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The Thriller Mystery

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WHEN ERSKINE CHILDERS PUBLISHED The Riddle of the Sands in 1903, it was difficult to say what kind of a novel it was - except that it was an immensely successful novel. Was it a yachting novel? Most of the first third is about sailing. Was it a political novel? Politicians were certainly influenced by it, and when Childers entered the Navy in 1914 his first assignment was to draw up a contingency plan based on the novel. Was it a spy novel? Not only is it about spying, but the Foreign Office man is even called Carruthers! Nowadays it is clearly a spy novel - the first, properly speaking. But in 1903 things were by no means so clear, for most of the modern fictional "formulae" were far from established.

The exception was what subsequently became the classic English detective story - the "school of Mayhem Parva" - which was firmly and durably established by the success of Sherlock Holmes; and The Riddle of the Sands looked like a very different kind of novel, for it was more about action and a feel for wide open spaces, and far less about deductive reasoning and collecting evidence: at the time it must have reminded people more of Robert Louis Stevenson than of Conan Doyle. Subsequently, one of the best of Childers' successors, John Buchan, coined a good label for this writing: "shockers". Nowadays they are usually called "thrillers", but in either case the label is accurate, for it is a type of novel which intends to arouse one predominant emotion: the excitement of suspense.

The detective story is easily identifiable, because despite the ingenuity of writers who prevent the reader from guessing "Whodunit", it has only one plot, basically: the solution of a mystery, usually murder. The thriller has a greater variety: on the one hand, it contains stories very similar to the detective novel, based on the solution of a mystery - Buchan's Thirty Nine Steps (1915), or Sapper's Bulldog Drummond (1932); at the other extreme, pure pursuit and evasion stories, like Geoffrey Household's superb Rogue Male (1939) (the prototype of these is R. L. Stevenson's Kidnapped, 1886); and in between, the sequences of violent episodes with a little deduction that constitute many of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels.

In short, thrillers are a more loosely organized body of literature than the detective story, with its golden rules and puzzle-like structure. Yet, at the same time, there are clear affinities between them, as Buchan's Thirty Nine Steps indicates: the story starts with the mystery of Scudder's death and his coded notebook, and finishes when it is elucidated and his murderers caught at the house with the 39 steps; on the other hand, the emphasis in the story is not only on the assessment of evidence and its interpretation in order to solve a mystery, but Just as much upon the actions taken: Hannay's disguises and adventures. In the words of one young man to whom he tells a garbled version of his story: "By God! It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle" - adventure and detection mixed.

Certain generalizations can be made about the English thriller up to the beginning of World War II. The prime focus of these stories is action, and the heroes are correspondingly such as to be plausible in these contexts: rugged outdoor types who despise weedy intellectuals and other pallid urbanites - a certain arrogance about the bulk of humanity is commonplace. Contempt for intellectuals does not preclude a high valuation of intelligence - since deduction and strategy are essential for their survival, let alone success - but it is a practical intelligence, devoid of any speculation which might taint the moral certainties essential for unequivocal loyalty.

Their values are what might be expected in the time and place: absolute conviction in the superiority of the white races, especially the British, coupled with contempt if not downright hatred for "inferior races" blacks,
Balkans and especially Jews. All have servants from whom they expect a degree of intelligent dedication which strikes us today as a trifle optimistic given their wages and the disgustingly patronizing cone of voice in which they are usually addressed. Certain actions - lounging, for instance - while normal in the hero and his friends are positively Bolshevik when performed by a servant.
This class and racial chauvinism is most pronounced in Dornford Yates -who seemed to think that World War I was caused by the collective German cad aspiring to usurp the place of the collective British gentleman. Buchan's imperialist experience in Lord Milner's South African administration imbued him with a sense of the white man's and the black man's rightful and different places, though Davie Crawford admires Prester John for his personal strength and charisma; and there are plenty of throwaway anti-Semitic lines in his books. One is not entirely surprised, in Sax Rohmer's The Drums of Fu Manchu (1939), to find Nayland Smith defending Mussolini and Hitler from the Oriental doctor, who has decided that the Fascist dictators must be prevented from starting a world war.

In the mid-thirties Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett decided to put murder back where it belonged - with "the people of the mean streets". If their novels are very clearly detective stories, they are also action stories, and in them the distance between the thriller and the detective story disappears: action and deduction are thoroughly mixed. Certainly it was Chandler who said: "When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand"; but the reasons for the man's appearance would then be dissected logically. Such was the penetration of the American school that George Orwell was shocked and amazed to find that No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) was written by an Englishman, James Hadley Chase, "who had never been in the USA".

Even authors who preferred to stick to an English setting in the thirties and forties, such as Peter Cheyney and Leslie Charteris, adopted the tough style of the American "hard-boiled" school. Whether this was the cause of the demise of the English thriller a la Yates, Buchan and Sapper is questionable, but it is clear that their successors have inherited certain characteristics from across the Atlantic. First and most importantly, the mixture of action and deduction and the taste for explicit violence. Secondly, a dramatic reduction in snobbery and chauvinism: if James Bond is certainly a snob in some respects it is primarily a consumerist snobbery, not a class one, and his racism is extremely muted in comparison with his predecessors. Moreover he is no longer, like Yates' Berry Pleydell or Bulldog Drummond, a gentleman of
independent means following the dictates of his conscience: he is a professional killer paid by the government. Thirdly, sexuality; at best a peripheral issue for the "clubland heroes" of the inter-war years, it became increasingly important in the hard-boiled school, central in Bond and even (in John Gardner's Boysie Oakes series) the hero's only skill. In the hard-boiled school sexuality's presence usually takes the form of a potential threat to the hero, since the woman he is attracted to may use her charms for other, treacherous purposes - The Maltese Falcon (1930) is the classic instance. In the Bond novels it is simultaneously pleasure and political therapy, as Bond converts lesbians, gangsters, Communists and frigid smugglers a gogo.

Ultimately the characteristics of the hero are relatively unimportant: that is to say, it is extremely important the he should have a set of characteristics that make him attractive to the reader, but beyond that it does not matter what they are. In the twenties and thirties in England the fashionable characteristics were breathless enthusiasm ("Great Scot! chaps, think of the bare possibility of having stumbled on something.") coupled with considerable arrogance. With Chandler's Philip Marlowe ironical distance claims pride of place ("On the smooth brown hair was a hat that had been taken from its mother too young"). Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer breathes righteous hatred whereas Bond is cool and professional, but by the time we reach John le Carre's George Smiley a certain world-weariness has set in:
... all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy. That is the sword I have lived by, and as I look around me now I can see it is the sword I shall die by as well. These people terrify me but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgement of my peers.

That is a long way from Bulldog Drummond, but across this variety of personalities runs a constant thread: courage, perseverance and intelligence -the qualities, in fact, demanded by the situations portrayed. This is a difficult matter, for the nature of these situations is by no means self-evident.
The emotion intended by the thriller is suspense; but there is no necessary connection between suspense and stories about criminal activity - disaster stories, for instance, are suspense stories but the disasters can as well be accidental as criminal in their origins. Neither is there any necessary connection between suspense and a story with a single charismatic hero - disaster stories commonly involve a group of people none of whom dominate the narrative and none of whom, perhaps, are particularly heroic. But thrillers are always about criminal activity, and focus around a single hero: it is this combination that is their defining feature.

But it is not crime in the legal sense, strictly speaking, that forms their subject matter. For instance, most real-life crime (excluding driving offences) consists of theft: but theft would rarely figure as the subject matter of a thriller, precisely because it is too ordinary. Only exotic crime - usually murder- can provide the necessary impact. And the necessary horror, for the crime that the hero confronts must also be disgusting, not just against the law: it is the excessive immorality of an action that makes it villainous, not its illegality. Usually, therefore, the action that starts the story of a thriller is a revolting act of violence against the person.

The nastiness of what the hero confronts both demands his intervention and justifies it. If there were no villains and villainy, Sherlock Holmes would have stuck to chemistry experiments and surrealist violin, and James Bond would presumably make a living as a professional golfer, gambler or gigolo. The hero always reacts to prior aggression, from a mysterious source: as a
result, from the beginning, we see things through his eyes. And this is essential, not only for moral reasons - so that we feel he is Justified - but also in order to create our pleasure in the story: we want suspense, and we can only get suspense if we are 150 per cent on one side, and equally thoroughly against the others, for suspense consists of wholeheartedly wanting someone to succeed against extreme opposition.

The methods used by the hero may be every bit as nasty as those used by the villain: one of Mickey Spillane's heroes boasts of having tortured one of his enemies: "Goddam, I skinned a guy alive once and he screamed his state secrets with no trouble at all." This immorality has often been the source of concern among moralists. From the point of view of the thriller, of course, their concern misses the point: the hero is fighting evil men, and any means are justified that promise success. But that success must be achieved by the hero, for anyone who is dependent, in the final analysis, upon someone else is no hero - and the only way to show independence is to go it alone. That is why Doctor Watson is so stupid, and why James Bond's back-up team is regularly gunned down, burnt alive or dumped in a tank of barracuda.

Recently stones about criminal activity have shown a new feature: the hero is a criminal, the events narrated are his crime, and sometimes he even gets away with it. No longer are we on the hero's side because he is protecting the social order from evil - though sometimes the victims of his crimes are even more criminal than he is - but simply because he is engaged on a difficult "caper", and seems to have the ability to pull it off. The classic instance of this sympathy is probably Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, but there are many less famous versions. Morality no longer appears to play a part in our sympathies: skill and self-assertion are enough. Bulldog Drummond would turn in his grave.

Layout © R.D. Collins
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