A 3-Part Guide To Airport Thrillers (3)


The airport thriller was transmuted, first by the supernatural, through Stephen King’s immense and seemingly unedited doorstops, then by one other global phenomenon. There’s a simple clarity to the No.1 airport thriller writer’s storytelling, too, but that’s because Dan Brown can’t write any other way.

Mr Brown is entirely beyond parody, as demonstrated by numerous club-footed reviews mimicking his style. His chases around the world’s libraries and churches to uncover secret manuscripts have been parsed for their historical inaccuracy and his prose has been eviscerated for its poverty, but this is to miss the point.

Brown does have a style, which is more than many authors have. He makes readers turn pages and he’s fun to read, albeit in the same way that you’d watch a viral video of a drunk Russian falling over a railing. More to the point, there have always been writers like him. Even the tone-deaf singer Florence Foster Jenkins had fans because she was entertaining. The real sin of bad writing is being boring and Mr Brown is certainly never that, but he does commit the equal-weight-to-every-detail sin on just about every page, and ‘Origin’ is just about the worst thriller ever written.

There are intellectual writers whose prose is so parenthesised that the act of reading them is like repeatedly stubbing your toe. Brown’s cat-sat-on-the-mat-which-was-woven-in-Istanbul-the-capital-of-Turkey prose is almost deliberately artless. What’s more, any writer who can trick the Vatican into responding to a piece of pulp fiction does not deserve quite the level of critical opprobrium Brown has endured. Here’s one example from The Week worth quoting;

Brown thinks that a “classicist” is someone who likes old things rather than a scholar of classical languages, that Harvard professors of subjects real or imaginary say things like “Nostradamus was the most famous prognosticator of all time,” that it would cost untold billions to create a computer with the epoch-making ability to tell you what the Dow closed at on August 23, 1974, that there exists a “priceless manuscript,” as opposed to a paperback book, entitled The Complete Works of William Blake, or that this or any manuscript has standard page numbers.

There has always been an air of snobbery around writers, evinced by the dismissive attitude of a tiny coterie of critics and booksellers. Some things are implicitly understood; you don’t eat crisps at the opera and you never admit that an author beloved by the intelligentsia leaves you cold. For millions of readers, tales of adventure and romance were once the only way of escaping a grimmer reality. Is that so wrong? Dan Brown wrote a tremendously successful pulp novel that encouraged argument about the veracity of religion, just as Michael Crichton got readers believing that mosquitos could lead to reconstructing dinosaurs.

There are still books you tend to only see at airports. Harry Potter is finally on the wane after having an extraordinary run – Ms Rowling’s books dropped from the UK top ten children’s list for the first time last month – and a crime writer called Peter Robinson seems to have got himself into almost every airport bookshop I’ve ever stepped inside (anyone read him?).

But the day of the blockbuster has ended – until it reinvents itself. Until then, Alistair MacLean’s novels are back in print.

22 comments on “A 3-Part Guide To Airport Thrillers (3)”

  1. John Howard says:

    Have just re-re-read ‘The Way to Dusty Death’

  2. kevin says:

    Peter Robinson, oh man, I’m a HUGE fan. Well, of his earlier works. Lately, he seems to be re-writing those earlier, better books. One of the features that really captivates me about his detective series are the plots of some of the stories. They are written like parallel train tracks that ultimately converge in a way that is logical and surprising. I also like the fact that his detective, Alan Banks, is a thoughtful, almost melancholy man, who loves music. And Peter Robinson does a good job of integrating this passion into the story in a way that feels natural and illuminating of the character. My favorites are In A Dry Season and Strange Affair. I also like Gallows View.

  3. John Griffin says:

    Liked the early Peter Robinson, when I think his memories of the UK ran hot (at that time I believe the was living in Canada?). My two favourites were Dry Season and the excellent Aftermath. From that point I think a decline set in, certainly I stopped compulsively buying them.

  4. Andrew Holme says:

    Re: Alistair MacLean. Those other stalwarts, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes are also worth re-reading. I’m having a period of re-acquainting myself with authors that I first read as a 12/13 year old back in the early Seventies. These authors wrote the crossover books for me from ‘childrens’ into ‘grown-up’ fiction. I remember buying ‘Strange Conflict’ by Dennis Wheatley for 20 pence in a Reigate second hand bookshop in ’73, and falling in love with Marie Lou. I’ve re-read it recently. Snobbish, racist, very Patrician, written in prose that doesn’t set the imagination soaring. (Beat.) Cracking story, though…

  5. Theophylact says:

    That “which-was-woven-in-Istanbul-the-capital-of-Turkey” is perfect Dan Brown: excessively detailed and dead wrong.

  6. Trace Turner says:

    Does Clive Cussler fall into the category of airport thrillers? I remember reading and liking a few of his books when I was a teenager. I tried to read one a few years ago but didn’t manage to finish it, it was too exhausting.

  7. Colin says:

    I read a short story collection by Peter Robinson which wasn’t bad. I went to a book reading of his that really put me off him.
    A young lad was there, and if you have been to book readings you know how rare a site this is! He asked Peter a question which was basically why is the killer always caught and why not have it end without anyone ever knowing who it was like Jack the Ripper etc. Robinson slapped him down in front of the audience for asking a question like this and asking if he had ever read his books. Really made my blood boil and put me off him forever.

  8. brooke says:

    I should have guessed…an interesting series of posts would end with another discussion of …you-know-who.

  9. admin says:

    I didn’t want to disappoint you, Brooke.

  10. Bernard says:

    You know it is possible to enjoy and admire both Christopher Fowler’s and Peter Robinson’s writing. I, for one, do and I have read all the B&M and all the DCI Banks books. Possibly I’m biased having grown up in Yorkshire and lived in London so I recognize many of the locations each writes about. However, as Colin points out above, just because an author produces good books doesn’t mean he is a good person.

  11. admin says:

    I do a lot of panels and readings and love doing them – for me the problems rarely arise from the audience but from the other authors!

  12. Jill Q. says:

    Do people really need airport thrillers anymore? At the actual airport anyways? I see so many people playing with their phones on planes. If an airport thriller is just an emergency time filling activity that doesn’t require a lot of concentration, there’s plenty of that without books these days.

    As for the genre, I’ve always been fond of Ken Follett myself. . .

  13. Wild Edric says:

    I like a Peter Robinson too – the landscape is an integral part of the story – a character in itself – much like Mr Fowler’s London, Peter Lovesey’s Bath and Steven Booth’s Peak District. I did try a couple of Vera novels (love Northumberland) but felt they were lacking something and could have been set anywhere. The wonderful Northumbrian landscape barely seemed to feature. I can’t even remember the author’s name sorry.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Desmond Bagley. Snow Tiger, where I learned about roller bearing snow, Wyatt’s Hurricane where I learned a number of untrue things about hurricanes and the one about the collapsing dam in British Columbia where I learned the phrase thixotropic gel and wished I could have told him that the Vancouver university is the University of B.C. Loved his books but the one set in Africa and which his widow finished was a disappointment.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Andrew – Dennis Wheatley once said on an interview:
    “I’m not much of a writer – but I can tell a story.” He was absolutely right there. I liken him to 1960’s Doctor Who, inasmuch as occasionally, the sets moved, or a spaceship looked like a couple of ashtrays glued together – but it’d the story that’s important – everything else is just stuff holding it up, propelling it forward, so we can see something that doesn’t need explaining later. The only Wheatley book I’d describe as genuinely awful, is ‘Star Of Ill Omen’, his one stab at science fiction.

  16. Liz Thompson says:

    I read all the MacLean and Innes books when a teenager. My father was in a monthly book club that sent them out as soon as they were published. I loved them. He also had many of the Wheatley books, The Devil Rides Out plus others. I loved those too! I was totally unmoved by the “classics”. I still can’t read Dickens, or Eliot, and although I read Jane Eyre several times at that age, I haven’t looked at it since. I found science fiction enjoyable, Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, also read when I was still in school. And of course Agatha Christie, although I never liked Poirot much. The most awful mystery novel I’ve read recently was by Simon Brett. It was so dire I didn’t finish it and gave it a one star review on Amazon. You may hate me for that, but it was, I can only think, an attempt at pastiche which misfired. It was the first of a series with a clever heroine and a dim hero, her brother, both aristocrats. I bought it because I quite like Brett’s other mysteries, they pass the time without making too many demands on a tired brain after a busy day. I’m afraid I shan’t be buying any more of that newer series……

  17. SteveB says:

    I never forget buying a book by James Patterson to read on a transatlantic flight, before the days of phones and ereaders. It was so boring that even on a plane for 7 hours with nothing else to do I couldn‘t read it.
    Peter Robinson is OK an author I buy sometimes in paperback and chuck out when I‘ve read it. There‘s another writer Peter James quite similar.
    Just saw the cover of Oranges and Lemons, love it.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I loved ‘Wyatt’s Hurricane’ too – an English teacher at my school read it to us, and it blew my mind to find out that brave (and, if you think about it, slightly mad) people purposely flew into hurricanes, and that the ‘eye’ of them was an area of unnatural calm. Desmond Bagley certainly did his research, as all the meteorological stuff was absolutely correct. I was probably about 12 at the time (1975). I did become a fan of those ‘technical’ type of thrillers.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, it may interest you to know that the city of Richmond, B.C. is built on a base of thixatropic gel and when that big earthquake comes all the high rises, of which they have many, will just slowly sink into the watery base. It was watching demonstrations of vibrated gel that determined me to live away from the Fraser River. It was years after reading Wyatt’s Hurricane that I was informed as to the fallacy of leaving doors, etc. open so the wind could blow through. His meteorology, however, was correct and people still fly into hurricanes for barometer readings and wind speeds. No, not for me, either.

  20. Wayne Mook says:

    I go stuck on a Brett too, it was a bit dull, I kept thinking get on with it. still it was mostly harmless.

    Storm chasing really does look something for they very few and becoming the very, very few. It’s looks Jorge is almost passed.


  21. Helen Martin says:

    “Mostly harmless.” Wasn’t that the verdict of the Hitchhikers Guide on Earth?

  22. Wayne Mook says:

    Yes it was, Ford Prefect added the ‘Mostly’.


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