Mysteries and Thrillers Are Opposites
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.