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NPR picks the top 100 thrillers, and makes a mess of the job.

August 5, 2010

Shirley Jackson: Just one of the thrillmeister ignored by NPR.

A couple of fun “best lists” have emerged in the past day or two, one from NPR on the 100 “Killer Thrillers,” and another at the Los Angeles Times naming “20 Classic Works of Gay Literature.” I come not to praise these lists, but to pick their nits — what makes them fun is how lame they are.

Today I’ll point out some of the shortcomings of NPR’s selection of thrillers. Tomorrow we’ll consider gay literature.

NPR amassed its list the old-fashioned way, by polling its audience. This brought in 17,000 votes for 600 nominated titles. Stephen King is the big winner, with six novels in the top 100 — no shocker there, given his skill and popularity.

But the process did provide some surprises. One is how dark many of the selections are. Even Agatha Christie, notes advisory panelist Maureen Corrigan, is represented by And Then There Were None, “one of her creepier novels.”

Another is the audience’s sophisticated understanding of the term “thriller,” with books as various as Dracula, Last of the Mohicans, and The Count of Monte Cristo making the cut.

Panelist Patrick Anderson praises the quality of the choices, saying “the vast majority of these are very good books or classics,” naming Thomas Harris, Dennis Lehane and Patricia Highsmith among their authors.

But I say: Bah! Bah! I say. Sure, the list has some gratifying selections — Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier, for example; The 39 Steps, by John Buchan; The Secret History, by Donna Tartt; Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson; Berlin Game, by Len Deighton.

To a dispiriting degree, however, the list is a kind of high-school popularity contest. How else to explain the preponderance of mediocrities the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, James Patterson, Caleb Carr (and, dare I say –ssshhh–Stieg Larsson)?

The exclusions are just as mystifying: No Eric Ambler, no Graham Greene, no Jim Thompson, no Joyce Carol Oates, no Oleg Steinhauer, no Shirley Jackson, no Elmore Leonard (!), no Charles Willeford, no Colin Harrison, no Barbara Vine, no Wilkie Collins?

You want creepy-thrilling? Try Oates’ Lives of the Twins, written under the pseudonym Rosamund Smith. It’s the kind of fearless excursion into the land of sicko pathology that would have had Agatha Christie reaching for the smelling salts.

Time for you to join the fun: What other great (or favorite) thrillers did NPR’s brie-eating respondents leave out?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    August 7, 2010 3:02 pm

    E.L. Doctorow’s “The Waterworks” is a fine gothic horror novel that ought to be on the list.

    I never read “Rebecca,” but the movie, directed by Hitchcock, is a work of real beauty – sumptuous, creepy and lit like an ink drawing. It’s also neat to see Hitchock’s taste in adaptations confirmed here, with “Psycho” and “The 39 Steps” also making the cut.

    Anybody here read “Metzger’s Dog”? I have no idea what it is but that’s an interesting title for a thriller.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 8, 2010 9:01 am

    I have not read Metzger’s Dog, alas, but I agree on Hemingway and Doctorow. In fact, Doctorow’s pretty reliable no matter what he writes.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 9, 2010 12:05 pm

    How about Frankenstien?

    • Sean permalink
      August 9, 2010 12:29 pm

      Candice, you’re right. That’s a massive snub.

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