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ON CRIME

What puts the 'killer' in 'thriller'?

Thrillers are hot these days. They've taken over the bestseller lists, displacing mainstream fiction, notes Patrick Anderson, a book reviewer for The Washington Post, in "The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction."

Anderson traces today's bestsellers back to Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. The Kennedy assassination ("the end of innocence for a generation"), he argues, established a broad-based audience for today's blockbuster thrillers: "Cynicism was in our bones; noir was the new reality."

The writing is informal, as if the author were shooting the breeze in a late-night bar, and rife with sharp observations: "If we could remove Hannibal [Lecter]'s style and sophistication and consider only its rapes and cannibalism and people-eating hogs, many of us would find it disgusting and probably unreadable. But to write well is like being blessed with a beautiful face -- you can get away with almost anything."

For Anderson, "crime-related fiction we loosely call thrillers" includes "hard-core noir, in the Hammett-Chandler private-eye tradition, as well as a bigger, broader universe of books that includes spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers." He gives us a bit more insight: "In the modern thriller, suspense has replaced sex as the engine that drives popular fiction."

Anderson lavishes praise on favorites like Michael Connelly ( the Harry Bosch series, he says, is "the finest crime series anyone has written" ) and heaps abuse on others ( of James Patterson, he writes: "He panders to ignorance, laziness, and prurience " ).

When you look at the panoply of authors Anderson assembles, one thing becomes clear -- it's a guy's game. Women authors get a 14-page chapter ("Dangerous Women") plus a few short mentions elsewhere. Anderson devotes the most ink to Sue Grafton, not a thriller writer in my book. Consider his observation that her recent novels are longer than her early ones: "The difference is not due to greater complexity of plot so much as it is to the lengthy descriptions . . . that Grafton lavishes on us." Grafton may do this, he says, because she's good at it, or because they lend the novel an "aura of authenticity." He adds, " Insofar as she's often describing hairstyles, home furnishings, and women's clothing, they presumably interest her women readers."

Ouch. Yes, a book reviewer's lens is inevitably narrowed by his taste, but if Anderson proposes to take on the "how" of an entire genre, he owes it to us to widen the viewfinder. I'd hoped for a discussion of what exactly suspense is, how authors create it, and why it's become so popular. What's the distinction between a thriller and crime novels that fail the thriller test? Are graphic violence and profanity essential ingredients? Readers looking for analysis and insight will be disappointed.

One of the women who rate a mention from Anderson is British author Val McDermid. In her new thriller, "The Grave Tattoo," Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham searches for a long-lost epic relating the South Seas adventures of Fletcher Christian, leader of the infamous 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty. Jane believes that Christian sneaked back to his ancestral home in the Lake District and told Wordsworth, his childhood friend, of his adventures. Wordsworth's poem relating those adventures vanished, as did Christian himself.

When a 200-year-old mummified body, bearing tattoos like those of 18th-century seafarers, is pulled from a peat bog near the Gresham family farm in the Lake District, Jane dares to hope that it's the body of Fletcher Christian. She returns home to pursue a dream that, until now, only she believed in. Jane's list of Christian's descendants who might have ended up with the manuscript dwindles as, one by one, they mysteriously die.

Her unlikely helper is 13-year-old Tenille, who lives in the same squalid public housing project as Jane. Tenille follows her to the Lake District, running from police who want to question her about a murder committed by her gangster father.

This novel doesn't meet the standards McDermid set for herself with previous novels like "A Place of Execution," but she shows her extraordinary range as the story weaves between Wordsworth's "notes," the rar efied atmosphere of academia, and the gritty reality of underclass London.

Another atypical thriller is William Landay's "The Strangler." It's set in 196 3 Boston, just after the Kennedy assassination. West Enders have been routed to make way for urban renewal, a bloody war rages among rival mob families, and a serial killer stalks the city's streets.

History tells us that Albert DeSalvo confessed to the murders, but police doubt that he was the culprit or that the murders were the work of a single killer. Landay uses this uncertainty as a backdrop for his complex saga of three flawed brothers: Joe Daley, cop; Michael Daley, attorney; and Ricky Daley, professional burglar. The novel intertwines their search for the person who gunned down their police-detective father with the search for the Strangler.

Reminiscent of Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River," the novel takes us into a dark world where goodness is smothered and villainy thrives. Graphic violence and profanity are needed to tell this story, and I wasn't sure I'd make it through. By page 50, I was completely riveted.

Hallie Ephron's "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" has been nominated for an Edgar.

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