Monday, December 13, 2010

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and the Current State of the Thriller

As a genre, whether in books or films, the thriller is in a terrible state. And no, it's not all Dan Brown's fault. Over the last 20 years, the thriller has devolved to the point where it is often just this side of science fiction. I love good science fiction, so this is certainly no diss of that genre, but when thriller writers and filmmakers feel compelled to produce more and more outlandish plots just to get attention, you know something is wrong in the state of Denmark (and yes, I would consider Hamlet a thriller, one of inaction perhaps, but still a thriller).

Herewith are some of the basic plots of a few thrillers in the last 30 years: a group of former Nazis clone Hitler (Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil – 1976); a group of scientists raise the Titanic to obtain a rare mineral that the US government can then use to create a sound wave to knock down Soviet missiles (Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic – 1976); Hitler's right-hand-man Rudolph Hess has survived the war and is now a super villain in South Africa attempting to launch a nuclear device at Israel (Greg Iles' Spandau Phoenix – 1993); a virulent form of the Ebola virus is stolen by an evil group planning to let it free on the world (Ken Follett's White Out – 2004); a plan to destroy the Vatican with antimatter is hatched by a madman who also wants to be Pope – and, oh yes, the novel's hero jumps out of a helicopter using a tarp as a parachute! (Brown's Angels and Demons – 2000); a group of people over centuries try to hide the fact Jesus married and fathered children after his crucifixion – the Catholic Church does everything in its power to eliminate those who know (Brown's The Da Vinci Code – 2003); a madman tries to show that a plan to keep The Word from the whole world is the result of a conspiracy by the Masons – many of whom are at the top of the US government (Brown's The Last Symbol – 2009, just released in paperback in October 2010). 

I could go on, but my point is that even though many of these books are pretty terrible and generally poorly written (and yes, I admit over the years I've read all of these), it just doesn't seem to matter. All of these writers (except Levin, who died in 2007) continue to write and frequently make it onto the bestseller lists around the world. And one, Dan Brown, as we all know, became a phenom because of The Da Vinci Code. I know I'm not going to convince anybody that this genre is bereft when the plots have become this idiotic because these books continue to sell and sell and sell. (Want proof? Look at the New York Times Review of Books Fiction Bestseller List for Sunday, December 12, 2010 – nine of the fifteen listed are thrillers.)

The template was set a long time ago (Homer's The Odyssey is considered a thriller, so is Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo), and it hasn't really changed, except the ante has been upped. Yes, I know there were gods and demons and other harpies to contend with in Homer's work, but at least the world at that time actually believed these gods and demons existed. In the 20th century, John Buchan's 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps – about a German conspiracy to kill the Greek Premier in England and steal the Brits' plans for the upcoming war – is probably the grandfather of the modern thriller. Granted, his plot was undoubtedly considered ridiculous at the time, but he ended being somewhat right about the lengths the Germans were willing to go to win ... World War II. (Even though he was writing during, and about, World War I!)

The other problem with most thrillers today is that unless you come right out the gate at warp speed (first ten pages of the novels, or, in the case of the astonishingly bad Shia LeBeouf movie, Eagle Eye (2008), first ten minutes) you are at risk of losing your reader/viewer – or that is how the thinking goes. The biggest issue with most thrillers for me is not the impossible plots (I have no issue with improbable, but I really have no patience for impossible – and most of the books or films I mention above have plots that are frankly impossible), it's the characters. A character like Robert Langdon – Brown's hero – is an invisible cypher when I read the books. You'd think I'd at least see Tom Hanks (who played Langdon in Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code) in my mind's eye when I read the books, but I don't. And none of his other characters, as I read, have any form for me either. My pulse might race during the elaborate slam bam chase that sets off the movie Eagle Eye (its plot takes 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus: The Forbin Project, War Games and The Terminator movies, gives them a good shake and tosses it onto the screen), but that is the magic of editing and a pounding score, not good filmmaker or screenwriting. A writer when he or she crafts a chase scene in a book should at least get the pulse racing and the pages turning, but with the thrillers above I didn't. Why? Characters. As in, there aren't any.

I maintain that these 'successful' writers are so locked into what they are allowed to do (By their publishers? By their agents? By their readers expectations?) that they are either unwilling or incapable of crafting a credible character who will live in our minds after the book is finished. However, it is possible to do it.

In the 1970s through the 1990s, the late Thomas Gifford wrote a small number of novels that managed to do both. Two in particular, The Wind Chill Factor (1975) and The Assassini (1990), still live fondly in my memory. What did he do that today's writers rarely do? Before the thriller elements took hold, Gifford took the luxury of creating characters who seemed real. And yet, Wind Chill Factor and Assassini deal with plots that other writers I mentioned above also explored (Wind Chill is about the rise of the Fourth Reich, Assassini is about those at the top echelons of the Vatican who are up to no good). But few did it as well as Gifford because he always started with the characters. You believed the people at the centre of his plots existed and THEN we got into the outlandish scenarios that is the thriller's bread and butter. 

Others have done it too: such as Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther books, that I've written about twice (here and here); and the late Stieg Larsson of the The Girl With/Who books that my colleague, Shlomo Schwartzberg liked so much (go here and here). Me? I wish Larsson had lived so an editor could have tightened them up, but at least Salander and Blomkvist seemed genuine. And I think it is because of his two credible leads that Larsson's trilogy was so successful. There are those of us out there who enjoy thrillers, but thrillers populated by people, not plot machinations. Sure, the Larsson books were big hits, but he's passed away and we will not see any more. The Kerr books are loved by those of us who love them, but they don't appear on bestseller lists because they challenge the reader too much (Gunther is often a creep).

This is really unfortunate, because when it has been done well, this is a genre I've always enjoyed. Heck, I'm even willing to say Brown's The Last Symbol has some passages that actually suggest he can write well. And his last five pages, though a bit slow and preachy, are actually quite good. It's just that the slog through the plot plot plot becomes so overwhelming that the instances of good writing are lost in the mire.

Have I completely lost hope in the thriller? What I said in the beginning may suggest I have, but if a Gifford or a Kerr or a Larsson continue to pop up over the years, perhaps all is not lost. I just wish the Clive Cusslers, James Pattersons, David Baldaccis, Vince Flynns and Dan Browns (unless his good passages become whole novels) would vanish from the bestseller lists, so more good thrillers with believable characters will have a chance to be written and published.

 David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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