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Criminal minds

Paula L. Woods, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is the author of the Det. Charlotte Justice novels, including, most recently, "Strange Bedfellows."

EARLY on in Patrick Anderson’s survey of crime fiction, “The Triumph of the Thriller,” the Washington Post book reviewer writes that “John Grisham is the new James Michener and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is our ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ” Forget for a moment the hyperbole in comparing Grisham and Dan Brown with two Pulitzer Prize winners and consider the book’s subtitle (“How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction”) as a question: Have thrillers taken over popular fiction?

The answer would be a resounding yes if one compares the Post’s fiction bestseller list of 1966, as Anderson does, with its list of 2006, in which nine of 10 novels were firmly in the crime genre. How and why that happened is the more provocative question he sets out to answer, promising to look “back at the origins of modern crime fiction -- to writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie -- to examine not only how the modern thriller has evolved,” but also to explain why thrillers have come to be differentiated from mysteries or crime novels.

An answer to either question would be most welcome to the vast numbers of crime fiction readers, not to mention the thousands of writers, myself included, who toil in that arena. It would also elevate a genre so often dismissed as brain candy by those who think such books are beneath contempt -- or at least serious criticism. Given the numerous crime novels Anderson has written and his seven years as the Post’s weekly thriller columnist, he would seem the perfect person to debunk the critics and say something original. But although I agree with much of what he says about the genre’s worthiness and the dreck that some of its biggest brand-name authors are producing, “The Triumph of the Thriller” confuses and frustrates more often than not.

My problems begin with Anderson’s admittedly loose definition of a thriller, which he says encompasses “hard-core noir, in the Hammett-Chandler private-eye tradition, as well as a bigger, broader universe of books that includes spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers.” I understand that this definition (and his calling chick-lit a conflation of the romance novel with the mystery) makes it easier for Anderson to cast a net over the breadth of crime fiction, and include personal favorites like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, but to throw them all in the thriller pot is the same as saying chitterlings are like foie gras because both are organ meats.

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Mysteries, as I’ve come to define and write them, feature a protagonist (like Sue Grafton’s P.I. Kinsey Millhone or cop Bosch in Connelly’s police procedurals) who sets out to detect the perpetrator of a crime that has already occurred; thrillers take readers on a journey along with the protagonist to prevent or solve crimes that are being committed in the novel’s real time. It may be a technical distinction that is muddied in novels like Connelly’s “The Poet” or others Anderson rightly includes in “Triumph,” but lumping them together seems more commercially than critically driven.

This is not to say the book does not have merit or make some valuable points. The first section, which limns the works of 19th and early 20th century pioneers, explains the genre’s history and draws firm, if not always original, conclusions about, among other things, Conan Doyle’s simplistic solutions and Raymond Chandler’s scorn for “foreigners, blacks, homosexuals, rich people, and women.” But too often Anderson substitutes plot summaries or biographical sketches of these early authors for criticism, and had he considered more books from his selected writers’ oeuvres, he may have reached more interesting conclusions.

Perhaps the book’s best part is on the writers Anderson calls “modern masters” -- Connelly, Thomas Harris, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. Here he reins in the biographical material and focuses on more thorough assessments of their work, making some compelling arguments along the way. Particularly insightful are his analyses of the significance of Lehane’s breakout novel, “Mystic River,” to the writer’s career as well as to the genre and Bosch’s evolving sense of personal mission that has become the driving force in Connelly’s series.

Critics, like readers, can like or dislike whomever they choose. But even when I often found myself agreeing with Anderson’s opinions, I winced sometimes at how he delivered them. Particularly vitriolic was the chapter “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” After briefly mentioning one James Patterson thriller and summarizing the plot of a second, Anderson derides the author as “the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, skuzzy, assembly-line writing,” without linking the author’s skills in design, marketing and advertising (Patterson is a former advertising executive) to publishers’ use of these methods to spur the sales of crime writers of both schlock and substance. Anderson also trashes Patricia Cornwell after reading only one of her later Kay Scarpetta novels without acknowledging that her groundbreaking forensic thrillers almost single-handedly created a thriving sub-genre and have even influenced the TV crime drama. (How do we love “CSI”? Let me count the ways.) And the fact that he includes lurid and often-repeated details of Cornwell’s personal life only makes his opinion seem more mean-spirited than perhaps he intended.

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Had Anderson explored weightier issues and rehashed fewer of his Post columns (I stopped counting after finding six excerpts on the Post’s website) perhaps he would have produced a more thoughtful book, one that included other significant writers. (Mary Higgins Clark, a brand-name writer of female-driven thrillers, barely gets a mention and modern master Gayle Lynds is omitted altogether.) As it stands, “The Triumph of the Thriller” is one man’s opinion that, while pithy enough for a sound bite, fails to illuminate a genre that enjoys such wide popularity yet paltry critical attention. *


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