks, skills, and problem-solving are also on display in the writing of thrillers.
Like the hero or heroine, the good thriller writer must have the kind of kinaesthetic grip upon the physical world that is a sine qua non of all effective action and most good fiction.
Writers like those that I have referred to project themselves (via their narratives) into the physical world, holding as a unity in their minds the physical setting and the movements and feelings of the characters in it.
The opening pages of Rogue Male are unforgettable for Household’s self-projection into the dazed, half-animal consciousness of the narrator after he has fallen from the top of a cliff into a saving patch of marsh, with frightful lacerations to his buttocks and hands, and knows only that he must hide from the German officials who will soon be on his track.
And a passage like the following from Donald Hamilton’s Line of Fire likewise gives us the sensation of simply being there:
"They were leaving now. Two of them had the girl and were leading her to the car… The third man had the sister and kids backed up against the kitchen door like a family portrait. I could just barely make it all out at the distance, as I ran diagonally across the field toward a spot from which I could cover the dirt road leading out of the place. The furrows were straight, and deep for running. The young corn was just coming up. Habit had me trying to avoid the plants as I ran, which made it something like a game of hopscotch. I stopped that foolishness."