Category: thrillers

In which an old friend turns up and reminds me of the problem with the contemporary thriller

By , 4 May 2007 7:54 pm

Twice in the last couple of weeks I have been reminded of something that I felt was almost entirely history. In fact, it was so entirely history that when I received a very nice e-mail entitled “Thank you for inventing Henry”, I almost put it in the spam bin straight away. There are no Henrys in the Lamb among the Stars (actually, there is a reference to Heinrich Schütz in Book 1, but I will let that pass). The writer, a charming lady from India, had read the two thriller novels I had written many years ago under the pseudonym of John Haworth – Heart of Stone and Rock of Refuge – and wanted to thank me for them. A nice illustration, if ever you wanted one, that books can have an influence far removed in both time and space from their making.

The letter writer expressed some curiosity as to why I was no longer writing thrillers but had moved to fantasy fiction. A good question. Someone even more cynically minded than me once said, “Always remember that your life may be a warning for someone else.” In the spirit of that gloomy advice let me give you two reasons why you shouldn’t write in such a genre. But please note, here I am talking of the contemporary thriller; in other words, a book that by its very nature seeks to thrill through its treatment of contemporary or near future events. The rules for epic romance or literary novels of war and peace set in the near future are very different. Here we are talking about books whose chief reason for existence is that of telling a thrilling tale soon to be realised in a universe near you.

Now, bearing this in mind, there are two main reasons why such a genre is problematic. The first is that reality has acquired a nasty habit of trumping fiction. The collapse of Communism was one case where God’s plotline superseded anything in literature. The death knell to the genre came, I think, just over a decade later. Utterly overshadowed by the human and financial losses of the day, one overlooked casualty of 9/11 was the contemporary thriller. Do you remember those countless books in which evil Arabs threatened to hijack a single plane and kill a hundred people? How unambitious – even trivial – they now seem in comparison to what really happened!

And the second reason? It is that today, events move very fast. So for instance, it would be perfectly possible to write of a major war between Iran and the West. The trouble is that by the time you finish writing, it’s perfectly likely that a) the economic or political reasons you postulate for the cause of the war will have changed, b) some newer and more troubling enemy will be on the horizon, and c) the dreadful deed will be done and our boys and girls in camouflage will already be trying to get themselves out of the latest military quagmire. (You will have gathered that I am no fan of George and Tony’s Big Adventure in Iraq.) This concept was first brought home to me when suddenly, without warning, the entire Communist world disintegrated and almost overnight that great menacing bulwark of contemporary fiction, the Berlin Wall, disappeared. With its crumbling, a hundred spy novels perished.

The fact is that what is contemporary today all too soon becomes passé and a short shelf-life is bad for sales. It is worth remembering that this rule does not simply apply to books. Preachers and writers of theology books should realise they are faced with a similar problem. What is brave and dashing today and oh so contemporary, all too suddenly becomes retro. As one British theologian said nearly 100 years ago, “He who marries the spirit of the age today will be a widower tomorrow.” C. S. Lewis, talking of much the same thing, made the converse and more positive point: “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

And with that, good friends, I turn to writing a sermon for Sunday.

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