This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post has my dream job. As I mention to him in the interview, he gets to do what I would love to do: Get paid to read mysteries and thrillers and then write what I think.
But I figure if I can’t have his job the next best step is to read his book, Triumph of the Thriller, and interview him about the book and his job. His book is an exploration of my favorite genre, mysteries, and he dishes the dirt on who is really bad along with who is really good. He also tackles an issue that has always fascinated me: Why the literary establishment fails to consider the mystery as “real” literature.
Anderson's reviews run on Mondays in The Washington Post. More often than not he and I are reviewing some of the same books. We share opinions on some of the writers he cites as great and those who are underwhelming.
He has been gracious enough to wait to do this interview until I finished some personal work first.
Scott: What is it about the mystery and crime novels that so fascinates readers?
Patrick: It’s a combination of things. People have always loved suspense, going back to the Holmes stories and Agatha Christie and many others. In the last half century, as a lot of “literary” fiction has become increasingly murky, people have turned to crime fiction and thrillers because they stress plot and storytelling. And in the last twenty years or so, as thrillers have become more popular, more and more of the best young writers have been drawn to them, because that’s where the action is and the big paydays. Dennis Lehane is one example among many. So the quality of the writing is far superior today to what it was in the past.
Scott: What was your intent with this book?
Patrick: Five years ago The Washington Post asked me to review crime fiction and thrillers each Monday. Over the years, I’d read a lot in the genre for pleasure – John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Sanders, Elmore Leonard and various others – but as I went deeper into current thrillers, two things became clear to me. First, that they’d become the mainstream of American popular fiction. This wasn’t always the case. Go back to the Fifties or the Sixties and it was James Michener, Jackie Susann, Herman Wouk and the like.
But look at the bestseller lists today any Sunday and crime fiction and thrillers dominate the list. Some are good, some are terrible, but that’s what people are reading. And I didn’t think enough attention had been paid to that fact and why it had come about. The second thing I noticed was that there was some tremendous talent at work in thrillers and I didn’t think enough attention had been paid to them, either.
So I wrote The Triumph of the Thriller to discuss the genre in general and some of its outstanding practitioners.
Maybe this is the place to say that I, and most people in the book business, use “thriller” as an umbrella term that includes crime fiction, spy fiction, legal thrillers and various other subgenres. The main difference between a “mystery” and a “thriller,’ I think, has to do with the level of violence. Clearly, the Hannibal Lecter books are thrillers and the Agatha Christie books are mysteries, but there are books in the middle where the definitions get fuzzy. If you want to argue that the Harry Bosch books are police procedurals, not thrillers, that is fine, but I and most people would call them thrillers. Not that it really matters a lot. The emphasis should be on the quality of the writing, not categories.
Scott: I noticed you singled out for praise in your book Michael Connelly, someone I've also been praising for years. What is it about him that makes him a stand-out writer?
Patrick: I think Connelly does it all right. The writing, plotting and characterizations are excellent. Bosch is a strong character who we’ve seen change over the course of a dozen or more books. The out-of-control guy of the early books has become a kind of saint, pursuing what he calls “the blue religion.” Connelly started out as a great police reporter and he knows the police culture as well as anyone. And his books have moral content.
There are a lot of current writers I admire. I think Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River is simply a great American novel, like Lonesome Dove or Main Street or The Grapes of Wrath. I think Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambsis the best modern thriller anyone has yet written. I think George Pelecanos’ DC novels, particularly the Derek Strange quartet, are brilliant and uncompromising. I think Elmore Leonard is wonderful and I have great admiration for James Lee Burke, Martin Cruz Smith, Laura Lippman and numerous others. But I don’t see that any other American — past or present — has produced a body of work equal to the Bosch series.
Scott: I confess to skipping ahead to the chapter where you unload on some bad best-selling writers including Patricia Cornwell, David Baldacci and James Patterson. This made me smile because I've criticized Cornwell and Baldacci in reviews. It's like we're long lost twins. What did you find so bothersome about Cornwell and Baldacci?
Patrick: I’ve read only one of Patterson’s novels and part of another. Some years ago I started his Kiss the Girls, about a man who kidnapped, raped and murdered young women. I thought it was dumb and tasteless and exploitive and gave up after a few chapters. Later, in a review, I called it “sick, sexist, sadistic and sub-literate,” and I think that sums it up. I reviewed The Beach House and thought it was just dumb, like a bad comic strip. If people enjoy his stuff, that’s fine, but I don’t see how anyone who knows anything about good writing could read him for pleasure.
The first — and last — Cornwell novel I read was Trace. It was ridiculous how she glorifies her heroine, whom she clearly sees as a version of herself. She’s somewhere between Wonder Woman and a Greek goddess. A lot of people wrote to thank me for my review. They said that her early novels were good but that for some reason — perhaps having to do with her personal life — her work had fallen apart.
I think Baldacci probably has more talent but has set out to write Patterson-like bestsellers which make no sense but offer a lot of cheap thrills. This is how I closed my review of Baldacci’s Hour Game:
In a shootout a moment later, ‘Beating odds of probably a billion to one, the two bullets had collided.’ Beating odds of probably a billion to one, I survived this novel with my sanity intact. With this book, Baldacci has entered the James Patterson Really Bad Thriller Sweepstakes.
As a reviewer, I try to avoid bad writers. I’d rather look for the good writers, because there are a lot of them out there who don’t get enough attention. Some of the lesser known writers I’ve praised include Michael Gruber, Peter Abrahams, Karen Slaughter, Peter Craig, Charlie Huston, Ken Bruen and Adrian McKinty.
Scott: You devote a full chapter to Tom Clancy's "literary offenses," another writer I used to take relish in writing negative reviews of until I decided that it wasn't worth the time or effort. What's your beef with Clancy and why do you think he's so popular?
Patrick: Clancy is a mixed bag. He dreams up big, ambitious plots and at his best he’s a good storyteller. I think of him as a political novelist. If you like his right-wing politics you’ll probably like his books. I don’t like his politics, plus I don’t think he writes very well, he has no ear for dialogue, he repeats himself endlessly, and his plots are often just silly. I set this out in detail in my chapter on Clancy, for anyone who’s interested.
Scott: I want to ask your opinion on two other crime writers, both of whom I'm in the process of interviewing and reviewing, James Lee Burke and Robert Parker. Both are best-sellers yet both have their detractors. What's your take on them?
Patrick: I think Burke is very good. He’s a lyrical writer who captures the American South very well. He also writes very well about crime and violence and he writes serious books. I admire his work. I reviewed a book by the Australian writer Peter Temple recently and he shares Burke’s ability to combine both poetry and extreme violence. I don’t see how anyone could not admire Burke unless they’re put off by his violence.
I haven’t read much Parker. I reviewed one of his recent books (it wasn’t a Spenser book) and wasn’t much impressed. People tell me that his earliest books were his best. Lehane and some other good writers speak of how much he influenced them. When I said Lehane had been influenced by Chandler, he said no, he was influenced by Parker and it was Parker who was influenced by Chandler.
Scott: You do realize you have the dream job of many readers, especially me, right? One of my earliest aspirations in life was to get paid to review books. What's life as a reviewer really like? Do you sit around all week reading? Do you have a special reading chair at work or do you sit in a hammock at home?
Patrick: It’s a dream job, sure, if you love books, but it’s also a part-time job, which I combine with other projects. I try to read a book over the weekend and write the review on Monday. Deciding what to review can be agonizing, reading the book can be fun or not, depending on the book, and writing the review is fun and challenging – to try to understand the book, to see beyond the obvious and to say something of interest.
As a reviewer, it was interesting to see the reviews of The Triumph of the Thriller. I see the book as a rebuke to a literary establishment that is out of touch with what’s happening in American fiction and mostly concerned with hanging onto its own power and prestige. I cite the case a few years ago when the nominees for the National Book Award were four women who live in New York City and sell very few books. I mean, are these National Book Awards or the 92nd Street Y Book Awards? But if they wouldn’t nominate Philip Roth that year (for The Plot against America) they damn sure weren’t going to consider Connelly or Pelecanos or Lehane, whom some of us would consider more important novelists than the four women..
My reviews struck me as divided between the people who admire good popular fiction and agree with my point of view, and the more ‘literary” types who were outraged and offended by my suggestion that they widen their horizons. I must say it was amusing to receive an intelligent review in “Bookgasm,” which I’d never heard of before, and a dumb review in the New York Times Book Review (for which I’ve reviewed, off and on, for forty years). I can’t say that I’ve brought the literary establishment to its knees yet, but it was fun writing the book and it has some fans out there.
Time is on our side. Lehane and Connelly and Pelecanos and some others will live long enough to be accepted as modern masters.
For part two we will talk about some other great authors and some who do not deserve their fame and fortune