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

From: Steve Novak (
Date: 07 Feb 2009

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    Many thanks Kerry for this Œclarification¹ which is in fact a very wise acknowledgment of the inadequacies of the language and the extreme care one should take with definitions/territories...and boundaries...

    This is why it is always better to use the generic term of crime fiction and then within that bring subdivisions...such as whodoneits or thrillers, or noir, or......with of course the proviso that not all thrillers are part of the overall crime stories Œgenre/group/box...¹...and perhaps this is also the case of some whodoneits or even noir...I don¹t know enough there...

    ...but to go with Œwho¹ and Œhow¹ as the qualifiers, as Jim suggests below, is really not applicable to anything that¹s critics anywhere can use and seems to limit the range of narratives covered to a very narrow and probably outdated (as far as literary criticismm is concerned) definition of the
    Œgenre/group/box...¹... Because we have many crime stories in which, from the start, you know exactly who, why and where and whatever other markers...but it is all in the style, the type of narrative, the flow by which the story is told, the
    Œvoice that speaks¹...I take as an example (and I have read many others throughout the last ten years at least...books from Auster for re-ignite another Rara debate!) a book by Deanincxk I think, which is only made of official reports (police/military/medical/diverse bureaucracies) and that is how we learn the full range of the story...and the first one of these official reports, at the start of the book, is in fact telling us the plot/the protagonists and the outcome, but the whole book follows, uncovering in fact all the sinuous meanders of the story and letting you fill in a thousand new blancs as we grow through the socio-political nightmare thus uncovered...
    ...and I think of another book which is just letters...

    The definitions used should be literary critical tools everywhere and not only for units such as the MWA or the BCWA...and lead to a comprehensive and multiligual translation scheme.

    Enough for a Saturday morning...


     On 2/7/09 11:23 AM, "" <> wrote:

    > Jim:
    > Yes, my point exactly. Whodunits and thrillers are not the same thing and
    > thrillers are often no more mysterious or criminal than the outcome of a lot
    > of narratives not categorized as mysteries or crime writing. But then there
    > are a lot of narratives that involve a mystery unrelated to a crime, and of
    > course there are narratives that involve crime, even quite centrally, that are
    > not considered by many to be crime fiction.
    > It all goes to show the inadequacy of words, that they are not the things
    > defined but expressed perceptions of those things, and therefore meaning
    > varies, perhaps slightly but always significantly, from person to person and
    > with differing contexts of experience, being as much a compromise for the
    > purpose of communication as a precise representation.
    > So I happily defer to you and your broader readings on my observation that a
    > narrative cannot be a thriller and a whodunit simultaneously. Could we agree
    > on "seldom"? Perhaps not; afterall, how can I know what gives you, or any
    > sentient being, a thrill on these long, brooding February nights?
    > With all due respect,
    > Kerry
    > ----- Original Message -----
    > From: JIM DOHERTY
    > To: <>
    > Sent: Friday, February 06, 2009 10:33 AM
    > Subject: RARA-AVIS: Re: Jim D's definition of Thriller
    > Kerry,
    > 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.
    > [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

    Steve Novak 734 429 4997 - off 313 300 0770 - cell

    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

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