Sunday, 21 February 2016

A Question Before We Get to Ultimatum II

It occurred to me this morning that we’ve never had a discussion about what a political thriller is.  I mean, what happens in a successful, working example of the genre that doesn’t happen in the novels of Major General Wing Commander Grand Admiral Rohmer.  A counterexample. The control to Rohmer’s variables.

The answer to the question: “Okay, we get it, Death by Deficit is terrible. But what do you like?”

Off the top of my head:

This Gun for Hire
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
From Russia with Love
The Thirty-Nine Steps
The Manchurian Candidate
Black Sunday
Eye of the Needle
The Boys from Brazil
The Dogs of War

What’s on Rohmer’s list, do you think? (I’ll confess, I’ve read Harold Robbins but I’ve never read anything by Arthur Hailey. I’ve gotten halfway through some Tom Clancy, but I don’t know anything about Brad Thor, Stephen Coonts or Vince Flynn, except that they appear to be fascist nonsense written for the future victims of gun cleaning accidents.)

What’s on your list?


  1. You've got me wondering whether I'm even qualified to weigh in on the issue. Sure, I've read more than a few political thrillers, but the vast majority are by Richard Rohmer. What does that say about my knowledge?

    Anyway, here are the others:

    The Thirty-Nine Steps
    The Manchurian Candidate
    The Odessa File
    The Executioners
    Intent to Kill
    The Colour of Blood
    No Other Life
    The Statement
    A Dum-Dum for the President
    For My Country
    [Pour la patrie]
    The Kidnapping of the President
    Act of God

    Some I really liked, some I thought were just okay. The most recently read, Jules-Paul Tardivel's For My Country, is a Victorian novel set in a 1945 Canada ruled by Freemasons (read: Satanists). The hero is Joseph Lamirande, a charismatic separatist with God on his side. We know this because acts of divine intervention are frequent, and always in his favour. Must add that For My Country features a killer snowdrift not at all unlike the one that traps the Kowal family in Balls! I doubt the General has read Tardivel's political thriller - but discounting the possibility me wondering just what he has read. Just who influenced the General?

    I've read Airport and the dirty parts of The Carpetbaggers.

  2. Sorry - didn't see this entry till today! This is a really good question - I'm surprised we didn't get into it earlier.

    I look at this and think of political thrillers I've liked - by Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, John Le Carre - and I find the common link is that they tend to be about spies, termite movers and shakers that influence things not by being in power but by working in the margins. Not unfamiliar with the corridors of power, but not where they show up for work every day.

    As an example, the last political thriller I read outside of Rohmer was Eric Ambler's BACKGROUND TO DANGER. Here we have a story that involves Nazis in the late 1930s as they pushed towards power, the Soviet Union, big oil and corruption in the the power structure of Romania. And the main character is a journalist who gets caught up in events that could influence Germany's ambitions. It's subtle, intricate and balances world-altering implications against a character study of someone caught up in the danger who isn't the president, prime minister or a captain of industry.

    I guess my whole problem with Rohmer's political thrillers is the fact that it's always a chess match with those in power playing these abstract games that always leave the protaganists less characters than embodiments of the countries they run or the corporations they control.

  3. Damn, now I need to read For My Country and Background to Danger. I started A Coffin for Dimitrios on a trip somewhere, thought it was terrific, and lost it. Now I need to finish that too.
    I think what makes a thriller work is that the protagonist is doing something and the conspiracy (serial killer / virus) is doing something. This sounds obvious, but it's absolutely absent in Rohmer. Or the two things have no connection to each other, like in Triad, his most professional book, I think. (Maybe two different groups are pursing the same thing in John A Macdonald, I forget.) In a book like The Boys From Brazil, for example, the "ticking clock" is this strange plot to murder these unconnected people. The plotters react to the heroes while the heroes are still trying to figure out what's happening. Think of it as "action irony" -- the hero doesn't know what the villain is doing, exactly, and the villain is adapting. The closest Rohmer comes to this is when the President phones someone and demands that they stop something. And by "closest to it" I mean "the opposite of it."