RARA-AVIS: Re: Jim D's definition of Thriller

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 06 Feb 2009

  • Next message: JIM DOHERTY: "RARA-AVIS: Re: Definition of Thriller"


    Re your comments below:

    "I'd suggest that mysteries and thrillers are two different things, whatever genre they are written in. Expanding from your Hitchcock contribution, dramatic tension in a mystery is created by witholding the who in a crime, and/or sometimes the how. Dramatic tension in a thriller comes from creating anticipation by revealing the who and how but witholding the outcome of the crime; will it be accomplished or thwarted?"

    First of all you're confusing two terms, "mystery," which describes the broad genre (though some people prefer "crime fiction"), and "whodunits," which describes a type of plot that mysteries often employ.

    However, while all whodunits are mysteries, not all mysteries are whodunits. And this is not a recent 'morphing of the form, but was almost ever thus. In the third (and arguably BEST entry) in Poe's Dupin trilogy, "The Purloined Letter," there is no question who the villain is. In fact, Minister D--, the master criminal Dupin opposes in this story, is, in some ways, the prototype for such larger-than-life villains as Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu, Arnold Zeck, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the Deaf Man. Th interest is the story is not in figuring out who the bad guy is, but in how Dupin will thwart his evil plans.

    The "thriller," like "whodunit," merely described a type of plot, a plot that emphasizes action, suspense, and pace rather than cerebration, a plot with a vesceral, rather than an intellectual, appeal. And even then, it's not mutually exclusive of the "whodunit." There are thrillers that withold the identity of the main villain until the final climax, and even leave the essential clues to figure out that villain's identity strewn through the story for the reader to pick up and follow. William DeAndrea's four-novel series about America's top espionage agent, Clifford Driscoll, for example, are all, in addition to being thrillers, fair-play whodunits.

    "Both of these techniques can and are used in a variety of settings, though there's a tendency to equate mysteries almost exclusively with crime fiction even when the who and how are revealed quite early on."

    That's for the simple reason that mysteries should be exclusively equated with crime fiction even when the who and how are revealed quite early on. They're synonomous terms. That's why writing the same story will get you admitted to both the Mystery Writers of America and the British Crime Writers Association. (Assuming, of course, some publisher buys it).

    "Sometimes crime fiction is serially one then the other, the who and how not revealed until late in the book, the remainder devoted to whether the criminal will be caught and the crime thwarted. But I don't think any fiction can be both thriller and mystery simultaneously."

    I've already given several examples where it can and does, so obviously it can. And does.

    "So I'm suggesting that while Strangers on a Train is crime fiction and a thriller, it is not a mystery."

    It IS a mystery. It's NOT a whodunit.

    "That would be true too, of most serial-killer narratives. Not that most literary historians, critics, publicists or water-cooler experts have ever had any interest in the distinction."

    That's because it's not the correct distinction. The distinction you mean to draw is between "mystery" (or "crime," if you prefer), the broad genre, and "whodunit," a type of plot used within that genre.

    "So maybe I'm wrong."

    No "maybe" about it.

    "(OK Jim--not being you I am quite assuredly wrong)."

    At least you're right about something. You're not me (and thank God for that) and you are quite assuredly wrong.



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