Mysteries and Thrillers Are Opposites

Media

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As always it took the excellent Val McDermid to point out what should have been obvious; that crime and mystery novels are left wing and thrillers are right wing. Writing in the Guardian, she points out that the crime novel gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world, while thrillers play on the idea of the world being turned upside down and the status quo being threatened.

Is it any wonder that thrillers play better to Republican Americans, where the words ‘threat’, ‘justice’ and ‘punish’ always crop up in the context of catching the villain? Even in a show as fundamentally liberal as ‘Breaking Bad’ there’s a lot of talk about punishment. Cinema provides more thrillers than mysteries because the latter are more action-propelled. Mysteries are thought of as sedate, but beneath their surface there’s more going on.

I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books because Lee pushes his character to the very edge of parody. Tom Cruise’s portrayal failed not just because he looks utterly wrong but because the film didn’t catch what’s really going on in the books, this satirical edge. When Reacher starts working out the cubic capacity of a crashing bus or teaches an old lady how to use firearms it’s great fun because the reader understands the subtext, but there’s no subtext in an action film.

One of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a very long time is ‘A Most Violent Year’, but it risked being a left-wing thriller, showing how good people become corrupted. Instead of restoring the existing system it suggested that the system was unfixable. In this sense it echoes the left wing politics of seventies thrillers like ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor’ It also failed to garner any Oscar nominations in the US (surprisingly, given the quality of acting), which killed its chances at the box office – check it out.

Most mysteries seem to be divorced from any such political realities, but I find it hard to do that, so Bryant & May novels always comment on society, which is why ‘The Burning Man’ is concerned with banking scandals and riots. My characters may be outsiders but they live in the real world.

3 comments on “Mysteries and Thrillers Are Opposites”

  1. Sharon says:

    I’ve had your Bryant and May books recommended to me by a Discworld fan group, no less. I got to “Off The Rails”, and was very impressed by the true-to-lifeness (though I know you research topics thoroughly) of the rail workers and network. I’m a railway signaller in Australia, and I may be a bit less professional than the people portrayed in the books (I like swearing too much), it rang very true to life. I’m looking forward to devouring the rest of them! (I’m unsure if Mr Fowler will see this, but, not knowing how else to contact him, this was as close as I could get). Love the books! 🙂

  2. admin says:

    Of course I see this, Sharon! One of the beauties of running this site is being able to talk to readers wherever I am (I’m on a bus in Barcelona at the moment). I spoke to a lot of railway people and am glad I got it right!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Railway people arise! I assume, Sharon, you’ve read “Raising Steam.” That title is another example of the linguistic split we’ve commented on here a number of times. In north America it would be called “Getting Up Steam” or “Getting Steam Up”
    I was explaining Bryant and May (a complex job at the best of times) to a group of railroad modellers yesterday and it was fine until I mentioned when their careers were supposed to have started. The eyebrows rose until they thought about their own ages.With every year that passes and the increasing number of centenarians celebrated on our local news every day their extended careers are appearing more possible all the time. (My husband is going back to work next week part time as an emergency fill in at his old firm. The house taxes will be paid easily and we’ll go to the model train convention in style.)

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