Classic Thrillers

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.”

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.

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.”   

8 thoughts on “Classic Thrillers

  1. Hi Mark,
    I used to think “classics” meant anything HS English teachers tried to cram down my throat. That’s myopic, of course–they censor some really good books, ignore and destroy others, and, in general, look for Freudian crap that’s not really there and always stretch our incredulity to the max..
    That said, I’ll comment on your selection: Anything from “classic Russian literature” is ponderous and boring, except for Zhivago (and we know how that was treated)–and reading some of the poems in the original shows that Russian isn’t a guttural, ugly language (of course, Pushkin and Goethe show that too). Tale of Two Cities is the only decent novel by Dickens (A Christmas Carol wasn’t a novel)–the rest are boring exposes of British indifference. Les Mis was boring as a book, play, and movie–and, God help us all, the play’s coming back to Broadway. In general, 19th century romanticism, which has enjoyed a resurgence with Austen, etc, makes me sick. Try Middle March or Silas Marner if you’re on a bulemic weight loss program!
    Of course, European writers aren’t the only offenders. Giants in the Earth and Moby Dick are boring too–and these are lauded as “American classics.” The Great Gatsby was better as a movie, but not much.
    I have no problem with your other choices. But I have a problem with the idea, often championed by snobbish pundits, English teachers, and professors, that one ought to learn to write from studying the “classics” unless we clarify and say that we learn what not to write.
    BTW, where are To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood?
    I realize this is all subjective. Writing and reading tastes always are. That’s why they’re so much fun, in spite of what HS teachers do to destroy our love for the written word!

  2. Mark, I liked those passages from Tolstoy, the inner thoughts at the height of emotion. It’s so effective when done well. I’m reminded of the last few lines of Saroyan’s famous story, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” Seldom, if ever, surpassed.

  3. I used to love these writers when I was in college and devoured their work. But now…I wouldn’t have the patience, and I’m afraid many modern readers might agree with me. The pacing is too slow, the passages of introspection and description too long. People have shorter attention spans. So the lesson I would learn about thriller writing is to speed up the pacing, cut the long expository passages, and keep the action moving. Not a very intellectual approach but a realistic one for a commercial market.

    • Nancy, it’s interesting that as you have gotten older you have less patience for these large tomes. Is it a matter of less time on your hands, or do you think the faster pace of society’s media has affected you?

      And I agree with your comment about keeping the action moving.

  4. Love all your examples. Good books all. Reminds me of English class growing up. Ninety percent of the class got the cliff notes and never read the books. I was always two or three chapters ahead.

  5. Nancy nicely summarized my long-winded diatribe…well done. James mentioned Saroyan. Whether here or somewhere else, I mentioned that N. Scott Momaday was an influence on me–he had a way with words. I’d forgotten about Saroyan, who also had that special way with words. My parents’ dear Armenian friends introduced me to this author along with the history of the Armenian holocaust–one positive and one negative in an emotional sense. Thanks for reminding me of boyhood memories in the San Joaquin Valley….

  6. I absolutely loved All the King’s Men. For me, it was the amazing characters that made it such a great political thriller. In truth, this is often what I like best about my favorite books.

  7. All the King’s Men is a great choice. It is one of the best written and most compelling books ever. You should have also included The Grapes of Wrath. Just read the first few paragraphs and you are hooked. I haven’t read many Russian novels, but The Brothers Kamarazov was a lot better–and funnier–than I expected.

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