Yes, a thriller has to be thrilling, but it can also be literature

We have a special guest today!  James Hayman, author of The Chill of Night (Minotaur, St. Martin’s Press), is here with us to talk about thriller novels, his specialty.  Enjoy!


Yes, a Thriller Has to Be Thrilling.  But It Can Also be Literature

by James Hayman

A lot of people, but especially self-proclaimed book snobs, create a kind of false distinction between thrillers (and other forms of so-called “genre” fiction such as romance and sci-fi) and what they like to call “literary fiction.”

Genre fiction, they say, is plot driven.   Literary fiction is “character driven.”

That is a distinction that implies that in thrillers or in other kinds of genre fiction, the depth of the characters and the examination of their problems as human beings doesn’t matter.

I think that’s baloney.

Yes, a thriller has to be thrilling. A least a good one does.  To qualify as a really good thriller a book has to have a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It has to create a need in the reader to find out what happens next. A need that makes them unwilling to put the book down until they’ve turned just one more page, and then one more after that, even if it means staying up way past their intended bedtimes.

But is it only the unfolding of the plot that creates that kind of urgency and involvement in a story?

I don’t think so. I think it’s also the characters.  The characters in really truly memorable thrillers have to be as interesting, as fully-developed and as multi-dimensional as they are in any so-called literary fiction.

I know in my own books, The Cutting and The Chill of Night, McCabe’s problems with his own past and the development of his relationships with his daughter Casey, his girlfriend Kyra, his partner Maggie and especially with his ex-wife Sandy are at least as important to the story as the unfolding of the plot or the undoing of the villains.

And it’s not just me. My bookcase is full of thrillers that, by any rational measure, qualify as first-rate literature.

Take Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River for example. It’s certainly a thriller with a plot that unfolds with all the awful inevitability of a Shakespearian tragedy. But Lehane went beyond plot and explored the character of his three protagonists, Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle with subtlety, intelligence and great literary skill.

Or take John LeCarre’s classic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Richard Price’s 2008 best-seller, Lush Life. Are they thrillers or literature?  I think they’re both. And then there’s Cormac McCarthy.  He’s the winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and is considered one of the finest “literary novelists” of our time. Yet he has written widely-acclaimed books, such as No Country For Old Men, that any fair-minded reader would call thrillers no matter how you cut it.

Yes, there are lots of thrillers populated with one-dimensional cardboard characters. And yes, there is much literary fiction that offers so little plot that its authors’ main intention seems to have been to induce sleep rather than prevent it.  But, to me, those are the books that don’t work and won’t be remembered.

I think the best novels offer both great characters and great plot and arbitrarily categorizing them as either genre writing or literary fiction is a false and often dishonest  choice. And one that needn’t be made.

Visit James on the web at

1 Comment

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One response to “Yes, a thriller has to be thrilling, but it can also be literature

  1. Yesterday there was a similar complaint from a science fiction writer. Why is it that genre writers, who make all the money in the publishing world, generally wish to be classified as literary authors? Whereas literary authors, who seldom make money, do not wish to be classified as genre authors? Is it simply the prestige?

    I would agree with you, however about Le Carre. But he writes character driven thrillers, even if they are spy novels. Because he writes about the human element in espionage, everything tends to hinge on the character’s psychology and motivation, which makes everything ring true. One also gets the sense with LeCarre that every ingredient is as good as it can be.

    This is not always true of other writers of the genre. I can remember seeing a spy film I thought was pretty good, so I decided to read the book. Perhaps it was a Robert Ludlum, it was years ago, so I don’t remember. Anyway, in the film there was a wonderful line of dialogue that captured the essence of someone or something so deftly that it simply made the movie for me. The corresponding line in the book was much less insightful. When the work of a famous novelist can be improved by a screenwriter, that doesn’t say much for the novelist.

    One gets the sense, in reading most genre work, that not only is every ingredient not as good as it can be, but that, as in the craft of screenwriting, you have to wake the reader up every ten minutes or so, and certain plot points have to occur at certain points in the story. It’s the literary equivalent of painting by the numbers.

    Does that mean that all literary fiction is as good as it can be. No, I think it doesn’t, which is perhaps why LitFic is a designated genre. It is work that, because of its style and content, cannot be categorized among the established genre. That doesn’t always mean that it is literature.

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