'Essays On the Art of Thriller Writing'

by Phineas Redux


Essay 06. Thrillers – Their Philosophy and Meaning.

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


By Philosophy I mean Why? And by Meaning I refer to their raison d'être; hard subjects to start a short essay with. I should also explain the width and scope of the term 'Thrillers'. For this short series of essays I am using the term as an umbrella, taking in all fictional stories and novels encompassing Crime, no matter how it rears its head. So, many other genres will be discussed and noted along the way.

These sorts of stories are primarily an entertainment; the Public worldwide showing by their ongoing near-insatiable appetite for such that they desire these offerings. As a result, as with any other offering, there are grades available to suit all tastes—or to significantly fail in this notable aspiration. There being available to the reading Public all manner of literature from the Classic and honoured to the reviled as garbage. Somewhere along this gradient or curve of Popular Taste most people will find the point where their personal palate discovers the ambrosia most fitting for them.

A lot of low-level undemanding literature is readily sold at numerous outlets; but is this a bad thing, overall? Remember that in the 1930's to 1950's American Pulp magazines, of many genres, were supposedly either aimed at children or taken as very light reading indeed; it not being till later that critics and reviewers caught up and began to realise what we know for a fact today—that many classic tales, by great writers, were published in these lowly magazines.

Even in the worst written of such literature there is still a moral message being presented to the reader, for their edification. This being that Crime is wrong; that standing against various manifestations of evil is always right; that a hero or heroine is always a guiding light for the reader to admire and copy; that a Crime story is, essentially, where Good triumphs over Evil,—a modern Fairy Tale; even if, at times, they read more like Grimm's original unedited versions than Disney's.

No matter how poorly written many of these effusions may be, this general message must still make itself known; for how could any writer, even if as bad as is possible in the circumstances, get away with always showing—against all reality—that Evil continually triumphs over Good? The Public does not only wish to be told the exact opposite—Good is always triumphant—but they wish to be constantly reminded, almost ad nauseam, of this fact; never complaining of the reiteration.

Why should the genre of the Thriller, or Crime, tale be so powerful an influence on the Public's taste, as opposed to various other genres such as Historical, War, Romance, Entertainment or Action? What special ingredient or exotic spice is hidden in the recipe of these stories which touches the reader's palate more strongly than other genres? Perhaps the fact that crime has the strongest personal impact on any victim, in real life, is a guiding factor? People, through newspapers, television, and in many cases personal experience, know the horrors involved in Crime. They basically abhor these activities and, in fear of such a personal involvement, either previously or as a worry still perhaps to come, wish to have their fears put at rest. So a Thriller or Crime story is not only entertaining, it assuages a deep-seated real fear in the Public consciousness.

Like taking a medicine over a long period of time, this repetition of the victory of Good over Evil quietens the innate fear of the reader by providing an inexhaustible source of well-being against their qualms and uncertainties regarding the unstable foundations, as they perhaps see it, of the Society they live in.

This may account, to some extent, for the success of series' characters in Crime stories. In such numerous tales as those written by authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Georges Simenon, Ngaio Marsh, and many others, the constant reappearance of known and loved characters sets the reader's mind at rest, allowing them to enjoy the tale to a greater degree; and thereby supply them with a further dose of a preferred opiate against their subliminal fears.

Perhaps the reader of this essay may think I am being a trifle sarcastic, even cynical, here; but I beg to differ, this proposed idea seeming a strong possibility to me, as far as any literary theory goes. Does this mean I am against the writing and publishing of Thrillers and Crime stories? No, of course it doesn't; I am simply putting forward a theory, likely of no great worth in itself, which to me appears to suggest at least one single underlying cause for the continued success of such tales and novels throughout the last one hundred years or so.

Thrillers and general Crime stories may also provide sustenance for the reader, male or female, who feels Life is passing them by; who feel their lives and-or careers, lack the spice necessary to an interesting existence? 'They also serve who only stand and wait', John Milton once noted; but many readers may feel this is not enough; that such is a mug's game; that standing on the corner, merely watching the hero's or heroine's car chasing the bad guys' car down the street, does not contribute enough of the basic enjoyment of Life; that they would much rather be in the hero's or heroine's car, following along after the baddies', with a pistol ready in their hand? These sorts of story therein provide just that indirect, but still powerful and significant, feeling of personal participation in danger and adventure that the reader so desires.

So the continued success, over such a long period, of Thrillers and Crime stories may specifically relate to their content; the themes which they commonly address. A story then, in any of these previously stated oeuvres, thereby proffers to the reader a series of wished-for ingredients; first, vicarious adventure; then the thrill of the chase—any chase, as long as it provides excitement for the reader; followed by a, carefully concealed, moral; and finally, in allowing the bored reader to believe that, for a short time at least, they are not simply standing and waiting on Life, but are active participants therein,—even if only in a spiritual or imaginary sense.

If the reader wishes for a quick fix of that which turns them on, then a Murder story is the go-to remedy; a Thriller being too long-winded, and slower to provide instant gratification. But if a reader wishes to immerse themselves in any given metaphysical state or distant imaginary country of the mind, where danger threatens round the next corner, then a longer, slower, more nerve-wracking story is the cat's pyjamas; which the basic Thriller provides in quantity and, usually, quality too.

Whether the reader gains their daily dose of cerebral excitement from one or other genre is neither here nor there; a Crime tale being a Crime tale, no matter the style of its walking-out garments. All these genres, whether they can be said to provide a true service in clutching a variety of texts to their individual bosoms or not, give to the discerning reader the same thrill; the same sense the reader is contributing something to the world; that reading any variety of crime story assuages their desire to be involved, even though at second or third hand, in such dangers and crimes. It appeases a strong need, psychologically speaking, in the Human frame to participate in the old Hunter-gatherer adventures and dangers of long ago; a deep-seated want which still, today, requires nourishing; if only, now, in a purely intellectual sense.


This is the last essay in this series.