Washington Post thriller reviewer Anderson (Rich as Sin, 1991, etc.) has observed that thrillers have colonized bestseller lists for 25 years, and he wants you to know all about it, except for the reason why.
Fifty years ago, sex and politics made Peyton Place and Advise and Consent blockbusters. Now, these surefire topics have been replaced by crime in books by John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson. Arguing that “The Da Vinci Code is our Gone with the Wind,” Anderson promises to tell why and how suspense thrillers became so commercially dominant. Apart from some vague remarks about post-Vietnam disillusionment, however, that’s exactly what he doesn’t do. Instead, he follows the tried-and-true formula of earlier examinations of crime fiction from Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure to Julian Symons’s Mortal Consequences: Consider the genre’s leading figures one at a time, introducing each with a brief biography, then focusing on a small number of representative novels he’s reviewed since 2000 or mugged up for this exercise (for a reviewer with larger aspirations, he’s surprisingly ill-read in the history of the genre). Analysis is upstaged by plot summary, quotations of Anderson’s columns and an obsession with evaluative rankings that make you wonder if you’re reading a hyper-extended review. For the record, Anderson thinks The Silence of the Lambs is “the greatest of modern thrillers” and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels “the finest crime series anyone has written.” Delphic references to how “the writing is what matters” comport uneasily with lists of sales figures. And Anderson’s vigorous defense of the best thrillers as the equals of “the best literary fiction” is confounded by his judgments of Dennis Lehane and John Sandford’s series novels as “too entertaining.”
An opportunity squandered. Anderson has a great subject, but this lazy compendium of picks and pans barely scratches its surface.