Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece recently for Crime Reads in which he described his grand unified theory of thrillers. Briefly, he stated that “There are, structurally, four (4) essential narratives in [the thriller] genre.”
I tend to shy away from reductive theories, but they can be useful, too. And I think Gladwell is on to something. His four genres are cardinal in nature (and direction, too!):
1) In the Western, the hero comes to a world without justice or law, and establishes order.
2) In the Eastern, our hero works to improve and educate the institutions of law and order in a world where they are incompetent. (Think Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s sleuths.)
3) Third, is the Southern, where our hero, an outsider, restores order to a world that is hopelessly corrupt. “John Grisham’s novels are all Southerns,” Gladwell contends.
4) Last is the Northern, in which our hero works to perpetuate order from within a functional system. “The popular television show Law & Order is a classic Northern,” he notes, as is most Scandic-Noir.
It pains me to realize that while I’m drawn to “Western” thrillers (and Westerns), it seems (according Gladwell’s Theorem) that I’m writing Southern thrillers. Indeed, my favorite kind of Western stories are perhaps a subset of the genre, those in which not only is the world of the book or film without justice, but it’s going to take someone who’s even worse to put it right. And that person won’t be able to stay and enjoy it. They’ve made the world acceptable for decent people, which is why they must now leave.
Unforgiven, Shane, True Grit and the Road Warrior movies spring to mind. But so do Hammett’s Red Harvest, and the Jack Reacher novels. They’re mythic tales—Unforgiven resonates heavily with medieval themes of good and evil, stories of knights and quests. A quest tale turned upside down, to be sure: the knight is a vile murderer, the damsel is a prostitute and the magic elixir which allows him to transform into a hero is corn whiskey.
Those are the Westerns I admire, and go back to. But what of the thrillers that bear re-reading? For the discussion, I’ll stick with well-known favorites: LeCarre’s George Smiley novels, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal and Graham Greene’s Quiet American.
Philip Kerr, to stick with Gladwell’s taxonomy, is writing Southerns. His recurring character, Bernie Gunther, is trying to inculcate something like morality or justice in the midst of Hell. Greene’s narrator, Fowler, can’t stop the war to come, any more than Gunther can stop the war he’s in, but he can do something, can strike a blow. By contrast, the wind blows Northern-ly for Smiley and Inspector Lebel, as they search and scratch and tighten the net around their quarry–Karla and the Jackal. Their dogged pursuit will prevail.
My protagonist FBI Agent Imogen Trager is a Cassandra figure, confronted with corruption no one else sees. She’s an outsider—even though as a Bureau Agent she should be the ultimate insider—made so by the very corruption and factiousness she opposes. She’s dedicated to law-and-order and accountability, because the opposite is thuggish, anarchic corruption and chaos. A Southern thriller, then, but with noir-ish elements of the Northern procedural. The conspiracy goes deep, and she knows that if you don’t get the root, it just grows back—perhaps stronger than before.
Whether the nomenclature of Gladwell’s Unified Theory is accurate (“eastern” and “northern” feel forced), it’s an interesting way to look at how thrillers operate. Fortunately, they’re not carved in stone, and there can be shared elements. His own take on Lee Child’s hero combines elements of both South and West(ern).
In each, we’re drawn to the problem, drawn in further by the situation and we want to watch our hero(ine) set it right. In the end, it’s just categories. It’s the details of why and how—and the characters—that will make it unique.
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James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network , about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland. A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.