The term “literary thriller” is a depressing one. It is used by book marketers (and some “proper” reviewers) to distinguish between those exciting books it is acceptable to read, and those which are beyond-the-pale airport fodder.
In essence it is meant to indicate that the book is well-written, socially-conscious or has something about its structure and setup that transcends the tropes of a well-worn genre. Another word for this might be “good” or “interesting”, but that does not do enough to remove the book from the mass market silo and into one palatable to those who may also read Booker prize winners. Look out for it, and you will see it cropping up all the time along with – “literary crime novels” and (more rarely) “literary science fiction”. (The “literary fantasy” genre is almost invisible, but with Marlon James winner of the Booker prize, working on a trilogy, this may change). “Fear not!” The label says, “we, the tastemakers deem this acceptable, you don’t have to hide the cover on the train!”
Of course, the term isn’t entirely useless – it does indicate that reviewers (and marketers) think the book is something out of the ordinary, that it may deal with a more complicated set of characters and situations, or do so in an interesting way, and I must admit it does reassure me when picking up a new book. However, there is an unmistakable hierarchy implicit in the description – that when something is good it can be elevated out of the lower orders and be patronised with the label of “literature”. Well done.
Sometimes the road is travelled in the other direction, and “literary” authors of some distinction grace the world of genre fiction with their genius. Results are mixed, with some of the attempts poor enough to highlight that writing a crafted tale within the parameters of these genres is not as easy as some may think it looks.
In 2017 I have been enjoying a year of thrillers, and have been impressed (but not surprised) by the quality and variety of books on offer, books which happily fill the criteria of being fascinating and powerful, stocked with complex, human, characters, but also with plots of excitement and mystery. So don’t fret about whether the book is something you would admit to at an Edgbaston dinner party, and start enjoying some of the best literature out there.
SIRENS by Joseph Knox
We all know that it is Grim Up North, but not that it had got this bad. In this fabulous noir-ish novel, a wonderful debut, Knox evokes a nightmare vision of after-dark Manchester that is simultaneously bleak and mesmeric.
Telling the story of a damaged undercover police officer tasked with tracing a politician’s runaway daughter, the novel becomes an apocalyptic vision of a city steeped in drugs, corruption and violence. In Knox’s hugely accomplished hands Manchester becomes almost unbearably hellish, but there are just enough chinks of light breaking through the clouds to provide respite and hope to the reader.
A powerful novel by a major new talent.
DODGERS by Bill Beverly
From the gangs of Manchester to LA now, for Bill Beverly’s lauded Dodgers – a road trip coming of age story placed within the framework of a crime thriller.
Set largely in a minibus, the story deals with a team of young gang members travelling from LA to Wisconsin, to assassinate a witness before he can testify against the drug business they are footsoldiers for. And young here really means young – the boys are aged from 13-20, and have never left their home city before being tasked with this mission.
A heartbreaking story of family, wasted youth and gangs the novel has lots to say about American society and boasts a wonderfully-drawn central character in the conflicted East.
THE SLOUGH HOUSE SERIES by Mick Herron
John Le Carre is the undisputed master of the spy genre - his grasp of the realities of global politics and intelligence work has always been married to a clear-eyed cynicism of the murky morality of the whole business. It is customary to call spy thriller writers a “true successor to Le Carre” and I am not about to make that mistake, but what Mick Herron does in the four novels in this series is take this notion that intelligence is grubby work and ramps it up to eleven. Herron’s Slough House is place where MI5’s ‘anti-James Bonds’ are exiled; the addicts, the screw-ups, and other failures that are shunted far from the centre of the action, to toil in administrative obscurity.
At the heart of these books is the utterly monstrous creation Jackson Lamb, an obese chain-smoking slob who expresses nothing but contempt for those who have ended up at Slough House. A creation of genius, Lamb is repellent and yet not entirely unsympathetic, a man with fascinating depths and complex loyalties.
Are these spy thrillers or biting satires? The answer is both, and manage to be so brilliantly – they have stay-up-too-late pulsating plots coupled with genuine laugh-out-loud moments throughout. A treat.
SIX STORIES by Matt Wesolowski
Another wonderful British debut that is hard to categorise is Wesolowski’s magnetic Six Stories. The ingenious setup takes its influence from the podcast “Serial”, by covering the (fictional) disappearance of a teenage boy in 1997, through the eyes of six people telling their stories 20 years later.
The novel is in six sections, each presented as an episode of the podcast, with testimony from one of the participants, and asides from the journalist-presenter who is collating the stories. These voices are wonderfully authentic, painting a technicolour and believable portrait of a group of typical teenagers, with all their petty cruelties, insecurities and kindnesses. What works so well is having these participants tell their stories after the passage of so much time, recounting their behaviour with a mixture of shame and embarrassment, but never as cartoonish or unconvincing.
The story gets darker as the tale progressing, and the location – Scarclaw Fell, a rugged outward bound centre in a forest – is drawn with such sinister relish that by the end you are sure you have been there.
Blake presents the Brum Radio Book Club every second Wednesday at 11am.