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Wednesday, October 6, 2010


"The concept of a protagonist who is not in control thus seems virtually universal to the [suspense thriller] genre"-- Charles Derry, THE SUSPENSE THRILLER, p. 19.

In his 1988 analysis Charles Derry restricts his observations purely to the medium of films in sussing out the genre he terms "the suspense thriller." But though he doesn't analyze any thrillers from the prose medium, Derry does quote a number of prose-thriller writers in support of his observations, such as Patricia Highsmith, Ayn Rand, and Boileau-Narcejac. In addition, Derry, influenced in part by the genre-theorist John Cawelti, provides a rigorous schema by which he attempts to separate out the essence of the "suspense thriller" from other genres with conceptual overlap, principally the detective/mystery genre and (to a much lesser extent) the horror genre. In doing this, Derry follows in the footsteps of both the thriller-writers and other academics, who seem to more or less agree that mystery and horror are the genres most often confounded with the suspense genre. This is basically accurate as far as it goes, but I think Derry and his fellow academics neglect another genre (also a "mythos" in my Fryean system), which would give some of their conceptualizations wider literary applicability. Obviously, I can't devote more than a broad outline as to how the genre/mythos I term "adventure" stacks up against that of "suspense," but Derry has given me some intriguing starting-points.

Early in the book Derry, careful to state that he wishes to deal only with the suspense-genre in its cinematic manifestations, advances a Caweltian definition based on the content of suspense-thriller films:

"Perhaps the suspense thriller can be perceived not so much as a group of films which thrill their audiences (although this may often be the case), but as a group of films whose content consists essentially of thrills."

Though Derry later devotes a chapter to his concept of the thrill, he never quite arrives at a way of distinguishing the unique thrill of the suspense-genre from those of other genres, such as horror and adventure. This may render certain aspects of his argument problematic, since in my essay THRILLER KILLING I observed that "even a glance at Wikipedia gives one of a cornucopia of subtypes-- action-thriller, horror-thriller, erotic thrillers-- that wander all over the genre-map." Indeed, if one were to define a thriller in the manner that one of his citations, Basil Hogarth, does-- as "any type of fiction... in which the sensational element preponderates," then almost every genre conceived in the last hundred years could be called a "thriller."

Plainly, a given sensation-- say, the threat of a entity that means harm to the viewpoint-character-- will be pretty much the same in any genre. What distinguishes the "thrills" of a suspense-story, a horror-story or an adventure-story must then be the way the narrative presents the thrill to the audience.

It's understandable that Derry doesn't attempt to say much about distinguishing the thrills of either horror or adventure from those of suspense. For one thing, Derry correctly sees the suspense-thriller as belonging to a greater category of "the crime-genre," and so he spends most of his energy distinguishing his chosen subject, suspense, from other categories of crime-tale, particularly the detective/mystery genre. I don't fault him for having done so, for the sake of his argument's clarity; I merely wish to expand the size of the lens Derry uses.

For instance, in Chapter 4, he posits a schema by which one can view crime-stories according to how much they emphasize the victim, the "detective," or the criminal. As long as one is only speaking of the crime genre, which almost always takes place in contemporary urban settings, this is appropriate. Stories that emphasize a "detective"-- and I will explain my added quotes shortly-- include such subgenres as the "classical detective," "the hard-boiled detective," and "the police procedural."

Derry's definition of the last of these, the "police procedural," is the main reason that I put quotes around his concept of the "detective." Derry defines this genre too broadly, saying that it is "composed of all those works which emphasize a professional policeman (or police detective's) adventures as a member of society's law-keeping forces." This is a problematic definition because although many policeman-heroes are technically "detectives" in terms of their official rank, such as Derry's first-mentioned example of DIRTY HARRY, many are not "detectives" in the narrative sense seen in either the classical detective tale (Sherlock Holmes) or the hard-boiled version of same (Philip Marlowe). Dirty Harry's labors to determine what villain to blow away constitute "detection" about as much as do a medieval knight's labors to find out the location of a dragon for the killing.

Moreover, my concept is that the police procedural is usually a good deal more realistic in tone than either DIRTY HARRY or various other examples Derry cites. And sure enough, a minute's search on Google brings me to a more precise definition than Derry's, from current crime-writer Jim Doherty:

A police procedural is nothing more than a piece of crime fiction (in any medium) in which the main, or at least a major interest, is the authentic depiction (or at least the APPEARANCE of the authentic depiction) of the profession of law enforcement.

Toward the end of the chapter in which Derry sets forth his victim/criminal/"detective" schema, Derry does recognize a thematic difference between the genre he seeks to define, "the suspense thriller," and those genres that critics insist on calling thrillers but which aren't relevant to Derry's concept of suspense. Derry seeks to define these other thrillers as expeditiously as he can:

"These genres on the left of the triangle [schema] should not be called thrillers, but if critics insist on occasionally doing so, they should be aware that these genres are more 'process thrillers' than 'suspense thrillers.'"

He further notes that the "leftie" thrillers tend to "present some distinct moral ethic... as a consistent value from beginning to end, whereas the suspense thrillers tend to examine and investigate an existing morality or individual commitment to a new code, arriving at some final position by the end." He doesn't address "process thrillers" again for the greater part of the book, except for a couple of pages in Chapter 9, where he notes the appearance in the early 1970s of "a new kind of thriller... exploring violent, almost fascist sensibilities." Among the films cited in this grouping are DEATH WISH (which is compared to DIRTY HARRY), RED DAWN, and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.

Putting aside the value judgment in Derry's "fascism" canard, it seems obvious to me that many if not all of the works Derry struggles to disentangle from his suspense thrillers (again, thanks to the mislabellings by other critics) are best seen through the generic lens of the adventure-mythos. In this mythos, as Northrop Frye pointed out, protagonists do not usually alter their basic moral stances as much as do some (though not all) suspense-heroes, and the reason ties back to Derry's pronouncement in the first quote referenced above: narratively it's just as important for the adventure-hero to essentially remain in control as it is for the suspense-hero to lose some degree of control.

That said, there are of course any number of exceptions. One may argue that on one level the first adventure of Dirty Harry ends with a certain loss of control in that after killing the villain he flings away the badge that represents his ties to law enforcement. Conversely, the suspense-hero of 1977's BLACK SUNDAY-- a film Derry surveys in his "political thrillers" section-- does undergo more doubts than Dirty Harry during the course of the story, but at film's end he "mans up" and decisively kills the villain, as Derry himself points out.

Exceptions often don't either prove or disprove the rule, however. I've noted in earlier essays that I deem the suspense-genre to be most strongly affiliated to the mythos of drama. In this characterization I follow Frye's remarks on the type of protagonist dominantly seen in tragedy:

He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature.

This clearly contrasts with Frye's remarks on the concept of the hero seen in the romance/adventure mythos:

...the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended...

In a future essay I hope to go into greater detail as to how the *mythoi* of adventure and drama are at once "natural enemies" and "rival siblings." For now, I'll end by saying that although Derry's SUSPENSE THRILLER's focus prevents it from framing the suspense genre within the totality of possible genres, Derry's analysis of the genre itself remains both formidable in its scope and inspiring as to the author's ability to suss out common themes in a variety of disparate-seeming stories.


Gary L. Pullman said...

Really enjoyed this insightful essay!

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks, much appreciated.