Thursday, October 29, 2009



Personally, I think it’s all Rambo’s fault.

Stick with me, this rant make take a while.

Long ago, in a genre far, far, away, heroes battled not just villains but also every element nature could throw at them. This genre was known as high adventure. Authors such as Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Ernest Gann, Gavin Lyall, Wilber Smith, and Hammond Innes reigned as gods.

Somewhere along the way, as the halcyon days of high adventure waned, the genre went through a transformation, a distillation of its character, and a label change, to eventually emerge as what we now call the modern thriller.

Suddenly, some of the greatest writers of a generation – who had honed high adventure into an art form – almost completely disappeared from bookstore shelves and, eventually, from the public consciousness. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (going on and on about how the past was better), I miss the high adventure genre as I find myself rarely satisfied by its bastard step-child.

Let me say up front, there are some excellent authors writing modern thrillers who stand side by side in literary skill with their high adventure counterparts. This rant is not about the quality of writing found in the two genres, but an exploration of where this transmogrification of genres has brought us – and where, perhaps, it can take us next.

In the pre-Internet and e-mail world, there were aficionados of the mystery field who communicated by snail mail, in fanzines, and through armature press associations referred to as DAPAs (a shout out to DAPA-EM, you know who you are). I remember a thread from back in the day when we all drew the line on never reading a book if it had a swastika on the cover. Over the years, this rule of thumb enlarged to include books with covers displaying stabbed fruit, pets, and any suggestion of recipes inside. Obviously, we all violated these blatantly silly prejudices with impunity (they said far more about personal reading tastes than the quality of writing between the covers), yet I can’t say I would have missed much by applying them as ridged guidelines.

Today, my personal rule of thumb in this area includes books with covers mentioning terrorism, the Middle East, and in particular, thrillers promising NON-STOP ACTION! If those latter words appear, I know I am going to be craving lost high adventure novels long before I reach my personal fifty page decision to continue reading or toss a novel aside.

What the heck am I going on about? Let’s look at a quick example. Arguably, Alistair MacLean’s magnum-opus is The Guns Of Navarone. I cut my high adventure genre teeth on this WWII novel that had the grace to be published without a swastika on the cover.

In The Guns Of Navarone, the destruction of the namesake weapons delivers an obvious, yet extremely satisfying conclusion. However, the heart of the novel lies in the man over nature battle both on the rough seas and in the scaling of the unscalable cliffs protecting the guns.

The even deeper heart of the novel, and why it works so well, is because of the everyman believability of the characters facing the rough seas and unscalable cliffs. On a subconscious level, readers are so caught up in the fears, foibles, and flaws of the characters they are transported to a belief they too could have the same strength, skill, and intestinal fortitude to succeed over huge odds.

In contrast, I recently broke my own rule and picked up the non-stop action novel The Gray Man by Mark Greaney while stuck for four hours in the El Paso Airport. The Gray Man is the perfect example of the modern thriller genre. It is well written, smoothly (oh, so smoothly) executed, polished to a high sheen, and delivers what it promises, non-stop action – but unfortunately nothing else.

The Gray Man of the title is the standard greatest-assassin-the-world-has-ever-known, a man more deadly and dangerous than a crate of cobras (we are told The Gray Man is so dangerous unarmed that weapons are merely props – even though he is intimately familiar with every weapon in existence).

From page one, the action never stops as The Gray Man is betrayed and finds himself facing a gauntlet of ten of the best international assassination teams and vicious killers between himself and his version of the guns of Navarone (a maguffin is a maguffin). For 400 or so pages, The Grey Man kicks, shoots, blows up, kills, maims, and otherwise seriously traumatizes forty or so highly trained, nasty, unquestionably evil pieces of cannon fodder before the final confrontation. The Gray Man himself is shot, stabbed, beaten, gutted like a fish, has to be given a blood transfusion while driving (remember, this is non-stop action, the hero can’t even stop to get a blood refill), goes days without sleep, yet still manages to keep fighting until he is the last man standing – sort of.

The Gray Man is very well written, pushing me to keep reading and finish the novel. However, I found myself at the midpoint of the novel thinking, okay, he’s killed off five of the assassination teams, which means there’s another five to get through before this gets resolved – a thinking/stopping point which never occurs in a good high adventure novel, let alone a great high adventure novel.

The hero of the modern thriller is so removed from everyman reality as to render the reader at a distance, never feeling part of the action.

I never doubted The Gray Man would make it through the killer hordes. In a high adventure novel, especially one written by Wilbur Smith, you are never sure if the hero will make it to the epilogue.

Sure, the maguffin will be found/destroyed/saved, but which character will accomplish the task and which one or ones will be wiped out by the avalanche/hurricane/tsunami is always in doubt. Wilbur Smith, in particular, could never be trusted. Halfway through a novel, he’d kill off a protagonist in a plane crash or the like without a second thought, or have a protagonist half eaten by an alligator and be removed from the action. As a reader you couldn’t relax for a moment. That’s tension. Action is not a substitute.

In another recent thriller, Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazell (WARNING: SPOLIER AHEAD), the nominal hero kills the villain by removing an unnecessary bone from his own already broken leg and using it as a rapier. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think any of my bones are unnecessary, and there is no way I’m ever going to remove one to use as a weapon. And therein lies the failure of the current state of the thriller – it’s gone too far into the world of the action movie and has become untethered from literary reason.

So how did this transition from high adventure to overblown thriller happen?

Personally, I blame Rambo.

Thriller master David Morrell unleashed decorated, traumatized, Vietnam vet John Rambo on the world in 1972 in his brilliant debut novel, First Blood. In Madison, Kentucky, the shaggy-haired Rambo is passing through looking for a hamburger until he gets harassed by Wilfred Teasle, the local redneck chief of police (a decorated Korean war vet). Teasle just can’t stop pushing Rambo until Rambo can’t help but use the mad killer skills he developed in Vietnam to push back.

The action here leaps off the page, this is full strength non-stop action, but Morrell’s brilliance – and what makes First Blood such an iconic novel – lies in Morrell never forgetting he is telling a story about something. In First Blood, Rambo is the force of nature, so often unleashed in high adventure novels, he is malevolent and out of control. Morrell balances the story, Teasle is not all bad (in fact many readers thought Teasle was the hero of the novel), and Rambo is certainly not all good – once started, Rambo is on a quest to destroy everything and everyone. He is psychotic and out of control.

Morrell is not simply racing from action scene to action scene for action sake. Instead Morrell uses action as an overlay for an examination of an American experience polarizing a generation.

The surprise for those who have only seen the movie based on the novel, is that the novel First Blood is far more violent than the Sylvester Stallone film. In the novel both Rambo and Teasle have opportunities to back down and let things go. Neither can, and in the process destroy not only themselves, but a good part of Madison.


First Blood is a thinking man’s thriller where the actions of the characters carry consequences for their actions and for the action. Morrell ends the book the only logical way it can end – with the death of Rambo. Yes, folks, Rambo does a Lazarus act for the movie and it’s sequels. In the book he dies – dead, gone, over – and we are secretly relieved.

In its power and breathless storytelling, First Blood became the tipping point for the transformation of the high adventure novel into the modern thriller – the tipping point where action became the be all and end all of storytelling.

It’s all Rambo’s fault.

What those authors who emulated Morrell’s ground breaking novel –
and those who have emulated the emulators, ad infinitum – have forgotten is the action was not the point of First Blood – the story was!

So, for me, until today’s thriller writers pull back on the action reigns and begin telling stories where I can again willingly suspend my disbelief, I’m sticking with those old high adventure novels. I’ve got Desmond Bagley’s Vivero Letter in my hands right now and I can’t wait to start scuba diving in the dangerous pools of the wild tropical rain forests of Yucatan for Mayan gold while pursued by greedy men who wish my demise.


  1. Well said Paul.

    Funnily enough, I just started reading Bagley's High Citadel, and as I was reading it, I was thinking why is this book so much more enjoyable than many modern thrillers.

    I think you ht the nail on the head.

  2. Great review, Paul. I just read today in the NYT reviewing the new Penzler book that Morrell wrote Rambo. Didn't know that.

  3. Funny... Robert B. Parker has an assassin character called "The Grey Man"... he's appeared in threeor four "Spenser" novels over the years. I wonder whose "Grey Man" came first.

  4. Thanks for this, Paul, very interesting take on the genre. It seems we take that kind of non-stop action thing more easily from the movies, but since movies and the way they are made and told affect ways books are written, there's no escaping the non-stop stuff making its way into the books as well.

    Now, that's an awkward sentence! ;)


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