THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction, by Patrick Anderson, Random House, 272 pages, $24.95.
Patrick Anderson, a sometime novelist and book reviewer, has written a provocative book in which he comes out fighting the so-called "elitists" who think literary novelists are more talented than run-of-the-mill writers who make the best-seller lists with regularity.
In this book he puts such thriller writers as Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, James Lee Burke, Dean Koontz, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell and Karen Slaughter on the same level.
In truth, there is a huge disparity in the talents of these authors — as well as a host of others he discusses — which illustrates the subjectivity involved in analyzing novels, whether thrillers or not.
Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke are highly talented authors still at the top of their game. Dean Koontz is a master of telling a frightening story — and Ed McBain, who recently passed away, was very good — but Grisham, Clancy — and especially the foul-mouthed Slaughter don't belong in the same breath with these superior authors.
Anderson makes a good point that thrillers are in sharp demand today as compared with a decade, or even a century ago. But his suggestion that "John Grisham is the new James Michener and 'The DaVinci Code' is our 'Gone with the Wind"' is a ridiculous statement that does not even deserve consideration.
Grisham and Michener are wholly different types of authors and their work cannot be compared — and "The DaVinci Code" is nothing like "Gone with the Wind." If Anderson proposes to judge the comparison based on longevity, "The DaVinci Code" has about 75 years left to prove its merits.
Anderson implies that John Updike is not a worthy critic of thriller writers and remembers being "force-fed" the likes of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and William Faulkner as an undergraduate in the 1950s. Obviously, Anderson likes books that other reviewers would consider mediocre or even poor.
Nevertheless, reading his book is a stimulating process — giving the reader an opportunity to match wits and reading experience with the author — and think deeply about the worth of the thriller writers and the potential categories in which they belong.
Each of us cultivates his or her own brand of literary biases — there is no doubt about that. But the reader may get the feeling that Anderson is trying to bring the literary world down to his own middle level.
His assertions that "elite" literary types are busy trying to get us all to feel guilty about liking books that are simply not very good are on very shaky ground. He doesn't provide any evidence that any such conspiracy exists — and the fact is, the big names in the literary world still command our ultimate respect.