My wife and I have been watching the ABC TV show Quantico on Netflix. I would have stopped watching after about the eighth episode, but my wife wanted to continue and so we did. IMO, the show continued its downward spiral into angst, bad acting, and impossibly stupid storylines right through to the season finale. How ABC could renew such a travesty on the concept of entertainment and cancel Agent Carter is beyond me. Well, actually it isn’t. A hot babe, a hunky guy, and sex (lots of sex) — and you get commercial sponsors. No wonder ABC’s line up sucks.
At the same time, I’ve been watching the Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries and CBS’s Elementary. Those are superb productions with good acting, well-drawn characters, and engaging storylines. Of which, Quantico has none. The main character in Quantico is a narcissistic slut (not just my opinion, even the characters in the story think so), the supporting characters are pathetic, and the storyline… Well, when taken all together, if the FBI is really like this — then God help America.
In watching the three shows, I got thinking about crime fiction and drama in general and which types do I prefer. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of crime stories: mystery, suspense, and thriller. Let’s take a look at each and see what defines them.
Crime fiction mysteries more or less got their start with Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and were perfected by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes. Every detective since Holmes’s debut owe’s something to the Great Detective. Doyle permanently shaped the mystery. There have been many variations on the theme, but there have been no new themes.
What are the characteristics of the mystery story? At base it’s a puzzle, a riddle, to be solved. The hero or heroine must find the solution and discover who committed the crime.
The mystery is something of a cerebral form. It appeals to our wish for order and our desire to find solutions to problems. Action is often minimal. There is the sleuth, professional or amateur, interacting with the other characters in order to gain pieces of information which will hopefully lead to the solution of the problem.
Generally speaking, the sleuth is in little physical danger. Although he or she may encounter some risk as he or she gets closer to the solution and the bad guy is about to be revealed.
Examples of this category abound. Perhaps my favorite mysteries are those which feature Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. On TV there are many great series. Favorites of mine are Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Inspector George Gently, Grantchester, Elementary, Murdoch Mysteries, and Midsomer Murders.
My own Justinia Wright, PI fits neatly into this category.
The suspense novel or drama differs from the mystery in that the hero is in some kind of personal danger, often right from the beginning of the story — although he or she may not be aware of the danger, at least at the start of the story.
However, the reader (or viewer) is very much aware and that starts the suspense dynamic.
The focus in the suspense story is not on the crime, but rather on the danger the hero has inadvertently gotten himself into.
The acknowledged master of the suspense story was Cornell Woolrich. Novels such as The Bride Wore Black, Night has a Thousand Eyes, and Fright are classics of the genre.
Alfred Hitchcock was the cinematic master of the suspense story, with such classics as Rear Window (based on a Woolrich short story), North by Northwest, and Vertigo.
A good suspense story often has many elements of the “whodunit”, although very often the reader or viewer knows who the villain is. The hero very often doesn’t however and that creates the suspense.
The thriller is the relative newcomer on the block. Although, one could argue the thriller concept got its start in such novels as the Fu Manchu series by Sax Rohmer, where the evil genius, Fu Manchu threatens the world with his evil schemes.
In a very real sense the thriller is a suspense story that is simply set on a very grand scale. The stakes are much higher, often on a huge scale. Something is going to affect hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of people — and the hero, of course, must stop the bad guy before the disaster happens. He may or may not know who the culprit is he must stop, but stop him he must. If the villain is unknown to both hero and reader/viewer, then we have elements of the mystery in our thriller.
And right from the start it’s very obvious the hero, along with those hundreds, thousands, or millions, is in danger. Mortal danger, which only gets worse as the story progresses.
The above mentioned blight on the thriller genre, Quantico, exemplifies all of the thriller tropes. The heroine, Alex Parrish, is in danger right from the start. The stakes are high, as well: buildings are blowing up and then we get the ultimate disaster threat. The villain is only revealed at the end, so we also have a healthy dash of mystery to our plot. The suspense story on steroids.
A much better example of the thriller is the movie Die Hard. Intense action. High stakes. One man against many, with scores of hostages at risk. A classic.
In the literary field, Tom Clancy was a master of the technical thriller and the stakes in his books are huge. There’s also Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.
Crime fiction is the second largest genre after romance. According to Author Earnings’ May 2016 report, mysteries and thrillers/suspense account for around 230,000 sales per day on Amazon, with authors earning in the neighborhood of $375,000 per day. Apparently crime (writing) does pay!
Thrillers/suspense (and probably more the thriller) is the hot genre now. Straight mysteries less so. Lee Child and Clive Cussler are big names. Indies such as Mark Dawson and A G Riddle are pulling in big bucks selling thrillers. Apparently crime readers lean towards lots of action and big risks these days.
However, I have to say I prefer the mystery and secondarily the traditional suspense story. There’s nothing wrong with the thriller, it’s just that most thriller storylines seem a bit too fantastic for my tastes. I also tend to prefer the more sedate pace of the mystery. If I want action and adventure, I prefer the traditional action/adventure yarn. Such as those written by H. Rider Haggard or Robert E Howard.
It is, though, admittedly, a matter of personal taste. However, I find myself wondering if in another 130 years Jack Reacher will be around. I’m pretty certain Sherlock Holmes will be.
Feel free to comment on your crime fiction preferences. And until next time, happy reading!