The thriller has come to dominate the fiction bestseller lists in recent years. For me, there is a huge difference between a thriller and a murder mystery, although I noticed Patrick Anderson in his book The Triumph of the Thriller lumps them both in. I would have thought by now that everyone recognizes a large and growing division between the two genres and would keep them separate.
A definition for "thriller" isn't easy to construct, as Thriller Press makes clear. But some common attributes come to mind:
1. A hero whose job it is to defeat the bad guys.
In military or political thrillers, this person is often given a background including previous experience in the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, etc., as this sort of resume lends gravitas to the hero. But in other types of thrillers, the hero could be an archaeologist, symbologist, professor, and other academic backgrounds.
2. Current real-world events play a central role.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict, secret religious cults, eco-terrorists, Islamist terrorists acquiring nuclear bombs, and similar plot twists.
3. The central idea could possibly be true or could happen, although it hasn't happened, or we don't really know if it's true or not.
Dan Brown exploited this with the Da Vinci Code, suggesting a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
4. Unbelievable plot elements.
I can't think of any thriller I've ever read that didn't include at least several of these, therefore it must be part of the genre.
5. A resolution where the hero wins in the end.
Although this can take several books to happen.
Are there more? No doubt. But I would like to see more commentators separate thrillers from mysteries as I see them as very different products.
I recently read Vince Flynn's Separation of Power and tried to figure out how a thriller works. What it needs to work, what it must include, and what it leaves out. I finished the novel with unanswered questions.
Flynn is quite a different writer from Tom Clancy, for example. Clancy will constantly place an object under his microscope and give his readers a level of detail few other writers can match. Flynn doesn't do that. He is a "surface" writer. He doesn't stop the narrative to give us an encyclopedia article about a piece of military equipment. He moves the narrative along, so he is easy to read in that respect.
Like other thrillerists, Flynn seems very poor when writing about relationships. In this novel, his dialog between Mitch Rapp and Ann Reilly is painful to read as it is nothing but cliches. And the character of Donatella Rahn, an ex-flame, almost destroys the entire novel, as she is so unbelievable as to almost upset the tightrope balance between the reader's suspension of disbelief and the author's weaving an aura of reasonable plausibility. At least a hundred times, Rapp asks Rahn to tell him who hired her. He sounds like a frustrated adolescent rather than a superhero. You just can't have your hero ask someone to "please tell me who hired you" a hundred times and expect readers to think of him as a strong person.
The idea that Saddam Hussein could have built a nuclear facility under a hospital seems plausible enough, but Flynn crosses way over the line of believability in so many other plot twists, especially during the last 50 pages or so. I found it all wildly implausible, but then, plausibility is something that isn't always needed in a thriller. Saddam and his hospital nukes, ok. Evil members of Congress, ok. The plausible stuff provides cover for the fantasy plot elements. And that seems to be fine with readers, as Flynn is one of the most popular thrillerists going, and his Mitch Rapp novels are now headed to Hollywood.
Flynn left me puzzled. A lot of what he writes seems plausible enough, but a lot of it isn't even close, either. So a thriller seems to operate on two levels and needs some parts to be believable while others are rather implausible. The two co-exist somehow, and the result is obviously a success.