Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thrills and thrillers

by Miriam

I struggled to get past the first 50 or so pages of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, thinking, as I dutifully turned the pages, “this is boring and the writing (or translation) is flat.” I’m almost embarrassed to admit this because it seems that everyone I know has been urging me to read this book (people speak of it with the kind of reverence I usually reserve for the likes of Ian McEwan and Toni Morrison) for months. I’m about 150 pages in now and I’m definitely more engaged, but I’m frankly (don’t yell at me) still at a loss as to why this book has been such a huge global success.

And that leads to the subject of Alexander Nazaryan’s piece in the Daily Beast about the decline of the American thriller now that the category has been hijacked by foreigners. Mr. Nazaryan wonders, “Will the American thriller go the way of the American automobile? Will even this small part of our superiority cede to another part of the world?” My response is “Does it matter?”

In fact, it seems to me that anything that revives this rather tired category is a good thing. The problem, as I see it, is not that the foreigners are taking over, it’s that readers have become so used to the big, bloated franchise writers who dominate the bestseller lists (I’m looking at you Dan Brown and James Patterson) and publishers so unwilling to nurture the more daring and intriguing entries into the field that it takes an international Cinderella story to make American readers pay attention once again.

I’m a big fan of intelligent, well-written, well-plotted thrillers with iconic protagonists and thorny moral issues. And it’s always seemed to me that, like jazz, the thriller is a quintessentially American literary form (no disrespect to Dostoevsky and Hugo). Like all things American, however, in order for this genre to evolve and prosper, it needs to allow and be allowed new influences and styles.

What are your favorite contemporary American thrillers?


  1. Thank you for going public (!) with this admission. I couldn't get past the first 30 pages either but dared not tell since, as you mentioned, so many people seem to love it.

    Haven't read enough thrillers to form an opinion yet but I'll check back to see what others have to say.

  2. You're not alone on Stieg Larsson. I just started The Girl Who Played with Fire and wrote a similar review here.

  3. Stieg Larsson takes a while to get into -- but I found that once the trap sprung, so to speak, I couldn't look away. And Lisbeth Salander is worth getting through a dull setup; if an American thriller would give us such a badass, unapologetic heroine, it might deserve Larsson's sales. But I'm not going to hold my breath waiting.

  4. I used to loved reading thrillers but, as you said, the genre is full of the same ole same ole. I commend you for continuing even though you aren't enjoying the novel.
    I most recently read Tana French's In the Woods.

  5. I am so glad you were honest about this book, I was about to BUY it! Sometimes I think reviewers are afraid to be honest and just parrot what they have heard other reviewers saying-possibly they don't trust their own judgment? Or they don't want to offend? either way, thanks!

  6. I've never been a thrillers' fan but I appreciate your opinion regarding the franchise culture and publishers not willing to take risks with new talents and aspiring authors. That's what worries me beyond the specific book genre.

  7. I can't help but wonder if the advent of ebook-only publishing will allow for a new "pulp fiction" category which will nurture new voices along.

    Because it's inexpensive to publish, I see a lot more sub-commercial commercial fiction appearing in independent and small press for Kindle and such, when in paper I used to see only expensive literary and niche works.

  8. I had to look up Thrillers on B&N, just to see what constituted that genre. Guess I'm a Thriller fan. Favorite authors of that genre: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Allison Brennan, Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake Series), and Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse Series), to name a few.

  9. I disliked "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", personally. I think there was too much lost in translation; the plot was interesting, but the characters and much of the material didn't translate well enough.

  10. LOL! I thought I was the only one who thought it was flat. I HAD to read this book. It was chosen in my reading group. I thought that because I'm part Swedish, it would help, or I'd learn about different foods. Nope. Herring and lingonberries still rule.

  11. I listened to the Steig Larson books on audio, and found them gripping. When I reread the first one in paper format a few months ago, I found it much less so, and harder to get into at first, though once I was hooked, I enjoyed it almost as much as the first time through.

  12. 'Girl' is boring at the beginning, revs up a bit in the middle, and dissolves into cliche at the end, with one of the most obvious 'touch chick' heroines outside of the vampire-killer girls in leather pants. (Crossed with 'the computer wiz' from War Games, circa 1982.) Other'n that, I loved it.

    You know who writes pretty good thrillers? Cormac McCarthy. But if they're good, nobody calls them thrillers.

    Chabon wrote an okay thriller recently, too--though he could've cut 80,000 words.

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