At the very least a thriller has to actually be thrilling.
No one buys a thriller in the hope of bettering themselves or learning about the human condition; the genre is purely about entertainment. The greatest compliment that a reader can pay a thriller writer is the classic epithet “I couldn’t put it down”.
But thriller authors continually fail to leap to leap even this abysmally low hurdle. The boring thriller seems a contradiction in terms, but examples of thrillers that don’t keep the reader turning the pages are everywhere.
Say hello Albert Camus.
Yes I know he won the Nobel Prize, but The Stranger was supposed to be a thriller. However, I must admit being forced to read it in French probably slowed it down for me.
Camus, and boring thriller writers through the ages, used the get out clause that their book was a ‘literary thriller’. Like the term ‘light hearted drama’, which in reality means ‘not funny and not dramatic either’, the literary thriller is a contradiction. And the archetypal embodiment of this contradiction is:
John Le Carré.
John Le Carré is Boring
Gulp, now I’ve gone and said it.
Actually I love John Le Carré. His best books are fantastic. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold: two hundred pages of chilling, atmospheric thrills.
But then Le Carré got famous. And then he got a wee bit slow.
The Honourable Schoolboy for example. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – both terrific. But the middle book in the Karla Trilogy?
S. L. O. W.
Nearly six hundred pages. And what actually happens? Smiley goes to committee meetings, while the Honourable Jerry Westerby blunders round South East Asia.
No wonder the BBC’s Karla trilogy came in two parts.
Commando Comics: Unsung masterpieces
Everything I know about thrillers I learnt from Commando: War Stories in Pictures
For those of you who don’t know, these pocket-sized comics feature infeasibly tough British soldiers, airmen and sailors giving the Huns, Eyeties and Nips a good old British thrashing. Courageous Brits, Evil Nazis, cowardly Italians, patriotic French resistance fighters: what’s not to like?
Come to think of it ALL the German I know (“Achtung Spitfire!”, “Hande Hoch.”, “Nein mine Führer”, “Dumbkopf”, err…) really did come from Commando.
And so does my only word of Japanese: ‘Aiiiee!’
This epithet was apparently mandated by the Japanese Emperor to be uttered whilst flying through the air having been blown up by a hand grenade, always, and I mean always accompanied by these wise words:
“Share this one Nips!”
Yes, my childhood involved very little political correctness.
I also had a gollywog.
I actually dug out one of my old Commando comics the other day and, blimey, the plot was suspiciously similar to A Kill In the Morning (well, the basic set-up was: SOE agent goes to Germany to try to assassinate a top Nazi).
There’s about 60 pages in a Commando comic and each one has two frames, each with one or two speech bubbles and a short explanatory caption. So that’s an entire story told in one hundred and twenty sentences and two hundred and forty lines of dialog, half of which are variations on “Achtung Spitfire!” or “Share this one Nips!”
Simplistic? Of course they’re simplistic. But they work. Two or three pages of set-up. Something needs blowing up. We have the man for job. And we’re off.
Sixty pages later, the thing that needed blowing up has been. There’s been a bad guy who’s got his comeuppance (usually a Nazi, but sometimes a traitor or Bad Officer) so there’s a happy ending. If the hero was a bit cocky, he’s been taken down a peg or two. If he was a coward, he’s toughened up. Character development. There’s been lots of guns, planes, tanks and fighting. Action. Obstacles have been placed in the way of the hero (and blown up usually). It’s a story arc. They’re masterpieces of compressed storytelling.
And they sell a million copies a year.
My Other Influence: Cyberpunk
Ever since I could reach the shelves at the library I loved science fiction.
The Doctor Who novelisations stick in my mind, probably because there were endless reams of them in the children’s section of the library. I also had a bit of an obsession with UFOs. Most kids are scared that ‘monsters’ will come and eat them, but with me it was fear of alien abduction that kept me awake at night, clutching my plastic six-shooter.
But my real love is cyberpunk and specifically William Gibson.
I went to an exhibition of Michaelangelo’s drawings once and stood staring at one in particular for a long time because I just couldn’t see how Michaelangelo had done it. There were no lines as such, nothing you could really call drawing. The charcoal was just there on the page, a perfect image of a boy in a hat.
That’s how I feel about William Gibson’s writing.
The greatest tribute I can pay to William Gibson is that reading his stuff inspires me want to stop reading and write something myself. I have no idea what’s going on in his novels. I get to the end I’m still not really sure what happened. I have to go and read it again. It’s the style, the literary equivalent of Michaelangelo’s drawing, that I love. I can’t, and I hate to say this, but I can’t see how he does it.
The man’s a genius.
My Own Stuff
So, my main influences: Commando comics, target audience, a bespectacled twelve-year-old boy with an unhealthy interest in the Second World War; Cyberpunk, style over substance in a technological dystopia; and John Le Carré, deep, intricate plotting, but tending towards slowness.
Where on this eclectic continuum does my stuff fall?
Well, in a carefully designed scientific test, I gave a twelve year old boy an early draft of Angel in Amber my near future espionage thriller. He got all the way to chapter three before abandoning it with a glazed look in his eyes. So leaning towards the John Le Carré in that case.
I’m a big believer in multiple drafts though, cognisant of Hemingway dictum that “the first draft of anything is shit”. The first couple of drafts of Angel in Amber were, ahem, sub-Tom Clancy technothriller. It started to get good when the metaphysical battle for Amber’s soul made its tentative appearance in the third draft. By the fifth draft it worked overall I think, although it needed tightening up, as my twelve year old friend pointed out. Sixth draft is the charm, as Cubby Broccoli nearly said once.
On the other hand A Kill In the Morning, passes the twelve-year-old test. It is apparently “very cool”.
And not a single ‘Achtung Spitfire’ either.
Want to Read A Kill in the Morning?
You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
If you’d like to buy A Kill in the Morning then:
- In the UK I recommend Amazon: A Kill in the Morning on Amazon UK, although the novel is also available in bookshops.
- In the USA, you can get the novel at A Kill in the Morning on Amazon USA
- In India it’s available at A Kill in the Morning on Amazon India.
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