Friday , March 1 2024
"I’m just glad to see good crime writers making the bestseller lists, which they weren’t doing much until the 1980s"

An Interview With Patrick Anderson, Author of The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction, Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part interview. In the first part I lamented how Patrick Anderson has my dream job: Getting paid to read thrillers and write about them for The Washington Post.

Since then I read the rest of the book and my opinion of him has turned from jealousy to pride, proud that he has the same goal as me even if he does get paid for his work:

Jonathan Yardley, the Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, once wrote that Edmund Wilson "saw it as his mission to introduce worthy writers to intelligent lay readers." Clearly I'm not Wilson and the authors I'm championing are not the celebrated modernists he admired, but I like to think I share that admirable goal – to introduce worthy writers to intelligent readers. There are a lot of both out there, and I hope this book helps bring them together.

Reading this book was a bit surreal as 95 percent of the time I agreed with his opinions. For example I've long championed Michael Connelly and told everyone to read him. He takes that opinion a step further writing of Connelly and his main protagonist, Harry Bosch:

In my review of City of Bones, I said that the Bosch novels were "the best American crime series now in progress." Several novels later, I'll go further and say that if we consider the depth and seriousness that Connelly has brought to Harry's characterizations, the excellence of his plotting, the precision of his writing, his unsurpassed grasp of the police culture, and the moral gravity of his work, the Bosch novels are the finest crime series anyone has written. There is much competition: McBain, Pelecanos, Burke, Chandler, MacDonald – all have done wonderful work. But I don't think anyone has written at such a high level for so long. For those of us who accept Harry, warts and al, there are few more affecting portraits of an angry, damaged, tormented idealist in American fiction.

He has a great chapter addressing a question I often ask of mystery writers – whether they are losing some of their creativity and independence by writing a series with the same character. He gives good examples of how it works fine for some authors but not others.

The biggest common thread through the book is the question of whether thrillers should be taken seriously, whether the time has come – obviously he says it has – for modern thrillers to be considered good true literature:

A lot of people have a hard time making the leap from officially approved "literary" fiction to novels that are fun… I received an e-mail recently from a college student in Houston, an English major, asking what thrillers he should read – or whether he should read them at all. "I am racked with guilt if I read any of this stuff. Life is short. I haven't finished all of Dickens or Shakespeare. Do I have time for detective novels?" I could only advise him that life is longer than he at present understands and that there is time for, say, Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane along with Dickens and Shakespeare."

He similarly chafes at labels:

It annoys me to see fine writers dismissed as genre writers – crime novelists, spy novelists, and the like – by those who salivate over the latest incomprehensible postmodern gimmickry. A book is a book is a book. Labels are necessary to organize bookstores, but serious readers should pay them no mind. In these pages, I will follow one paramount rule: to judge writers not by their reputations but by the words they put on paper. Reputations are what other people think; this book is what I think.

With that let us turn to this interview. Anderson begins at, well, the beginning, looking at the history of crime fiction. He devotes an admittedly an inordinate amount of space to Raymond Chandler because he is bothered by some of Chandler's writing.

You dared to speak ill of Agatha Christie AND Raymond Chandler. Have their fans sent any hate mail? I’m going to watch the noir movies you mention  – The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon – to see what you were seeing about scenes from the books and films that make no sense. Were you surprised, disappointed and/or frustrated to find these two greats were, well, underwhelming? Why do you think they are considered such greats if they are not all that, well, great?

I don’t think I spoke ill of Dame Agatha. She had a genius for clever plots, she was a fine storyteller and she was historically important and immensely successful. What I said was that her work was inevitably uneven, given that she wrote more than 60 novels. I admire novels like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None, but I also read one of her early novels, Peril at End House, picked at random, and thought it was fluff.

Chandler was a gifted writer, probably the most lyrical of the major crime writers. He was more influenced by Fitzgerald than by Hemingway (and, as I noted, took some cheap shots at Fitzgerald in The Long Goodbye). He often wrote truly beautiful scenes and descriptions. 

But two things bother me about Chandler. First, as is pretty generally recognized, his plots are rambling at best and incoherent at worst. I quote, for example, Howard Hawks, who directed the movie version of The Big Sleep, as saying he never did understand what was going on the in book and finally decided it didn’t matter. And there’s the famous story of Hawks (and William Faulkner, one of the screenwriters) sending Chandler a telegram asking who killed the chauffeur and he wired back: “No idea.”

You can read Chandler for the writing, for the mood, for the portrait of Los Angeles, but you’ll have a problem if you’re looking for a plot that makes much sense. The other problem is that he was amazingly racist and homophobic, and was pretty nasty toward women, too. I cite many examples, such as the opening scene in Farewell, My Lovely, when he ridicules various black people, including the young man he repeatedly calls “it” rather than “him.”

His defenders say, “Oh, that just reflects the times,” but I don’t think that’s good enough. You can find touches of racism and homophobia in Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but they don’t beat up on blacks and gays, and mop the floor with them, and laugh at them. Chandler was an intelligent man but also a rather nasty man at times, and the nastiness made it hard for me to enjoy his books when I went back and reread them. But was he a good writer? Sure. Was he historically important? Sure. Did he have a big influence on later writers? Sure. But he needed a good editor.     

Do you agree with my contention that Scott Turow is a better writer of legal thrillers than John Grisham?

Sure, there’s no doubt that Turow is a better and more interesting writer than Grisham. He has more depth, more complexity, more moral concern, more of just about everything. But Grisham is the more commercial writer because he comes up with great plots and doesn’t make the intellectual demands on his readers that Turow makes. Grisham is an entertainer; Turow is a serious writer who digs deeply into reality. 

You introduced me to lots of intriguing writers in your book. I’ve started a list of authors I’m going to check out – heck interview if possible – including Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid and Ken Bruen. Thank you. There were a few with which I disagreed. You were more dismissive of Robert Crais than I am, for example. And you think more highly of Thomas Harris than I do. I lost a  lot of respect for him for the crap that was the Hannibal book.

I only noticed two authors that I didn’t see you give credit to that I greatly admire: Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake. Was that because you just couldn’t include everyone or do you not like either of those authors?

I think Robert Crais writes skillful action/adventure thrillers about a private investigator, but I don’t think he’s as interesting as a lot of other novelists like Connelly and Pelecanos and various others who exhibit more depth and complexity.  

I think of Thomas Harris as a mad genius. He’s a wonderful writer with a very strange, perverse mind. I agree with you that Hannibal was a big let-down after Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. I said in the book that Red Dragon was his warm-up, The Silence of the Lambs was his masterpiece, and Hannibal was his decadence. Still, there was a certain dark fascination in just how far he would take things. In a conventional novel, Starling, the FBI agent, would have captured Lecter, the serial killer, at the end of the novel. Instead, he captured her. The conventional next step would be a sequel in which Clarice comes to her senses and brings the madman to justice. But we have no particular reason to expect Harris to do the conventional thing. He has the problem that in Hannibal he was increasingly trying to win our sympathy for Lecter by presenting other characters who are even more loathsome than he is. But it really doesn’t work – Lecter is a monster who needs to be back behind bars, no matter how witty or charming he is. I hope Harris writes another installment and resolves this. 

I haven’t read much Lawrence Block. A lot of people admire him. I reviewed one of his recent books and it didn’t grab me. Maybe the earlier ones were better. I think that some of Westlake’s books are a lot of fun. Maybe thirty years ago he wrote a little comedy called “A Likely Story” that is the last word on the tribulations of the writing life. What he does he does very well. 

Your bio says you were a speechwriter for the Kennedy and Clinton administration.. How does one go from being a novelist to speech writer to book reviewer for the Washington Post?

I started out as a newspaper reporter and found out that I could take a lot of material, organize it, and write something in the time available. I think my talent is essentially journalistic and I’ve found that I can apply it to various genres. At thirty I started writing magazine articles for the The New York Times Magazine and others. Then I wrote my first book, which was nonfiction, about the White House staff. Then I wrote my first novel about a young man who worked on the White House staff. I’ve published nine novels and I think their strengths are essentially journalistic – good dialogue, fast pace, plots that makes sense. (They have some weaknesses too.) I think that if you can write a magazine article or a book you shouldn’t have much trouble writing a speech.  

The hard part isn’t the writing, the hard part is keeping your sanity in the political world, which I more or less did in a couple of campaigns, most notably the Carter campaign of 1976, which I wrote about in a book called Electing Jimmy Carter. I always say that the leap from writing fiction to writing political speeches is not a great one. 

Do you think you are a better book reviewer having been through the experience of being published and reviewed yourself?

I hope that having been published and reviewed myself has made me a better reviewer. I’m very sympathetic to novelists. It’s a tough business. I know that it’s no fun to have your books denounced, or misunderstood, or ignored. I try not to take cheap shots or to beat up on people for the fun of it. Still, my job is to give the reader my best and most honest opinion. At one level, a review is a consumer guide: You’re telling the reader whether or not to invest $25 in a book, and that’s a lot of money.   

I received an interesting e-mail from a reader recently. My reviews appear in the Post on Monday mornings. A woman wrote me about 8 one morning. I’d praised a book and she said she’d gone online to her local library to reserve it and she was already 25th in line. I hope those people thought I gave them good advice. 

The press release for your book raises two questions both of which I’d love your answers to since they are good ones. First, “If all writers want to be read, what’s wrong with being read by millions?” Second, “Must popularity and artistic merit be mutually exclusive?”

There’s nothing wrong with being read by millions. What’s wrong is when you write lousy books to attract those millions. Even that’s not really wrong – we’re talking about consenting adults here – but if I’m asked to review a Patterson novel or a Cornwell novel, it’s my job to give my honest opinion, which is that you shouldn’t waste your time and money on them. Obviously they’re going to sell millions of books no matter what I say. That’s okay. They do their thing and I do mine. 

Must popularity and artistic merit be mutually exclusive? Certainly not, although you have to define what you mean by “popularity” and by “artistic merit.” Most of the writers I most admire have achieved both, from Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Greene and Maugham and Sinclair Lewis to Philip Roth and Larry McMurtry and Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and Laura Lippman and many others. Sometimes artistic merit means it takes you longer to find your audience – sometimes you never find your audience – but it can be done. It’s sad when you read a first novel and think someone is trying to write crap because he thinks it will sell.

People should write the best books they can and hope they get lucky. 

Let’s end by talking about John Grisham. You compare him to James Michener:

The two men’s subject matter is dissimilar – Michener wrote long, awesomely researched historical novels – but both are great storytellers and both are middlebrows in the best sense of the word. They’re intelligent without being intimidating, they don’t offend, and they reach out to the largest possible audience.

I thought that was an odd comparison. Don’t you agree that Michener’s books are more thought out, more detail-oriented, less, well, fluffy, than Grisham’s?

Michener and Grisham. Maybe that’s a stretch or maybe I didn’t make myself clear, but I think they’re both great middlebrow storytellers who were able to reach a huge audience. Yes, Michener’s books are certainly more detailed – so detailed I usually found them unreadable – and Grisham is more fast-moving and immediately entertaining. A lot of people think fiction is sinful unless you “learn” something, and Michener’s books taught them a great deal about Texas or Hawaii or whatever. And I suppose Grisham’s books teach people something about the law, although not as much as Turow would. 

Is this intended as one of those back-handed compliment or damning with faint praise?

“Of the mega-selling novelists of recent years – a list that includes Tom Clancy, Daniel Steel, James Patterson, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, and not many others – Grisham is easily the best writer, no small distinction.”

I take it that you agree with me that Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, for example, are much better writers but they have not reached the same selling status of those you read? Or am I mis-reading you here?

You’re correct about what I said about Grisham and the “mega-selling writers.” I don’t put Connelly or Pelecanos in that group. They’re better writers, and they sell well, but not in the league with Clancy, King, Patterson and the others I mention. I’m just glad to see good crime writers making the bestseller lists, which they weren’t doing much until the 1980s – that’s why I call my book The Triumph of the Thriller. It took time but good crime fiction found its audience.                                                 

Thanks again to Mr. Anderson for the interview. The pleasure was all mine.

I want to end with one last quote from him, regarding all the best-sellers that may sell well but are of very low quality, including Nicholas Sparks, Jeffrey Archer:

So what are we to do with all this deplorable fiction? In the long term, our nation must spend fewer billions on foreign wars and more on literacy programs. In the short term, reviewers (heroic fellows, for the most part) must steer people away from this schlock and toward all those good writers out there.

We would also do well to look on the bright side. There is so many wonderful writing. To be a book lover in America today, able to enjoy the wealth of fine writing that we and the rest of the world produce, is to be blessed. Ultimately, the purveyors of crap are only a nuisance.  

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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