Les Miserablesby Victor Hugo. This novel is long. It has a whole miscellany of odd things that got left on the cutting-room floor when the book was turned into a Broadway musical. There are learned disquisitions on medieval monastic orders, the sewers beneath Paris, and the nature of quicksand. And though I wasn’t terribly interested in these subjects, I didn’t mind wading through those chapters. I was so desperate to find out what was going to happen to Jean Valjean, there was no way I could stop reading. Hugo was a master of the cliffhanger.
By Mark Alpert
Last month I read Anna Karenina for the first time. Truth to tell, I had mixed feelings about the novel. Many chapters were glacially slow. The descriptions of Russian rural politics couldn’t have been more boring. Worse, none of the main characters — Anna, Vronsky, Levin — was particularly likeable. Still, I got caught up in the soap-opera plot, the whole nineteenth-century aristocratic mating dance. And the book’s climax blew away. Every thriller writer can learn something from seeing how Leo Tolstoy handled Anna’s suicide.
It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Anna kills herself, is it? It’s like the crucifixion in the New Testament — everyone knows it’s coming. In fact, the only thing that kept me going through the boring chapters was the anticipation of seeing Anna throw herself under that train. And Tolstoy didn’t disappoint me. The chapter showing Anna’s nervous breakdown in the hours before her suicide is brilliant. I loved her nihilistic, stream-of-consciousness observations as she rides in her carriage through the Moscow streets: “There is nothing funny, nothing amusing, really. Everything’s hateful. They are ringing the bell for vespers — how carefully that shopkeeper crosses himself, as if he were afraid of dropping something! Why these churches, the bells and the humbug? Just to hide the fact that we all hate each other.”
And then the fatal act itself, six pages later, described so pitilessly: “Exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels drew level with her she threw aside her red bag and drawing her head down between her shoulders dropped on her hands under the train car, and with a light movement, as though she would rise again at once, sank on to her knees. At that same instant she became horror-struck at what she was doing. ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ She tried to get up, to throw herself back; but something huge and relentless struck her on the head and dragged her down on her back.”
After finishing the book I tried to think of other classic novels that offer useful lessons for thriller writers. Here are four more canonical works that made a big impression on me:
Tale of Two Citiesby Charles Dickens. Mr. Ringel, my sixth-grade teacher, read this book out loud to our class over a period of several weeks. Reading a Dickens novel to a class of unruly eleven-year-olds was a pretty ballsy thing to do. I remember several occasions when Mr. Ringel had to yell at the miscreants in the back of the classroom who were whispering insults at one another instead of listening to his narration. But no one whispered when he read the scene in which Charles Darnay and his family make their perilous escape from Paris. It’s the great-granddaddy of chase scenes, and thriller writers have been unashamedly imitating it for the past 150 years: “O pity us, kind Heaven, and help us! Look out, look out, and see if we are pursued! The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far, we are pursued by nothing else.”
For Whom the Bell Tollsby Ernest Hemingway. One of the most memorable battle scenes ever written is El Sordo’s hopeless stand against the Spanish Fascists. The Republican guerilla is badly outnumbered, but he holds off the Fascist soldiers by crouching behind dead horses and mounds of dirt. Then the enemy planes arrive and obliterate El Sordo and his comrades. But my favorite part of the book is Pilar’s description of the atrocities committed by her fellow Republicans when they killed the Fascists in her hometown:
“Then I went back inside the room and I sat there and I did not wish to think, for that was the worst day of my life, until one other day.”
“What was the other day?” Maria asked.
“Three days later when the Fascists took the town.”
Pilar doesn’t describe the even worse atrocities committed by the Fascists, but she doesn’t have to. Hemingway teaches us that less can be more. Some things are best left to the reader’s imagination.
All the King’s Menby Robert Penn Warren. This novel is the ultimate political thriller. It has all the classic elements: a power-hungry antihero, a brassy seductress, a compromised journalist, a capital full of corruption. But it’s also a morality play of the highest order. Willie Stark, the book’s populist Southern governor, is determined to do some good for the people of his state, even if he has to resort to every evil trick to do it. And Warren’s writing is pure momentum from the book’s very first pages, in which he describes the governor’s car tearing across the impoverished countryside: “For this is the country where the age of the internal combustion engine has come into its own…Where the smell of gasoline and burning brake bands and red-eye is sweeter than myrrh. Where the eight-cylinder jobs come roaring around the curves in the red hills and scatter the gravel like spray, and if they ever get down to the flat country and hit the new slab, God have mercy on the mariner.”