Who Stole the Thriller?

What has happened to the classic American genre? Alexander Nazaryan set out to read 4 smart thrillers to find out why the Scandinavians are dominating.

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America is in decline. Everybody knows, from Glenn Beck to Jon Stewart. China is rising. So is India. Russia continues to drink itself into a stupor, but still the scares the bejesus out of everyone. Pretty soon we’re going to be one of those second-rate countries where the only point of pride is a decent soccer team. Which, at this point, we don’t yet have.

Culturally, we’re not doing much better—unless, of course, Jersey Shore had some profound significance that escaped me. An American author hasn’t won the Nobel Prize in Literature for nearly two decades. A judge from the Nobel committee caused a small row in 2008 when he called American literature “too isolated, too insular.”

Will the American thriller go the way of the American automobile? Will even this small part of our superiority cede to another part of the world?

In fact, even the popular literature we read is no longer necessarily homegrown. This past winter, I read four genre novels of the thriller/suspense/crime variety. Two were American, two were from abroad. They further confirmed my suspicion that good things are happening. They’re just happening elsewhere or yesteryear.

Is it possible that the entire Anglo-American world offers too narrow a scope? That even the work of whiskey-swilling private eyes has been outsourced? In one word, yes. The finest thriller I’ve recently read was not written in English.

The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell, is primarily concerned with the ascendancy of China, and how the sins of colonial fathers is repaid by postcolonial children. But it also hints at another ascendancy: that of the Swedish thriller. Along with Stieg Larson and his Millennium Trilogy, Mankell—author of the Kurt Wallander series—heralds Scandinavia as noir’s new domain.

They are not just rehashing old formulas, either. Both Larssen and Mankell's books are concerned with the role of women, thus updating a genre that has long overflowed with machismo. The first book in Larssen’s series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is known as Men Who Hate Women in Sweden; Mankell's main character is a woman, as are many of the principal players.

Mankell wraps a mystery—the murder of an entire Swedish village—around the middle-age crisis of Birgitta Roslin, an unhappily married judge. He deftly moves between Roslin's personal privations, her investigation into why 19 people were murdered in the hamlet of Hesjovallen and, lastly, the politics of China, where a well-connected oligarch decides to settle scores from his family's past. At its very best, The Man From Beijing reads like one of John Le Carre’s intrigues, only with less alcohol.

Perhaps it is unfair to include an old book in this review, but a Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter, is a difficult novel to classify and one that reminds us of what American writers are capable of. In his insightful introduction, the crime novelist George Pelecanos writes, “I hesitate to classify the novel as either a literary or genre work because I’m not sure Don Carpenter would have cared about the distinction.” Note the past tense above: Though published last fall by The New York Review’s estimable imprint, Carpenter wrote A Hard Rain Falling more than 40 years ago. Reading it today makes one long for those days when “genre fiction” wasn’t yet a curse.

It’s a shame that Jack Kerouac eclipsed Carpenter’s tough but touching vision of America. The enthusiasm of On the Road is as juvenile as a teen-aged crush compared to how Carpenter’s laser prose etches scenes of postwar disillusionment, with its occasional cheap thrills: “Jack sighed and sat back down. He had been through so many scenes like this one. Everybody knew what was what, but nobody wanted to be straight about it. They would go on like this—bored, indifferent, edgy, too hip to live—until they got drunk, and then somebody would turn on the radio and they would dance in the tiny space between the beds.” Jack Leavitt is a dissolute orphan from Oregon. In the above scene, he is in a hotel room with a friend and two women whom they will share. When not soliciting sex, Jack drinks whiskey and brawls.

He eventually gets locked up in Chino, where he shares a cell with Billy Lancing, a black pool hustler from Seattle. The two had crosses paths earlier, in Portland.

Carpenter manages to capture a great deal of the American experience: the rain-soaked landscape of the Northwest, the frayed ends of pre-bohemian San Francisco, the plight of blacks, the challenges of manhood, the difficulty of marriage, the even greater difficulty of redemption. I am not sure why he was forgotten, but am very glad that The New York Review has rescued Carpenter from obscurity.

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Dan Simmons, on the other hand, knows little but the limelight. A writer of great popularity, he has long cast flirty glances in the literary direction: His previous novel, Drood, featured Charles Dickens. That was preceded by The Terror, a supernatural reimagination of John Franklin’s ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage. His popular Hyperion Cantos series takes its title from Keats.

His latest, Black Hills,, is the story of Paha Sapa, a Lakota who was at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where the ghost of General George Custer entered his own spirit. He has visions of the future, much of it looking bleak for his people. Eventually, Paha Sapa comes to work as a demolition expert on Mount Rushmore, which he plans to blow up during a visit by FDR in a desperate bid to remind the “fat takers” that this land belongs to “the Natural Free Human Beings.”

Black Hills is impressive for its nuanced treatment of Native Americans. There are dozens of sources in Simmons’ bibliography, and his willingness to incorporate Lakota language and customs is bold. But thorough research does not equal good writing. Simmons has written less of a novel than an essay on Plains Indians with an improbable, meandering plot.

Perhaps, as with so much else, there are better books to be found beyond American shores. Ian Rankin’s Doors Open certainly seemed promising. A practitioner of what James Ellroy has called “tartan noir,” Rankin is Scotland’s premier master of the hard-boiled genre.

Ultimately, though, Doors Open turns out to be a runny egg. The story involves a loose group of associates—banker, bon vivant, curmudgeonly art professor, local crime boss—who decide to steal paintings from the National Gallery in Edinburgh by replacing them with replicas: “like the A-Team for unloved artworks.” Their plan is airtight. Obviously, it goes awry.

This will one day make an excellent heist movie in the style of Ocean's 11. But as a book, it doesn’t quite hang together. One of the plotters claims they are “freedom fighters,” but stealing paintings from a museum for personal gain is not exactly storming the Bastille. And despite the enormity of the act, there is surprisingly little narrative tension as the “perfect crime” looms. I’ve attended picnics planned with more urgency.

Will the American thriller go the way of the American automobile? Will even this small part of our superiority cede to another part of the world? One of the characters in The Man From Beijing says, “If I had small children today, I’d… make sure they become acquainted with the Chinese language.” Call me cynical, but I’m inclined to agree.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Alexander Nazaryan teaches English at a public school in Brooklyn. He is at work on his first novel. Nazaryan is on the editorial board of the New York Daily News.