CJ Box on The Rising Popularity of High-Concept Thrillers in the UK

So many words – both spoken and written – have been wasted in attempts to define the differences between crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers. I will waste just a few more here. According to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by "the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace." Well, okay.

But rather than write about what a thriller is and is not since the definitions can be spread across several genres and sub-genres, I find it much more interesting to explore (or, to be exact, “guess at”) why high-concept thrillers have shot to the tops of best-seller lists in both the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years. The answer can be boiled down to a simple concept: We are scared to death.

The kinds of thrillers I’m talking about are the domestic variety, where innocent people are suddenly placed in terrifying situations and they must fight not only to stay alive, but to (possibly) escape from or eliminate their sudden adversary. Masters of this specific kind of thriller include Harlan Coben (Hold Tight) and Linwood Barclay (Fear the Worst). My own novel, Three Weeks To Say Goodbye, fits as well. The titles alone of these books tell you what you need to know. We’re not talking about protagonists who are cops, PI’s, or spies, but ordinary people living ordinary lives who suddenly find themselves as targets. In many cases, it’s not only villains who are after them but once-trusted institutions as well, like the local and state police. In many similar scenarios, their neighbors – and even their families — turn against them as well.

High concept thrillers say to the reader: This could be you and you know it, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Not very reassuring, to say the least.

Here’s where my thesis comes in. We’re scared to death because we live in a world that includes terror attacks against civilians by people who hate us, the rapidly changing and deteriorating balance of power on the world stage, the crumbling foundations of our civic institutions and neighborhoods, and huge governments filled with faceless bureaucrats who no longer seem interested in or capable of protecting us. In this atmosphere of uncertainty and shifting tides we know anything can happen. And in these thrillers, it does.

This idea isn’t entirely new. Similar kinds of novels and movies – dark, apoplectic, sometimes a hair shy of paranoid – last bubbled to the top during the 1950’s. Think Alfred Hitchcock and his brilliant string of movies featuring innocents wronged and accused (North by Northwest) or placed in peril through no fault of their own (Rear Window). Think Cape Fear by John McDonald. This was when everyone feared nuclear annihilation, and for good reason.

Of course, we are scared to death for different reasons now. But there is some kind of solace in reading stories where people we care about have it much worse and somehow – through brains, brawn, and character — figure their way out of it when everything seems stacked against them.

We should be so lucky.

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