I spy, with my literary eye

The warm white wine has soured, the canapés have congealed. Literary London is in shock: Alan Hollinghurst is out of the running for this year’s Man Booker Prize but two thrillers, AD Miller’s Snowdrops and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, have made it on to the shortlist of six.

Such is the outrage that there is already talk of a rival highbrow prize to be launched next year, presumably thriller-free. In truth, the Man Booker shortlist often generates controversy – as it probably should, if only to whet our appetites – and the impeccably literary Julian Barnes remains the bookies’ favourite to take the award next Tuesday for his short novel The Sense of an Ending.

But the offence caused in some quarters is real. Whatever their merits, critics say, Snowdrops and Half Blood Blues are commercial fiction and should not have been included on the shortlist. The prize, awarded annually to an author from the Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe, is a rare opportunity for literary works to break into popular culture and virtually guarantees a much-needed boost in sales.

“This year’s selection is pretty eccentric, strengthening the Booker’s middlebrow and Radio-4ish side,” says Christopher Tayler, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books. “There is a bogus anti-elitism to it. And if you are wholeheartedly against cultural elitism, then maybe handing out a prize for the best serious novel of the year – which is what the enterprise presents itself as – isn’t the job for you.”

Some mutter that this year’s Booker judges chose Snowdrops and Half Blood Blues because two of them are thriller writers themselves. Dame Stella Rimington, who chairs the prize committee and is a former head of MI5, is a prolific author of spy novels. Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and acclaimed political diarist, wrote A Very British Coup, about a leftwing Labour government brought down by the establishment. Rimington briskly dismisses such claims when I put them to her. “Some of this critical comment is so facile; these people need to grow up. I don’t get this distinction between what is literary fiction and what is a thriller. Dickens said something significant about the period in which he was writing and so do both of these books.”

So what exactly is a thriller, and how does the genre differ from ordinary novels? The key word is conflict. The protagonist will confront a series of threats before the plot builds up to a climax, which is often violent. The hero will confront his inner demons along the way and be forced to make an impossible choice. All this should unfold in vivid scene-setting that takes the reader into a new and unknown world.

Miller’s Snowdrops tells the story of a naive lawyer lured into a Moscow property scam. The hazard here is moral rather than physical, as he battles with his own conscience in a gripping descent into immorality that at times evokes Ian McEwan’s The Innocent. Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues is a tale of jazz musicians and wartime betrayal set in Paris and Berlin. Written in Baltimore slang, it is harder work but is an innovative portrayal of the fear and peril of being an outsider in the Third Reich.

“You have to care about the protagonist and believe in the story, however absurd it might be,” says Robert Harris, whose new book The Fear Index features a hedge fund that predicts market movements. “Thrillers engage with power and politics. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a thriller, essentially. Thrillers are a tool for writing about the contemporary world.”

Novelist and critic Amanda Craig casts her net even wider. “People have continued to read and love Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot and even Henry James not just because of their ‘literary’ qualities but because they love the stories they tell and the characters they create. Many of these stories were, in effect, thrillers. Bleak House, Great Expectations, Daniel Deronda, Vanity Fair and The Golden Bowl have strong thrillerish elements that involve murder, greed, exploitation and revenge.”

The thriller market is booming, thanks in part to the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, whose irresistible trilogy revitalised the genre’s sales. Last year UK readers bought £468m worth of printed novels, of which £143m was spent on books categorised as thrillers. Novel sales declined by 2 per cent year-on-year but thrillers were up by 3 per cent. Larsson accounted for £3.1m worth in the first half of 2011, closely trailed by Jo Nesbo at £3m, John Grisham at £2.2m and Lee Child at £1.7m.

While many authors bemoan the digital revolution, e-readers have greatly boosted the genre, says Philip Jones, deputy editor of The Bookseller. “The thriller market has always been big business, but its proportion of publishers’ income is now growing disproportionately because of digital sales, where thrillers are going great guns.”

Thriller writers usually adhere to a well-worn formula: a fast pace, plenty of action and sex, thinly drawn protagonists who are merely a vehicle for a “high-concept” time-pressured plot. Yet there is a good reason for this. The narrative arc they employ is hard-wired into our psyches, arguably reaching back to Greek myths. Homer’s Odyssey sees Odysseus menaced by the Cyclops, Sirens, the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. When he eventually makes it home, he finds the Suitors have been pursuing his wife Penelope, drinking his wine and eating his food. We cheer for Odysseus because his adventures resonate with our sense of instinctive justice. Odysseus does what is right: he reclaims his home, his land and his wife.

Writers of contemporary thrillers are often journalists, especially foreign correspondents like me. In some respects this is an excellent training, says Harris, a former political editor at The Observer: “You get out of your study, meet people and learn to ask questions. You discover the facts and work out how to communicate it to the readers.”

Just as Dickens used literature to engage with social issues, so thriller writers are tackling the complexities of the modern world. Non-fiction books on the morality of drone strikes in Waziristan or the inner mechanics of investment funds would have narrow appeal. But Bloodmoney, by David Ignatius, deftly weaves both into a compelling and very contemporary narrative. Typhoon by Charles Cumming, one of our best new spy novelists, unfolds partly among the Uighurs, China’s little-known but restless Muslim minority.

Ultimately, the distinction between thrillers and literary fiction is blurring, as indeed it should, says Norman Lebrecht, the novelist and cultural critic. “Old-media categorisation – where to stock products in shops – is becoming redundant in a new-media space. Terms such as ‘literary’ or even ‘biography’ have diminished relevance, not just because of media changes but because writers like to experiment. Good writers cross boundaries every working day of their lives.” However we define the term, thrillers have come in from the cold.

Adam LeBor is a foreign correspondent based in Hungary and author of ‘The Budapest Protocol’ (Beautiful Books)

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