A recent essay in The Guardian by Scottish crime fiction writer Val McDermid suggested a key difference in the subtext of crime fiction versus thrillers. McDermid had attended an international crime writers’ conference in Lyon, France, a country where people are “deeply interested in is the place of politics in literature,” by both long tradition (think Emile Zola and Victor Hugo) and current trends. It’s hard for politics not to be top-of-mind for many French people because, as in much of Europe, right-wing parties are making gains that would have been inconceivable in the years immediately following World War II.
The political undertone of crime novels is typically left-leaning, says McDermid, when they are “critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly.” They often reveal corruption in City Hall or police departments. Moreover, they explore characters who do not fit easily into society. Even when the perpetrators are high-status, they harbor a shameful and destructive secret (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). More often, their characters emerge from society’s ragged fringes. Henning Mankell departed from his usual focus on crime to write specifically about these disenfranchised in his novel, The Shadow Girls.
By contrast, the political point of view of a thriller “tends towards the conservative,” McDermid suggests, “probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you.” Good examples are found in the work of Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal, The Avenger), Tom Clancy (Patriot Games, The Hunt for Red October).
In the end, readers of the thriller genre expect a significant return toward normalcy, despite the typical last-chapter carnage. While some criminals may be brought to justice by the end of a crime novel and the city put back in order, it isn’t always, and the reader is left with a feeling of more to come. This is in part because good crime writers—like George Pelecanos or Michael Connelly—ground their work in real problems, and these real problems are not easy to solve.
This is not to conflate the personal politics of the author with the underlying thrust of their books’ genre, as does the rebuttal essay linked below. Plenty of thriller authors have liberal personal politics, and plenty do not. Moreover, while differing world views may influence what authors write or whom they pick to be their villain, the more popular and successful writers generally keep their political opinions on the back burner. Even so, “our views generally slip into our work precisely because they are our views, because they inform our perspective and because they’re how we interpret the world,” she says. With all the inevitable exceptions to McDermid’s formulation, it makes for a thought-provoking rule-of-thumb.