The thriller, defined: “A suspenseful, sensational story or film.”
I arch my not-inconsiderable eyebrows at the “sensational” part. There are plenty of so-so novels gathering dust on the shelves of airports and drugstores around the globe and damn few that are truly extraordinary.
Then of course, there’s the question of categorization, a topic that critics often mull over during the occasional social hour, cocktail in hand. It’s shameful to batter a book around with our monstrously imperfect vocabularies. Is it a crime novel? Noir? A generic thriller? A spy novel? A mystery? Suspense? God forbid, mainstream fiction?
I usually have my own perspective on the question but my position waffles depending on the book, the day, and my current medication. Instead of pondering the definition with too much more navel-gazing, let’s just drop some upcoming killer thrillers and their creators on you and we’ll let God sort it out.
The first, and certainly the most unusual of the lot, is Steven Hall’s immensely enjoyable head trip The Raw Shark Texts, coming in April from Canongate. This marvelous thriller plays off the infamous Rorschach Test, then cribs concepts from Jaws, Memento, and every locked-room mystery ever conceived, blending them into a wildly infectious story.
Here’s the hook: a guy wakes up in a room -- wait, not just wakes up, explodes into terrified, vibrating awareness of everything in said room except his sense of “self.” There’s a locked room in the house with no key. There’s a key to a car. There’s no name that he can recall but fortunately, someone has left him one.
First things first, stay calm.
If you are reading this, I’m not around anymore. Take the phone and speed dial 1. Tell the woman who answers that you are Eric Sanderson. The woman is Dr. Randle. She’ll understand what has happened and you will be able to see her straight away. Take the car keys and drive the yellow Jeep to Dr. Randle’s house. If you haven’t found it yet, there’s a map in the envelope -- it isn’t too far and it’s not hard to find.
Dr. Randle will be able to answer all your questions. It’s very important that you go straight away. Do not pass go. Do not explore. Do not collect ₤200.
The house keys are hanging from a nail on the banister at the bottom of the stairs. Don’t forget them.
With regret and also hope,
The First Eric Sanderson
Yes, that’s without even getting into the big bloody shark surfacing later in this damnable weird, beguiling bastard of a novel.
I got to speak with the young British author about his debut novel a few months ago, just when the buzz about it was starting to build to a crescendo (but after Nicole Kidman came circling around the book, hoping to convince its author to change the hero’s name to “Erica Sanderson”).
“Lots of different things are behind it,” said Hall from his headquarters in the Queen’s kingdom. “I’ve always loved artists like Simon Patterson and Richard Long who play games with written language. I’m a huge fan of Paul Auster and of Murakami, Borges, Calvino, Danielewski, who do similar things with fiction. I love films, too, and sharks as well. People are always fascinating -- our unpredictable emotions, the strength of them sometimes, the way we cope with things and the way our minds work. I’m a real magpie.”
I worry that The Raw Shark Texts is so weird, yet wonderfully unique -- because of and not despite the convergence of its myriad influences -- that the average reader may be dumbfounded by its very oddity. Hall, to his credit as a debut novelist, has no such worries.
“There are already lots of different opinions on what the book is and what really happens in the story,” Hall said. “I love that. That’s exactly what I hoped for. It’s a book full of action and adventure heading into the unknown. Hopefully the book doesn’t have to be too complex for the reader if that isn’t what they want. That complexity is there if you’re a complexity kind of person, like I am. But I tried my best to make the book readable as a sort of fantastic thriller, too.”
Somehow the synthesis of Hall’s ideas, big and small, original and borrowed, creates a unique experience for even the most jaded readers like your humble columnist.
“The book is pretty complex from a writer’s perspective,” Hall said. “I didn’t keep many notes so I just walked around with the whole thing jammed into my head somehow -- for four years. I wanted the book to feel a little like memory feels -- half familiar sensations and ideas floating by, the sudden flash of something recognizable. Plus, if you’re going to use the streams of thought and consciousness as an actual environment in a story, then that place needs to be littered with references, built from them even. Nothing is created in a vacuum and it seems more interesting and fresh to me to simply accept that as a writer and work with it.”
Ever the gentleman, Hall wouldn’t give me any juicy gossip about “the whole Nicole Kidman thing,” or the film rights that landed at Film Four in the UK, but he was pleasantly humble when I asked him about the early praise for his first book.
“It’s been really wonderful and amazing,” he said. “When you’re writing something, you never really know if it’s going to work for anyone but yourself. The reaction has been overwhelming. Most days, I’m still in shock!”
A Murderous Media Convention
On the more conventional side of the thriller spectrum, Ridley Pearson will release a new book, Killer Weekend, through his new publisher Putnam in July. It matches the bestselling author’s keen sense of plot and peril with a new series character, Sheriff Walt Fleming. Set in the picturesque and subtly menacing resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho, the new novel pits the secret service, FBI, and hired killers against Fleming’s instincts as he struggles to protect a Presidential candidate in a playground for the rich.
“It rings so true for me,” said Pearson, who has lived part-time in Sun Valley for decades. “It’s nice to write about a place you know so well. I know its habits because I’ve lived here for a long time. It’s changed so much with the influx of big money that ruins the valley in some ways. It’s ever-changing and busting at its seams and having problems related to that growth so there’s no lack of gritty material here.”
Fleming, who’s unapologetically based on Pearson’s real-life friend Sheriff Walt Femling, is up against some rich and powerful forces in Killer Weekend, drawn to a fictionalized version of the real-life annual conference for media moguls hosted by uber-investors Allen & Company.
“These guys jockey for the best seats in restaurants,” said Pearson of the billionaires who broker deals like the 1996 Disney/ABC merger over ice cream in Sun Valley. “Along with one or two of these moguls comes a small army of personal masseuses, chefs, and armed security forces. It’s a lot of money in a really small town.”
Walt Fleming is the first consciously planned series character for Pearson, who previously carved out a series of crime novels starring Seattle detective Lou Boldt and forensic psychologist Daphne Matthews. As Pearson was amicably leaving former publisher Hyperion, Putnam Executive Editor Dan Conaway convinced him over cocktails at Left Coast Crime to plan out a series based around the Idaho sheriff.
“Dan gets what I do,” Pearson said. “Unlike what happened with the Lou Boldt books, Dan requested five or six books up front. The trick is painting a broad enough canvas so that there is room to expand later. There are little lines here and there in Killer Weekend that could lead to whole books later. They’re embedded on purpose to inspire future novels in the series.”
Pearson says that he’s reenergized by his most recent writing and by the dramatic possibilities of its new setting.
“There’s no need in a place like this to make up characters,” Pearson said. “These ski areas attract the most bizarre ski bums. The guy across the table is the descendent of a Vanderbilt and the waiter has two PhDs. It sounds sort of hokey but there are different qualities to the people here. In some ways, people who live in a place like this have fled here. They’ve come for the quiet and the pastoral beauty. It’s different from a city. There’s also a a whole set of conflicts that people bring here or they create once they’re here. Everybody is a little too close and a little too recently married. It’s an endlessly interesting place.”
I’m pleased to report that Pearson continues his sideline as bass guitarist and singer for The Rock Bottom Remainders, the musical train wreck that pairs him with Stephen King, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, and Dave Barry as well as the occasional guest star.
“We’re your worst nightmare of a garage band,” Pearson admits. “But we’ve raised $1.6 million over the last 14 years for worthy causes and we have a blast. A lot of fun writing projects have come from knowing each other. I have a ton of fun playing music. I played on the road for almost ten years before I ever published, although it never supported me very well. We’ll always be the Rock Bottom Remainders – the worst of the worst.”
The Cowboy Way
Okay, I’m going to skirt the boundaries of this month’s topic a little bit and leave you with a genuine, Edgar-winning mystery writer. Although C.J. Box’s novels certainly fall squarely into the arena of crime novels, they’re definitely rousing enough to satisfy thrill seekers.
Box’s work is elevated by his signature character, Joe Pickett, who is as nuanced and finely drawn as any amateur detective in the past decade. The merry month of May will see the release of Box’s seventh book about the Wyoming game warden and its title is key to its story: Free Fire.
Joe is in bad shape as the book opens. Due to the events portrayed in In Plain Sight, the poor guy has lost his job. Taken down a few notches but with his head held high, Pickett is working on his father-in-law’s ranch as the foreman and trying to baby-sit Bud Longbrake, Jr., the ranch owner’s son and former meth dealer.
Fortunately, the state’s Machiavellian governor, Spencer Rulon, pulls Pickett back in to investigate a murder in Yellowstone National Park that’s as nefarious as a Gordian knot. The accused murder, Clay McCann, managed to butcher four campers in a sliver of land that falls between jurisdictions. Box tells me it’s a real-life conundrum.
“There really is this little 50-mile strip in Idaho that’s between jurisdictions,” Box said. “There’s a Michigan State law professor named Brian C. Kalt who is an expert in the field. He did a paper about this very subject called 'The Perfect Crime.' Basically, the 6th amendment to the Constitution declares that anyone who commits a crime in the U.S. is entitled to a jury trial in the state, and district, where the crime is committed. If a crime is committed in this 'free fire zone,' you would have to draw a jury from this 50-mile strip -- and there are no residents. It’s a fascinating problem.”
Although the book touches on each of Pickett’s supporting players, the draw of the new book comes from Pickett being out on a long limb, alone against the Park and its more sinister denizens.
“Free Fire stands on its own more than any of the other books in some ways because Joe Pickett is out of his element,” Box said. “I’ve always wanted to write something about the inside of Yellowstone, not just the geothermal aspects but the inside stuff that goes on between the park service, the concessionaires, the environmentalists and the developers. There are a lot of things going on there that people don’t see when they drive past the geysers.”
Personally, I think Pickett is a classic: the beleaguered game warden is quite literally a cowboy who can’t shoot straight.
“He can’t shoot well,” Box admits. “The only good shot he ever made was from three inches away. That will be his everlasting shame.”
Fortunately, Pickett’s true grit is more than enough to keep readers coming back for more.
“I tend to think that he’s a very human, normal guy,” Box said. “He doesn’t come in with a lot of baggage and a deep, dark past. The one thing that sets him apart is that he’s very driven to figure out what’s going on despite the bureaucracy with which he’s coping. I think he has a unique way of seeing things for himself even if people around him don’t see things the same way. He’s a little naïve in a way but that becomes part of his strength because he doesn’t trust anybody.”
Postscript: I had planned to end our session this month with some insights into Vikram Chandra’s bludgeoning brick of a novel but there have been so many reviews of Sacred Games and its dead villain that even I’m exhausted to read more about it, and I read the whole thing. If you insist on delving into Chandra’s gargantuan tale of life among the gangsters of Mumbai, you can start here.
Come back next month and we’ll do this dance again.