f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 7 of Genre – Thriller/Suspense

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Day 7 of Genre – Thriller/Suspense

Welcome to “overlapping genre days” at faith*in*fiction. I’m your host, Dave, and I’ll be splitting hairs, pinning jello to the wall, and generally trying to parse out that which can’t be parsed.

I think the easiest way to think of this whole problem of genre is to think of a spectrum. Remember ROYGBIV? In seventh-grade science you’re taught (or I was taught) that white light is composed of seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Usually there was some kind of teaching circle that went along with this showing each color in its own slice of the pie. In art class, when you’re handed the big box of 64 crayons you realize the more complicated truth: none of these colors is truly pure. Each simply represents a general portion of the spectrum and is made up of infinite and incremental gradients as you look towards the next colors. So there’s orange-yellow and yellow-orange. And they’re different somehow.

To me, we’re dealing with the same thing with science-fiction/speculative fiction, suspense, and mystery. (And possibly even horror?)

Here are books I’d consider suspense/thrillers, along with their subcategories:

Ludlum, LeCarre, Cussler, Fleming: Spy
Clancy – Military
Grisham, Turow – Legal
Crichton – Techno
Brown, Perez-Reverte – Academic
Benchley, Allen – Zoological
Harris - Psychological


Coming up with a unifying definition for these books might be complicated, but the easiest way to think about them is that the are novels driven by action and plot, and the characters aren’t policemen or detectives. That’s pretty lame, but I hope you know what I’m getting at. Usually suspense novels don’t play around with the identity of the bad guys. You know who’s good. You know who’d bad. Can the good guy stop the bad guy? Or the bad shark? Or (see Congo) the bad silver gorilla? It’s the legal subcategory that’s giving me fits, because in a lot of ways, they’re similar to mysteries. But we’ve always called them suspense. Likewise, a book like Silence of the Lambs is more suspense than mystery, because we “know” the bad guy. Where as The Bone Collector is a mystery because the identity of the bad guy is as integral as simply catching him. See, it’s a fine confusing line.

That said, this is one of my preferred genres to read. At least certain subgenres) The equivalent (or source, quite often) of the summer blockbuster, most of these books teach us little about writing, little about life, and are simply the literary equivalent of white-water rafting or visiting an amusement park. A good thriller should “thrill”—there should be a visceral response. My wife and I once listened to a novel (which was technically a “mystery”) while driving and she audibly gasped at one point. That’s what you’re going for.

In CBA, our current king of suspense is Mr. Dekker. There’s some legal thrillers from Jim Bell and Robert Whitlow. And there’s the supernatural suspense of books that look at spiritual warfare. (Which border much closer to horror in my mind.) Some of the subcategories of the genre are pretty difficult, in my estimation, to make “Christian.” Do we need a Christian James Bond? Or Jack Ryan? Some say "Yes!" I just purse my lips. With violence at the heart of so many of the books, can we justify the body counts with a generic Christian message? Or, if we remove the corpses, have we castrated the thing that lends the visceral impact to the book? I’ve yet to see international intrigue done very well in CBA.

Still, it'd be exciting to see somebody offer some different takes on these categories. The psychological category could be done quite well, I'd think--eschewing violence for mind games/control/manipulation...that sort of thing.