'Essays On the Art of Thriller Writing'

by Phineas Redux


Essay 02. A Labyrinth of Genres

Disclaimer:— This essay is copyright ©2018 to the author.


When I was young, and still wet behind the ears and innocent, I thought a Murder tale, whether novel or short story, was just that and nothing more; then the term 'Genre' reared its head over my literary horizon, and everything suddenly became so much more confusing. Apparently, and I am just extrapolating from my own judgement here, it is necessary for a particular type of plot theme to be firmly placed within its own set universe, or milieu; i.e., if a murder is the main plot point then it is a Murder genre story; if the various dangers faced by the hero/heroine are the main theme, then it is a Thriller; if the story revolves around the work of a private detective's involvement then it is a Detective story; if the Police Department is the focus of activity then it is a Police Procedural; if wild and flamboyant action, the more dramatic the better, takes up most of the scenes then it is an Action tale, and so on.

Of course, the first question which springs to the mind of the interested reader is, where and what are the boundaries between each genre, if any? I make this latter query because, to my mind at least, the answer is extremely convoluted. For instance, taking two further genres as examples, Ian Fleming wrote Spy genre novels about James Bond; whereas William Haggard (real name Richard Clayton) wrote Political genre stories about various characters in the higher echelons of the British Government; but where does the one genre stop and the other genre start?

Or, to take the most famous example, Agatha Christie. Oh, here you the reader will nod knowingly and say—Detective genre, of course; Poirot, y'know? But what about all the gruesome murders at the heart of most of her novels, and many murders in her works were terrifically gruesome, let me tell you? Surely, that means her works must be Murder genre tales? And then, in many, we have the appearance of Inspector Japp, so, obviously, the stories must also be regarded as Police Procedurals, as well, no?

Then there is the interesting case of Margery Allingham, and her insipid oaf of a recurring hero, Albert Campion (excuse my personal opinions seeping in, but this is my essay, after all). He is, apart from an insufferable playboy, a private detective who works in close conjunction with the police on several cases, all involving murder. So, are these works members of Murder, Detective, Mystery, or Police Procedural genres?

Say, for instance; and here I am making wild suppositions, though not overly so, an author publishes a Murder tale, and describes it as such, but the reviewers take up the point that because the main participant is a police officer the genre should rightly be Police Procedural? Is this the sort of detail worth making any seriously significant critical headway with? I think not. Take as another example, the difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy, if there is one. How much of the film '2001, A Space Oddysey' by Stanley Kubrick, is the one as opposed to the other genre? Or let us say, simply for the sake of argument, how much of Harry Potter veers between the two genres? And how much of 'The Lord of the Rings' by JRR Tolkien, is High Fantasy in opposition to the parts that may be termed Sci-Fi? Are the Rulers and Judges of the Worldwide Genre Organisation (probably a close brother, or is it sister, of the CIA, MI6, Interpol, and Scotland Yard) going to put out global bans or requests that any erring author be apprehended as soon as possible and brought to justice? Ridiculous. So, what do the varying genres achieve, as descriptions of various fictional texts, in the present day literary world?

Nothing, in fact; at best genres as such lead a wholly metaphysical existence; they do not have a physical life in the real world, though much has been written about them as if they do. They are like that old idea of Plato's, the Theory of Forms or Ideas; where something existent, no matter what, had a Perfect Supernatural Template which encompassed that something in its most unadulterated flawless form or shape attainable. That theory was more or less debunked, even in the philosopher's own lifetime, but echoes linger to this day; ergo, Genres in Literature.

Can Genres, therefore, be said to have a professional significance? Hardly, I should say. At best they may be a suitable method of describing any particular story or novel, at the time the critic or reader comes in contact with it, and wishes to make a general statement about it. But suggesting that, once initially placed under one heading, the tale can never hence be re-positioned is simply silly. Any number of Golden Age Thriller-Murder-Detective-Mystery novels and stories can with great ease be described under each or every of the foregoing headings; so where does that place either the story itself, or the critic reviewing it, or the poor reader?

This triple division, in effect, is the major point; the significant positioning of the story in its modern environment. Firstly, the tale by its very existence holds sway as something; secondly, critical notice of its existence attempts to deconstruct its corporeal being to get at its bones (forgive the gruesome analogy, but any veteran reader of these sorts of stories should be used to gore, surely?); thirdly, the reader merely wishes to be entertained for some shorter or longer period of time, irrespective of the underlying literary architecture or moral substance of the story they are reading. Does a strict adherence to the concept of Genres assist in this latter wish, at all? No, it doesn't.

The most important adherent of this policy of Genres, which came within the margins of my early reading life, was the paperback Publisher, Penguin. For many years their volumes graced the bookshop shelves, handily (I use the term more or less pejoratively, you understand) divided by their cover designs into several genres. Crime stories and novels were published in green and white banded covers; mainstream novels in orange and white bands, pink and white for Travel and Adventure, blue and white for Biography, and red and white for Drama, with several other variations bringing up the rear. This led to some curious oppositions, for instance the author Michael Innes (who was in reality J. I. M. Stewart), published in two genres, Crime and Mainstream. His Penguin crime stories were published in the green and white covers; while his mainstream novels, many just as much crime-ridden as his others, appeared under the orange and white covers. Then there were authors whose works, when published by Penguin, seemed to appear willy-nilly in a variety of genres; an example being John Welcome (real name John Needham Brennan,—an amazing number of Penguin authors published under pseudonyms) whose 1958 thriller 'Run For Cover' was published in green covers, whilst his 1959 thriller 'Stop At Nothing' came out in orange covers—I still to this day being unable to distinguish what the difference between the two seemingly similar thrillers was, to the Penguin editors of the day.

So Genres', dear reader; what about them?—don't take much notice of them, in fact; if a critic or reviewer stands for any particular text being in one camp or the other don't let him, or her, make an oracular rule of the fact. If he, or she, determines a novel is a Thriller, while you think it clearly a Murder; or the critic opines a story is Historical, while you see only a straight-forward Western; well, let it be so, for you. After all, your belief is as praiseworthy and valid as anyone's, be they critic, reviewer, or literary poetaster to the High and the Literary Mighty.

Go your own way, in fact; reading what you wish to read, and describing the work of the moment as you wish to describe it, in the face of all opposition—that is the way, to reference Plato again, the Open Society should work, after all, isn't it?

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." - Henry David Thoreau.


Another essay in this series will arrive shortly.