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Let's talk about thrillers
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So why don't I read thrillers? Someone recently asked me and really wanted to know, and I had to think about it because I wasn't sure and some of the answers I came up with were facile and inaccurate. I tend to read on the harder, darker end of the spectrum - private eye and cop mysteries. I read some "legal thrillers" (though I'm not sure why many are called that - but I certainly have enjoyed some courtroom dramas - Scott Turow often writes work at the level of brilliant - and spy stuff . So why not? Have I tried? Um, yeah but…

As I'm given to understand, while most thriller writers are male, certainly not all are. And while I don't now this to prove it I've heard it said and it seems to be true that while we women read "men's books" - by which I mean everything from hardboiled mysteries and books written by men and books with male protagonists, it seems still that men don't cross over in the same way. Forgive me if that's not true - as I say, it's what I sense and I've vaguely heard, but I'm not saying I can prove a bit of it.

I don't hear a lot of men who will, say, cop to reading books - even pi books, even books with female cop characters when the protagonists are female. Certainly I think we know that the readers of the cozier end of the genre TEND to be female. Yes? Agreed?

Let's try this: Women read Lee Child. Women read Mary Higgins Clark, Women read Steven Saylor. Women read Barry Eisler. Women read Rita Mae Brown.

Let's try it again with men. Men read Lee Child. Men read Steven Saylor. Men read Barry Eisler. Hands up PLEASE if you know I'm wrong, or even think so - this is all an exercise in speculation - men do not read Mary Higgins Clark or Rita Mae Brown. I'm not even sure if men read Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller or Sara Paretsky.

So as I say, forgive me if this is a vast overstatement but men read men, yes? And women? We read men and women? Okay? Mostly sort of? Except that from what I'm hearing, women aren't reading women who write thrillers and that strikes me as SO ODD. SO WEIRD. What's that about?

Okay, so we have major thrillers out there. The biggies, the Clancys, the Pattersons (I don't know which one - there's James and Richard North, right?) and the
Grishams (arguably 'legal thrillers") are read by mainstream readers. I just went to look at the NYT best seller list which I use to chart mainstream readership; hardcover fiction includes Sandra Brown (thriller) Dan Brown (uh-oh, QUICK everyone CHANGE YOUR NAME TO BROWN and you'll make it on the NYT list!) (thriller), Elizabeth Kostova (ok THEY call it a thriller, I dunno) James Patterson, Anne Rivers Siddons, not a THIRLLER - Sue Monk Kidd, not a thriller (Wait, new plan! Instead of changing your name to Brown, everyone become female and use three names!), a thriller NOR a 3 named writer), Terry McMillan, (no thriller, only 2 names), Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, Steve Martini - legal thriller. Then comes Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis which so completely destroys my theory. Darn.

Okay, so thrillers are big. They've been so for quite a while. Men write a lot of them, but the women have been around for a while and are getting better known, right? Er, right? There's Francine Mathews, Rae Hillhouse and Gayle Lynds. Those three along with Tess Gerritsen, and who knows WHO else are writers of thrillers. Include Lisa Scottoline if you're including John Grisham. I've become, wanted to become, more aware of who's writing thrillers since Gayle became one of Left Coast's guests of honor and since the formation of the ITW, which Gayle and David Morrell co-founded.

I read very few thrillers. Why not? First off, to dispel all the rumors (the WHAT? Oh, you mea not everyone's talking about what I read?) I've read a bunch and have found them very well written. (and I've had this discussion with one thriller writer: "It's okay I know you hate my books." "I do NOT. You're a very good writer." Absolutely true.) Calling a book "well-written" by the way is not meant as a patronizing remark, a way of shoving it aside or a put-down. "Well-written" is high praise from me. I can say it about books I like and don't like, I mean it in all seriousness, because NOT enough books are well-written. At least to my snotty standards.

Okay, here it is. I don't like being scared. Does that sound ludicrous coming from a reader of mystery fiction? Maybe it's like phobias - there are some things that frighten and some that don't. Suspense and thrillers often SCARE me. Either because they're making something too real, or by bringing out an idea that might be true that makes me wanna stick my fingers in my hears and SING really loudly. The ease with which some microbe could be dispersed, the fact that sleepers could be among us and could do us great harm. I think thriller villains often show great capacity for evil. That SCARES me.

David Morrell on the ITW website introduces a list of "must read thrillers" (most of which no, I have not read) and he says in part about thrillers that "[o]ne of their common denominators is that they quicken the reader’s heartbeat.". AHA! That's IT! I don't LIKE that feeling.

Look, back in college, one day in the afternoon, "Wait until Dark" was on tv. Down the hall a bunch of my dormmates were watching it. I wasn't. I haven't and I won't. And when I heard them scream, I knew enough to know what had happened. It baffled me then, it baffles me now. I was designed without the thing that enjoys adrenaline rushes.

When I was living in the bay area and "Alien" came out, several of us created the "I Don't Go To Booga-Booga Movies Club"; booga-booga movies being loosely defined as movies where things JUMP out at you. "Wait Until Dark" is a booga-booga movie. "Jaws" was a BIG bb movie; it came out when I was in grad school. My lover went with a friend to "Jaws" and afterward, we met up at a bar. As a joke, someone (not me) put the movie's already popular theme music on the jukebox and both of them were so freaked they couldn't put their feet on the floor. No kidding. GOOD movie, no doubt. I didn't get it then. I don't now. In college, my best friend and my boyfriend went to see "The Exorcist". Icky.

I don't like rollercoasters. I don't bungie jump or sky dive. I don't get why people do because I don't have that whatever-it-is that responds positively to a rush. I don't LIKE being scared. Thrillers scare.

On that same "must read" page one book that's mentioned talks about the kidnapping of children. Too ugly. Won't read about the kidnapping of children. Too scary. Or the stalking of a woman, the kidnapping of a woman, the terrorizing of someone. I just went to a webiste to check the spelling of an author's name and saw a description of "white- hot tale of terror." No Way. See the pattern? I HAVE read several on the ITW list, including many of the spy books; Le Carre and Deighton, Adam Hall, Frederick Forsyth. Even some Ken Follett. Almost all John D. MacDonald but disliked the title listed. I'd argue that I can read the rmore sort of "intellectual" ones. I don't mean by that that the others aren't but the ones where as a reader I get really lots in the details, the paperwork, trying to figure out what will happen next without necessarily seeing the icky stuff. A little more distance? Does that make sense? And as always, there are exceptions.

Thrillers are often praised - and RIGHTLY so dammit - for their pacing. Good thriller writers are amazing. They carry you along and then next thing you know it's 3 in the morning and oh damn, I bet you never ate dinner or called your mom like you were going to the second you finished chapter um, darn, just one more chapt…..

I'd argue that pacing often gets messed up in mysteries. In some mysteries I've read oh man it's so good until you hit the "oops, I forgot I have to end this book and I'm weeks past deadline" or "oops, I didn't introduce the villain early enough and I don't have time to rewrite it, let's throw her in" or more recently "oops, I've written a hundred and fifty pages too many in this book that really needs editing, good thing my overburdened editor doesn't have time". Lucky us.

And it's not really about characterization; I don't question that character is developed in a thriller. Thinking of the ones I've read - say um, well Jeff Deaver I'd argue has written several thrillers, and I am a major fan of his, although, truth to tell I like the Rhyme books the LEAST. And I feel like, yes, his protagonists - and villlans - in say A MAIDEN'S GRAVE or BLUE NOWHERE - are totally three-dimensional, the way I want and need the m to be. Or oh gosh, well, if Le Carre is thriller, oh hell, there's his brilliant George Smiley. Okay, so I'm not saying there's a lack there.

I don't like being scared. I don't LIKE my heartbeat and pulse to race. I really don't. I also have trouble believing SOME of the conspiracy theories I read in thrillers - JUST as I do believing in some of the coincidences in amateur detective books. I don't LIKE knowing that yeah, you can kill a guy by poking him with an umbrella.

I have some trouble accepting the premises offered by a lot of thrillers, JUST as I do serial killer books. Maybe it's me putting my fingers back in my ears and lalaing, but that's how I choose to spend my time.

I often say I want "reality" even in my fiction, which is why I have a limited tolerance for some of the amateur sleuth series - the old "Jessica Fletcher" syndrome where sometimes I can suspend my disbelief because sometimes it's worth it and other times, well um, no. Government conspiracies? I honestly don't find them realistic. Do people conspire? No doubt, but in my lifetime the examples Iv'e seen are so ludicrous and inept that either I don't believe or don't want to. I know I know, it's FICTION. And I still want it to be. Too much reality and I could just be reading a history book. Well guess what - I do that too.

So am i saying that i read mysteries and they're tame? I don't think so. They intrigue me, things happen that are scary but somehow I can work around it, or past it. Certainly when Kinsey's in that office with that guy with the gun, or well, I'm not going to try to recite the dozens, hundreds of books that had scary set-ups and my favorite protagonist is in a frightening situation. But maybe that's it. Does this sound stupid? i'ts that she's in the scary situation, not me. It's happening to HIM, and there's enough just enough distance that I'm watching I'm not actually in it. Is that different? I'm not sure. Do I identify with, care about protagonists? Hell yeah. But I can think of dozens of perilous situations, when Bill Smith was facing down a gang, or well, it would be dopey to recite endings of books to prove how well-read I am or whatever....

I began this in part as an explanation to someone who asked me why I don't read thrillers. I'm not sure I've explained it all that well. I also never rule out - I've said I don't read cozies, but I have. I've said I don't read lots of supernatural, and I don't. But then I do. But pinning it down, I have to say that perhaps I don't read thrillers because they're TOO successful at what they do best; scare the reader, heighten the tension, make your heart beat faster, make you check your windows twice. And I'm a weenie.

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