“What is a Thriller?” (by Kevin Mims)

In today’s post, Kevin Mims, a frequent contributor to this site, takes a stab at defining one of the broadest of entertainment genres—the thriller. Each year, when EQMM makes its submissions for the best-short-story award given by the International Thriller Writers, we have to make judgment calls as to what counts as a thriller and what does not. It never seems to get easier, but Kevin’s take on the subject is interesting. —Janet Hutchings

One of the most difficult popular fiction genres to define with any precision is the “thriller.” For the last half century or so, when publishers or p.r. reps or reviewers have applied the word “thriller” to a novel, it has usually been done to convey to potential purchasers that the book is fast-paced and suspenseful, a novel you “won’t be able to put down.” Such books are also sometimes called “page-turners” or, if they contain some aspect of supernatural horror, “chillers.”

On her self-titled blog, Savannah Gilbo, a so-called “book coach,” has compiled a helpful list of “Ten Things Every Thriller Novel Needs.” But even this list leaves room for some quibbles. For instance, Gilbo lists “a crime” as the first element that every thriller novel needs. I disagree with her. I consider Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws to be one of the greatest thrillers of the twentieth century, but it isn’t a crime novel. The villain of Jaws isn’t a criminal; it is a force of nature. Likewise, I consider Michael Crichton to be one of the preeminent thriller-writers of the last sixty years, but in many of his novels— Timeline, Jurassic Park, Sphere, The Lost World, Disclosure, The Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, etc.—crime is not a major part of the plot. The 1962 novel Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, is one of the greatest thrillers of the Cold War era but it isn’t a crime novel. It is about a series of technical and procedural failures that causes the U.S. to accidentally target the Soviet Union with warplanes carrying nuclear weapons that could wipe out all of Moscow and its environs. The 1958 airplane thriller Runway Zero-Eight, written by Arthur Hailey and John Castle, tells the nightmarish tale of what happens when the pilot and co-pilot of a passenger jet flying across Canada are stricken with a case of food-poisoning and can no longer fly the plane. Early on, foul play is eliminated as a cause of the food-poisoning. This is a thriller with no bad guys and no crime. But it is nonetheless riveting.

So, if a thriller isn’t necessarily a mystery or a crime novel, what is it? I would argue that, at the very least, all thrillers need a relatively brisk pace and a great deal of suspense. They also need relatively high stakes. Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, is widely regarded as one of the best American thrillers of the twentieth century. The stakes are high: a young pregnant woman tries to prevent a satanic cult from sacrificing her unborn child to the devil. Levin does a good job of ratcheting up the suspense, so that the final one hundred pages or so of this relatively short (218 pages in paperback) novel fly by. The book has been justifiably described as a horror novel and a novel of psychological suspense. It is also a crime novel as well as a mystery. But, for me at least, the term “thriller” seems almost tailor-made for books like Rosemary’s Baby. This is clearly a book meant to be gobbled up in a sitting or two. Though it is a horror novel about Satanism, Levin doesn’t delve too deeply into the history of Satanism or its impact on world culture, the way that Anne Rice’s novels often stretch back centuries in order to explore vampirism or witchcraft.

Here are some of the other novels from the same approximate era that I would categorize as thrillers: William Goldman’s The Marathon Man (despite also being a crime novel) and Magic (despite also being a crime novel and a psychological – as opposed to a supernatural—horror novel), Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle (despite also being a spy novel, a war novel, and a historical novel), James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor (also a spy novel and a crime novel), Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (also a sci-fi novel and a social satire), Stephen King’s Carrie (also a horror novel), John Farris’s When Michael Calls (also a crime novel), The Day of the Jackal (also a crime novel), Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction (also a crime novel and an adventure novel), and Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children, A Stranger Is Watching, A Cry In the Night, and The Cradle Will Fall (all of which are also crime novels).

Do I have a foolproof formula by which I can separate the thrillers from the crime novels, or from the horror novels, or from the spy novels? No, not really. What Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography is true of me and the thriller novel, “I know it when I see it.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “I know it when I’ve read it.” Many fans of the genre say that a ticking clock (or a hard-and-fast deadline of some sort) is a necessity for a good thriller. I don’t think a ticking clock is an absolute must for a thriller, but I do prefer thrillers that take place over a relatively short period of time. Andrew Klavan’s 1995 novel True Crime (the source of the 1999 Clint Eastwood film) is a classic of the ticking-clock thriller genre. It is the tale of a crusading journalist who has just a few hours to find evidence that will prove the innocence of a man scheduled to die in the state’s gas chamber for a murder he didn’t commit. Many of Michael Crichton’s novels unspool over a short period of time. Rising Sun covers just three days. Congo unfolds over the course of thirteen days. The Andromeda Strain covers a span of just five days.

Are suspense novels and thrillers the same thing? I don’t think so. I think of Patricia Highsmith as a writer of suspense novels (which are usually also crime and/or mystery novels). Although her novels sometimes provide thrills, they are generally much more slowly paced than traditional thrillers. Graham Greene called her “a poet of apprehension.” Her novels are full of tension and unease, but they often move very slowly (by intention). Highsmith didn’t write “page-turners,” she wrote “slow burners.”

Although John D. MacDonald was capable of writing good thrillers—such as Cape Fear—his best-known works, the Travis McGee novels, are detective stories rather than thrillers. Thus I think of MacDonald as a crime writer or a detective novelist. The same is true of Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer books. Crime writer (or mystery writer, or spy writer, etc.) is not a lesser designation than thriller writer; it is simply a different designation. I consider Lee Child and Harlan Coben to be thriller writers, even though crime and mystery permeate their works. I consider Thomas Harris to be a thriller writer, even though his books all deal with crime. Although her books contain plenty of crime and mystery, I consider Mary Higgins Clark to be a writer of thrillers. The same is true of Tess Gerritsen.

Now let’s talk a bit about the various subcategories of thrillers. Michael Crichton was said to specialize in techno-thrillers. The term seems fair to me, even though some of his thrillers (such as The Great Train Robbery and A Case of Need) contain nothing that would strike a contemporary reader as cutting-edge technology. Tom Clancy was a writer of political thrillers or military thrillers. Clive Cussler has been described as a writer of nautical thrillers (although that term doesn’t describe all of his books). Robin Cook is the master of the medical thriller. The Genesis Code, John Case’s 1997 novel of cloning and international adventure, has been described as a bio-medical thriller. That sounds about right to me.

And then of course there are Scott Turow and John Grisham and all of their fellow lawyers-turned-bestselling-authors. When Turow’s Presumed Innocent first hit the bookstores in 1987, the publisher could have promoted it as a “legal novel” or a “courtroom drama,” appellations that had been applied to earlier bestsellers such as The Caine Mutiny or The Anatomy of a Murder. But, by the 1980s, “thriller” was the term of choice for the kind of books that were known to keep pop-fiction junkies sitting up all night in their armchairs. And so the publicity department for Farrar Straus & Giroux promoted Presumed Innocent as a “legal thriller.” It might not have been the first use of the term, but it was the first time the term was applied to a cultural juggernaut, a book that, in its way, would become as seminal as Rosemary’s Baby or The Day of the Jackal or Jaws. Four years later, when John Grisham, a lawyer like Turow, broke into the big time with his second novel, 1991’s The Firm, the appellation was just waiting there to be exploited. As it happened, Grisham would go on to be the most successful author of legal thrillers (as measured by book sales) of the twentieth century and (so far, at least) the twenty-first. Of all the subgenres of thriller, the legal thriller is probably America’s most popular, thanks in large part to Grisham.

I have written before about my prejudice in favor of short thrillers. If I were appointed America’s czar of popular fiction, I would decree that no book longer than 400 pages could be labeled a thriller. Sadly, I have no such authority. What’s more, I must concede that, over time, I have grudgingly begun to appreciate the long thriller. Stephen Hunter’s nearly 500-page novel Dirty White Boys is one of the most thrilling novels I have ever read. The Thomas Harris thrillers The Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are both over 400 pages long and I wouldn’t want them even a sentence shorter. My admiration for these and a handful of other very long thrillers has convinced me that it would be foolish to impose an arbitrary limit on the length a thriller novel can run.

Let me close with a list of authors whom I believe deserve to be categorized as thriller writers. This list is purely subjective, obviously. For instance, it contains far more male writers than females ones. This isn’t because men write more thrillers than women. It’s because I read more thrillers by men then women. The authors on this list might just as easily be categorized as crime writers or horror writers or fantasy writers or science fiction writers or adventure writers. Few of them confined themselves to a single popular genre. But, if forced to categorize them, I’d place them in the thriller genre, as hard as that genre may be to define. Here we go:

Ira Levin

Michael Crichton

Richard Matheson

Thomas Harris

Robert Harris

Stephen Hunter

John Grisham

Ken Follett

Frederick Forsyth

Dean L. Koontz

Mary Higgins Clark

William Goldman

Dan Brown

Lee Child

Harlan Coben

Robin Cook

The writing team of Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston

Gillian Flynn

Allan Folsom

David Morrell

Nelson DeMille

Tess Gerritsen

Alistair MacLean

John Katzenbach

James Rollins


F. Paul Wilson

Jack Higgins

David Wiltse

David Martin

Feel free to recommend other thriller writers in the comments below. The above list emphasizes authors who wrote multiple thriller novels. It doesn’t include authors such as Patrick Suskind, who wrote Perfume, one of the most unusual thrillers of the twentieth century, but no other true thrillers. James Dickey wrote two great thrillers—Deliverance and To the White Sea—but he’s better remembered as a poet than as a novelist, so I left him off the list. Walker Percy’s 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome is a bio-medical thriller, but all of his other novels are mainstream stories of life in the American south. Norman Mailer’s 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a great thriller. But it’s the only true thriller in his rather extensive bibliography. There are plenty of other one-off thrillers out there, books whose authors either produced only one thriller or, in some cases, only one really good one. Perhaps I’ll devote an entire essay to them at a later date. Until then, stay safe, keep reading, and have a thrilling time.

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1 Response to “What is a Thriller?” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. Pingback: September Wrap-up 2022 – Snapdragon Alcove

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