Picking a list of the world’s greatest thrillers: Futile but fun!
The fine folks over at NPR have set themselves an impossible task — picking the 100 greatest thrillers. “Thriller” is such a capacious category, where crime, literature, spy novels, mysteries and even sci-fi converge — it’s almost meaningless. So let’s join the fun!
I mean, really, not only does the term “thriller” cover too many different genres –the top 100 spy thrillers would have little fat, nor would the top 100 psychologicl thrillers — but it also poses temporal problems. Do we concentrate on recent books? Or scrupulously seek out the best of all time?
If we want the best of all time, then we’ll have to include such dusty half-forgotten half-classics as Wilkie Collins’ pioneering 19th century detective novel, The Moonstone; Georges du Maurier’s 1894 gothic suspenser Trilby; Joseph Conrad’s ur-spy novel, The Secret Agent (1907); Somerset Maughum’s 1928 espionage short-story collection, Ashenden; John Buchan’s The 39 Steps; Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939–surely the inspiration for the film The Usual Suspects); Rebecca, the 1939 novel by Daphne du Maurier (Georges’ granddaughter) that perfected the romantic suspsenser; Len Deighton’s World War II masterpiece, Bomber (1970).
On the other hand, we could get a darned good start focusing tightly on novels published in just the past year or so. Let’s say, back to the beginning of 2009. Excellent thrillers of one variety or other that leap readily to mind: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson; Dave Seltzerman’s Pariah; The Tourist, by Oleg Steinhauer; Joseph Finder’s Vanished; Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply; Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move–and that’s barely scratching the surface. Not even.
And what do we do with beloved masters, whether genre hacks or litterateurs (or some combination thereof)? I’m speaking of writers such as Shirley Jackson, Ian Fleming, Norah Roberts, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Wheatley, Georges Simenon, Wilbur Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, Stephen King, John D. MacDonald, John Le Carre, Patricia Highsmith and on an on and on.
I haven’t even mentioned American noir, whether superstars (James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson) or obscurities (Cornell Woolrich, William Lindsay Gresham, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson).
So I think in the end all we can do is give in to the blandishments of utter subjectivity and simply name thrillers we personally love. One criteria: I say we leave out mysteries, which is a vast category of its own. Crime fiction, si; mysteries, no. Here’s 10 from me:
The Third Man, by Graham Green; The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson; A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler; Lives of the Twins, by Joyce Carol Oates; The Gospel of Judas, by Simon Mawer (the religious thriller — another subgenre); The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith; The High Priest of California, by Charles Willeford; Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone; Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain; Kim, by Rudyard Kipling; Misery, by Stephen King; A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine; Detective Story, by Imre Kertesz; Lush Life, by Richard Price; The Havana Room, by Colin Harrison…
Okay, okay! That’s 15! I can count! Hard as it is to stop (From Russia With Love! The Andromeda Strain! Gorky Park! Mosquito Coast! Maigret on Holiday! The Godfath–erk! Evil hand! Evil hand! Don’t choke me!), I will force myself.
But please, share some of your favorite thrillers.