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Thrillers: Val McDermid

A thriller is the literary equivalent of the theme park white-knuckle ride. Stomach-churning suspense, heart-stopping fear, and the ever-present sense of jeopardy are all there, as well as that visceral uncertainty at the back of our reptile brains about whether we're all going to make it out of here alive. There are the dramatic highs, where everything seems held motionless at the point of no return, then the terrifying plunges into the depths, and finally the soaring sense of relief at the end. As well as that little niggle of nervousness at what might have been if things had just been slightly different.

The thriller encompasses such divergent books as the serial killer hunts of Patricia Cornwell, the action thrillers of Dick Francis, and the corkscrew twisting scams of Elmore Leonard. What they all share are those three elements of suspense, fear, and jeopardy. In a thriller, the suspense lies not in discovering whodunit but in how the protagonist will overcome the forces ranged against them. The central character of a thriller always faces jeopardy. Of course, a detective in a crime novel is habitually also under threat, but only because of his or her criminal investigation. The threat to thriller heroes often comes out of a clear blue sky and invariably turns their world upside down. Here, there is no closed group of suspects, and often the rest of the world of the book is turned remorselessly against our hero. And the price he will pay if he does not overcome what threatens him is usually the loss of all he holds dear.

This doesn't mean that the thriller is an endless sequence of dramatic set pieces. Often, the story involves a psychological investigation of threat, where the battle is as much a moral as a practical one. Often, too, that interior struggle is matched by violent confrontation. The father of the modern thriller is probably Robert Louis Stevenson. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) the chilling tale of obsession personifies the fight between good and evil and contains all the elements of suspense, jeopardy, and struggle that every good thriller needs. It's impossible not to be gripped by Jekyll's battle with his own dark side, released by the very potion he has himself created. It's a novel whose influence stretches down to the present day, continuing to inspire readers and writers alike.

Patricia Highsmith is clearly heir to Stevenson's fascinations, revealing penetrating insights into the minds of those who kill. She dazzles with her brilliant series of novels featuring the amoral con artist and killer Thomas Ripley, a bewildering charmer determined to let nothing and no one stand between him and his desires. Beginning with The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) she blazed a trail that has been followed with great success by, among others, Ruth Rendell, Thomas Harris, and Patricia Cornwell.

One of those who has developed the novel of psychological suspense in Highsmith's wake is Minette Walters. In The Sculptress (1993), she uses the device of a journalist deciding to write about a cause célèbre as a way to explore both the details of the crime and the mind of the woman serving life for the brutal murders of her mother and sister. Layer upon layer of deception is carefully constructed then stripped away, until at the end, the final shock of realization leaves as many questions as it answers.

Often, suspense comes from the battle of wits between the investigator and the killer. An extreme example of this is Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs (1988), where fledgling FBI profiler Clarice Starling is thrown into a harrowing investigation into a serial killer who skins his victims. Can the FBI profilers manage to identify the killer before he strikes again? And will Clarice be both suitable and intelligent enough bait to persuade convicted killer Hannibal Lecter to give up his own insights? This is a classic example of a white-knuckle ride, leaving readers uncertain whether they'll be able to hold on to their lunch as the roller-coaster plunges vertiginously further into darkness.

Many central characters in thrillers are not connected to law enforcement but are merely bystanders inadvertently caught up in events. In Dick Francis's Reflex (1980), Philip Nore is a jockey and amateur photographer who acquires what appears to be a box of photographic rubbish belonging to a dead cameraman. But he gradually unravels the mystery behind each seemingly meaningless item and uncovers corruption, blackmail, only to find himself the next target of a ruthless killer. Interwoven with this is the mysterious story of Nore's own past and his quest to find a future.

Another example is Peter Høeg's dark chiller, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1992). Smilla Jaspersen, a resourceful, tenacious, and bloody-minded Greenlander refuses to accept that the death of a neighbour's 6-year-old son is an accident. What starts as an intellectual exercise soon becomes a psychological battle of wits, with a terrifying action climax on the Arctic ice-cap.

Such an exotic background is common in the thriller. Barbara Vine's evocative and haunting No Night is Too Long (1994) alternates between Alaskan and East Anglian seascapes as the author unravels a dark tale of obsessive love and death, where the past casts a long and inevitable shadow over the present. Here, the sense of place contributes almost as much to the atmosphere as the story itself.

Lionel Davidson's Kolymsky Heights (1994) marries alien setting with the theme of the lone hero set against apparently insuperable odds. Mysterious messages from a secret laboratory in the deep permafrost of Siberia indicate to Professor George Lazenby that the Russians are exploring the murky depths of the gene pool. Science marries with breathtaking adventure to make this a page-turning thriller quite unlike any other.

Sometimes, the sense of being catapulted into a foreign world comes from a thriller's setting in time rather than place. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Umberto Eco's striking novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), set in 1327 against the backdrop of a prosperous Italian abbey. English monk William of Baskerville—who owes more than a nod to Sherlock Holmes in his deductive powers—is on a mysterious mission which is sidetracked by a spate of bizarre murders. By day, William investigates murder, but by night, he attempts to penetrate the labyrinthine mysteries of the monastery library. The Name of the Rose is an intellectual challenge wrapped up in the guise of a complex detective thriller, showing how genre fiction can transcend its apparent limitations and stand comparison with any work of literature.

Another thriller absorbed with the effects of history on the present is Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon (1999). The roots of the novel lie in Berlin and Portugal during the the Second World War, where greed shapes the lives of a disparate group of people. Then the wheel turns, and in the late 1990s, a young girl is brutally murdered, drawing past and present together in an absorbing battle of wits. The weaving of past and present means we are never quite sure what is coming round the next curve of the track.

But it's not only the past that is a foreign country. In Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation (1992) we are swept forward into a dystopic vision of London in 2013. The world is divided into information-rich and information-poor, and serial killing has become almost epidemic. To combat this, the authorities have devised a test that identifies potential killers. Then someone begins killing the men with the mark of Cain. Intelligent and imaginative, Kerr's thriller is one of the first truly successful examples of what amounts practically to a sub-genre, the serial killer thriller.

Along with Thomas Harris, the undoubted virtuoso of the American serial killer thriller is Patricia Cornwell. Although many crime writers in the United States have explored this corner of the thriller market, notably Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, and Lynn S. Hightower, Cornwell has carved a niche uniquely hers. In Post-Mortem (1990), she introduced her protagonist Kay Scarpetta, a forensic pathologist with formidable skills and sufficient emotional problems of her own to provide a fertile source of subsidiary story-lines in this and future novels. In classic style, Post-Mortem pits Scarpetta against not only a brutal serial killer but also against those who desire her defeat for reasons of their own. The books are characterized by a high body count, a wealth of forensic detail, and an extraordinary build-up of tension that has readers turning pages well into the small hours.

The thriller is one of the most popular genres of fiction and continues to attract writers of great imagination and skill. Its range and variety continues to grow; every year, writers push the boundaries further and experiment with the form, providing readers with fresh treats. For as long as we love to be thrilled and excited in equal measure, the thriller will continue to satisfy.


See also CRIME

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction