With "The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction," we get a tour of crime novels starting with such pioneers as Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle right up to such modern writers as John Grisham, Sue Grafton and James Patterson.
What catches author Patrick Anderson's attention is the sheer number of crime-related thrillers now dominating our publishing marketplace.
In 1966, the Washington Post writer notes, the 10 top authors on the fiction best-seller list were Robert Crichton, Allen Drury, Jacqueline Susann, Rebecca West, Mary Renault, Edwin O'Connor, James Clavell, Bernard Malamud, Harold Robbins and Harry Mark Petrakis. He categories them as political novelists, literary writers, two "grandmasters of sex and schlock" but no crime fiction.
In 2006, the top-ten list had nine thrillers. Or,as he says, John Grisham, is the new James Michener and "The Da Vinci Code" is our "Gone with the Wind."
What to make of this? How did we move into cheap crime as our main fictional interest? Anderson has some suspects:
Corporate profits. As the book business changes from literary endeavor, corporate pressures have intensified by bottom-line demands as publishers seek out the writer who can turn out books that turn rock-solid profits.
Another is that people are more cynical these days, more open to a dark view of our society.
Fun--we like the chase, the excitement.And a whodunnit focuses on the chase, not sex, not dirty talk, both of which we can get elsewhere. (HBO's "Real Sex," anyone?) The sex that does show up in thrillers, such as "The Silence of the Lambs" is often warped and really secondary in the overall story.
I'd add the possibility that we as a society are often obsessed with crime, though I don't know if what cable "news" gives us is a reflection of our taste or is driving it, and reading crime fiction is an extension of that interest.
Aside from the cited explanation, most of Anderson's book consists of history and stories about the writers rather than explaining, at a deeper level, how we got to this point. Or, more important, how what we might expect next.
Through Anderson's work we're exposed to a lot of writers, good and bad. Sometimes the definitions of what he's writing about gets a bit muddled, so that there's little distinction between thrillers, crime novels and mysteries. So for those looking for serious literary assessments of our tastes, the book has yet to be written or, at least, isn't produced here.
He doesn't care for Tom Clancy--neither do I--spending a short chapter taking apart his rightwing politics, oversimplistic and un-nuanced approach to war and his penchant for odd time references, all wrapped in bad writing.
Anderson also tells us the story of women writers, such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Patricia Highsmith, recounting their childhoods and early days as writers.
Many others, among them Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, get their moment here, most of the attention favorable. Specialist authors, such as lawyers, doctors, assorted gumshoes, psychologists and others are also critiqued for their work and, generally, rated well.
Anderson's book is interesting, easy to read but just comes up a bit short. I'd hoped for more explanation of the reason for, and the potential damage, of, the emphasis. But overall, it's a decent book.