AS a glance at any bestseller list will attest, thrillers have become America's favorite reads, edging aside their venerable cousins, mystery books. The difference between the genres is not just elementary: One consists of brain-teasers in which readers try to figure out who killed the girl next door. The other is a heart-racer that we finish to learn whether the girl's leader will be blown up. The essence of the distinction sometimes boils down to dramatic props: arsenic or anthrax, detective or conspirator, bloody corpse or bloody ticking clock?
But if thrillers have won over audiences, the big riddle consuming their writers these days is why America's top critics routinely dismiss suspense books, calling them beach reads or brain candy or, worse, ignoring them completely.
And so, tired of the snubs and determined to get the respect they feel they deserve, thriller authors have formed their own breakaway group: the International Thriller Writers (ITW), a challenge to the older and better-known Mystery Writers of America (MWA), known for its prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
Infused with its mission, ITW arrived in Los Angeles on a recent Saturday to launch its "Brunch & Bullets" luncheon series, which drew about 100 Southern California thriller fans who paid $150 each to chat with bestselling ITW authors. (Disclosure: Last year I edited the group's newsletter.) It was an auspicious setting: the Renaissance Hotel at Hollywood & Highland, around the corner from the site of the Oscars ceremony at the Kodak Theatre and, as it turned out, in the middle of a large antiwar demonstration. Several authors had flown in from the East Coast, but all appeared to be in their element, sandwiched between the twin cultural exports of entertainment and armed conflict -- the basic ingredients of a thriller, by the way.
A new generation of thrillers
ON the hotel's second floor, attendees walked past balconies overlooking crowds of policemen in riot gear. The scene, replete with potted palms and bullhorns, could have been ripped from an espionage classic by Graham Greene or John le Carre, except this was a new world order and another generation of writers was chomping at the bit to break from the narrowly defined course of Cold War spy novels.
"In this room today are authors who've written 100 New York Times bestsellers and have sold 200 million books," said author Jon Land, who introduced ITW's headliners.
Romantic suspense maven Sandra Brown discussed her book "Ricochet," which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Suffice it to say Brown has never been profiled in the New Yorker, although she's written 65 novels that have sold 70 million copies worldwide. Paranormal thriller author Heather Graham described "The Dead Room," her latest in a string of 100 books, including several New York Times bestsellers. Military thriller author Gregg Hurwitz, legal thriller bestseller John Lescroart and financial thriller writer Christopher Reich bantered at the bar, a sign of just how expansive the genre has become in the last decade.
ITW used its L.A. event to announce those books nominated for its new Thriller Awards, whose winners will be revealed at its conference this summer, two months after the Edgars. "It's a healthy rivalry," said Reed Farrell Coleman, former executive vice president of MWA. "But they've motivated us to take some steps we needed to take."
When ITW first organized 2 1/2 years ago, many longtime MWA members began to openly question their membership. "We were the big boys on the block, and we'd grown complacent," said Coleman. The 62-year-old Edgars had become a premier literary award, but thrillers were often passed over. Yet, during the early 2000s, annual sales of thrillers were jumping as high as 34%, and in 2002, the British Crime Writers Assn. inaugurated its Steel Dagger Award for best espionage book. Still, major U.S. critics continued to write about the death of the spy genre so often its cadaver could have collected royalties.
It was at a Bouchercon Mystery Convention in October 2004 that Gayle Lynds and David Morrell discreetly asked some thriller writers to meet hours before that group's awards banquet. The covert meeting snowballed into history after all 35 authors voted to join the mild insurrection and form ITW.
It helped that the revolt was led by two name writers. Short and avuncular, Morrell wrote what's been called the "father of all modern action novels," "First Blood," which became the 1982 movie that introduced the John Rambo character. An English professor at the University of Iowa, he continued writing books, including "The Brotherhood of the Rose," which became an NBC miniseries in 1989. His 28 books have been translated into 26 languages, and his newest, "Scavenger," received a starred notice in Booklist.
Lynds has been called a master of the modern espionage novel, known for her female protagonists. The tall brunet once worked at a California think tank, where she had access to top-secret government files. After turning to fiction, she worked with Robert Ludlum to create the Covert-ONE spy series, writing three of those books, including "The Hades Factor," which became a CBS TV miniseries in 2006.
She's now the bestselling author of eight books, including "The Last Spymaster," which follows a spy-turned traitor who breaks out of prison and is hunted by a troubled female CIA agent. Publishers Weekly listed the work among the all-time top 10 thrillers, along with classics by Greene and Le Carre.
In no time, ITW attracted other authors, including Douglas Preston, Katherine Neville, Lincoln Child and M.J. Rose. A board was assembled with Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen and others. Today, ITW boasts 540 authors and 9,000 or so newsletter subscribers -- while MWA has 1,800 authors and 1,200 newsletter subscribers.
Struggle for publicity
UNDERLYING this friendly fire is that all authors must fight to get noticed into today's mercenary marketplace, Coleman explained. "Publishers are spending less money to promote their authors, and writers' organizations like ours are picking up the slack."
MWA has long promoted its member authors by publishing anthologies of short stories. ITW borrowed that idea by compiling the first anthology of thriller stories, edited by ITW member James Patterson. The book was acquired by Mira Publishing and received attention outside of New York, but Janet Maslin gave it a withering review in the New York Times. "Thriller" went on to sell 130,000 copies and has earned ITW about $400,000, making it one of the top-selling anthologies ever. Who knew?
To lure more fans inside its tent, ITW hosted its first ThrillerFest convention last summer, in Phoenix, where a Filipino knife master and a Delta Force trainer taught shut-in writer types how to create lifelike assassins. Best of all, ITW finally hosted its own awards banquet that weekend, honoring debut authors, midlist talent and hoary masters such as the renowned Clive Cussler.
Now, the group is homing in on young public-school readers. A quarter of the proceeds from the Saturday event went to the L.A. Unified School District chapter of the Reading Is Fundamental literacy program, along with boxes of thrillers. "Anything that gets kids excited about reading is great," said Marilyn Fils, an assistant principal at Bertrand Avenue Elementary. Thrillers allow students to explore not just U.S. society but other geopolitical realms as well, Morrell explained.
To further expand its house of spies, ITW also welcomes other legitimately published writers, including MWA members such as Coleman. But MWA has become more vigilant, hiring its first public relations firm, actively promoting next month's Edgar awards, and expanding its own youth literacy programs. All of this activity brings to mind a race in which two camps hurtle toward the same objective in heroic ways -- yet another definition of a thriller.
But the mystery remains. Will the illustrious MWA lose its crown to ITW? Will the literary establishment ever give thrillers their due? At part of its not-so-secret "special" operations, ITW is infiltrating that elite force in July by bringing its trench-coated conventioneers to Manhattan. "We want to be in the heart of the publishing industry, where agents, editors and reviewers can join our new community," explained Lynds.
"And don't forget the fans," added Morrell. "We love them!"