Oh, hey, it’s my 500th post. Wave hello.
In addition to watching surreal TV and a variety of war movies, I’ve also been reading. Specifically: a steady diet of thrillers.
Lee Child: a retired British TV producer who turned his hand to the novel, his first book, Killing Floor, introduced the character of Jack Reacher. A discharged Military Policeman from the U.S. Army with a 50″ chest, he wanders the country with no fixed address and no permanent ties. He stumbles into trouble and cons, plans, cheats or brawls his way out of it every time.
I’ve read two books of Child’s: Persuader and One Shot. They’re formulaic but that doesn’t detract from their allure. Reacher may have the unreasonable martial prowess of all action movie stars – in One Shot he takes on five guys at once and kills a man by bear hug – but he doesn’t rely on it. Most of his mysteries he solves by outsmarting someone, or at least knowing a little more about the world. Jason Bourne meets Hercule Poirot.
Overthinking It has weaned me off the phrase “guilty pleasure,” which I would normally use to describe Child’s novels. Instead, I’ll say they speak to only one emotion: the laugh of triumph over a defeated foe. Fun beach and airport material.
Harlan Coben: I started reading thrillers on the advice of an agent and an editor, in order to improve my own writing. In that regard Coben’s writing has been the most instructional. Every novel of his I’ve read opens with a first paragraph that hooks me, strings it out to a first chapter that keeps me going, then turns it into a first half that carries me until the plot twist.
His stuff isn’t perfect, granted. The most interesting character in each novel is never the protagonist. The plot twists are predictable only in that they’re always the one thing that would turn the story most on its head at that moment (she’s not really dead!, etc). But his writing grips you and drags you into the heart of the action. It may be a formula, but so is Coca-Cola.
I’ve read Gone for Good and No Second Chance, and I may yet read more.
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Why is the thriller genre so easy for me to read?
As I speculated earlier, thrillers tap into the lust for revenge we all have: the joy of a brutality sanctioned by polite society.
I think it speaks to that fundamental animal rage which all of us – who share more than 95% of our DNA with animals – carry. The “laugh in triumph over a defeated foe” that Orwell talks about: the brutal, pre-rational appeal of nationalism. We want to kill, and we want our killing to be sanctioned by a moral code. He hurt my family, therefore it’s okay if I cut off his fingers. He killed my wife, so it’s all right if I slaughter everyone he knows and burn his house to the ground. No impartial jury or outside observer would think that’s a proportional or fair response – but come on! I’m the Good Guy, so my savagery makes me driven. They’re the Bad Guys; their savagery makes them subhuman.
But ultimately, in stories like that, the tissue-thin distinction between Good Guys and Bad Guys suggests more than it divides. We don’t cheer the Good Guy because he did the right thing by stabbing the Bad Guy in the top of the skull. We cheer the Good Guy because he totally fucking killed that dude! Did you see that? We identify with him because he has his reasons – they took my job, they hurt my family, whatever – but that’s secondary. The chaotic, reptilian roar of victory after bashing someone’s neck seals the deal.