Monday, May 30, 2011

Why British Thriller Writers Are Better Than American

Boy, I'm really fixin' to offend some of y'all with this article, but I have lately been reading a large amount of thrillers from British authors, and I have come to the decision that British practitioners of the thriller are much better at it than their American counterparts and there is much one can learn by studying how they do it.

How can that be, you say. British thrillers are slow and clunky and there isn't any action until the end--if any. Some just, you know, end with a half a whimper and a slow wheeze, like the British Empire itself. Thrillers are supposed to "thrill", you say. Fast pace, mystery, action, and naked ladies! Americans do it better because of those things!

First, let's not insult our British cousins (they have the best dentists on the planet, after all.) Second, British thrillers are slow, yes. But if all you see if a lack of gunfire, explosions, and naked ladies, you're missing out. The four authors I am using as my example do not write "slow" books. They write books that develop in layers, each one more complex than the last, each character element stronger than the last, until you get to a climax that makes you hold your breath and beg for more once you've turned the last page.

Who are these authors? Ian Fleming. Eric Ambler. Frederick Forsyth. Stella Rimington.

They write carefully detailed stories, so detailed that you feel included in the action. You know the characters. We know The Jackal better than we know Jason Bourne. And we don't even know The Jackal's real name.

Stella Rimington, with her female protagonist Liz Carlyle, is the only female author I have read who can make me identify with a feminine point of view. That's a scary thing to this male carbon unit! But Liz is drawn so well that you think she could be your neighbor, girlfriend, wife, sister, or concubine (if you're into that sort of thing). Check out her 2005 debut, At Risk. You will be glued to the page.

Eric Ambler is the expert at using the Everyman hero. Nobody does it better (sorry, Ian). Journey into Fear, my favorite Ambler, has 90% of the story take place in the confines of a boat. The hero is trying to get home. Somebody on the boat wants to kill him. He mixes with the other passengers and the results are just magical. He gives you 200 pages of nail-biting intrigue and suspense without a shot being fired or a bra being undone or something going kaboom. In fact, I think the final battle between the hero and his potential killer takes up two of the final four pages. And what a payoff! It's one of the best climactic battles I have ever read.

Ian Fleming. He wrote James Bond with a much faster pace than some of his contemporaries. There's a little more action. Maybe a little less character building (though I'm sure that's debatable), but he does make you "see" his characters with their interesting physical traits. Each book is carefully plotted and developed. Notice how I keep saying that. The attention to almost every conceivable detail is what sets these British authors above Americans, and when done right, it is an absolute joy to read. Most of the Bond books under-promise and over-deliver in regards to their entertainment value, and if you read nothing else by Fleming pick up Casino Royale, Moonraker, and From Russia, With Love (then read the second chapter of Dr. No to find out how Bond survives the end of From Russia).

Frederick Forsyth. Wow. What do you say about Freddie? My only complaint is that he doesn't rely much on dialog and tends to data-dump for pages and pages, but every loose thread comes together at the end in ways you won't expect. Yes, sometimes he hurries his endings as if he's run out of paper. "Ooops, only got three pages left and I'm too lazy to go buy more so we'll just zip this up. Right! Smashing bit of work! Time for a crisp!" But despite that, his books are like what Donald Westlake described as the best kind of book: a snowball with a rock in it. But which of his books should I recommend? Try Icon. Avenger. The Devil's Alternative. The Dogs of War. The Odessa File. And don't forget one of his short story collections, No Comebacks.

For me, British thrillers are simply more satisfying than American thrillers (and this from somebody who once worshiped at the feet of Robert Ludlum), but there is one exception, an American who belongs with the best of the Brits. I nominate David Morrell as the best American thriller writer. I do not know of any other American author who loads his books with as much action while developing sharp characters and telling a story as layered and complex as he, all of which is backed up with a tight writing style that I envy very much. The Brotherhood of the Rose should be memorized. I challenge you to read it and ever forget Chris and Saul and Erika and Eliot. Or the heartbreaking ending. All you writers out there: study that book for an example of pitch-perfect pacing, plot, and structure and you will get an education you cannot put a price on.

Now, Americans do crime fiction ten times better than the Brits. Any piece of British crime fiction seems like it imitates what the Yanks have done first, just relocated to the UK where the food is bland and everybody talks funny. But that's another article.

So what does this mean for American authors? I think more time should be taken with the development of plot and characters and less time spent on things getting blowed up real good. But I hear from authors who have many thrillers under their belt who say that American editors don't like that sort of thing. If that is true, it's unfortunate, and once again proves the "legacy publishing" doesn't know everything.


  1. Hi Brian! I met David Morrell when I was in New York. He told me he was the original creator of the Rambo character. Have you seen "Thrillers: 100 Must Read"s by Morrell and Hank Wagner?

  2. I have not seen that book but I will look it up. Morrell's claim to fame is indeed Rambo, but he's done a whole lot of work in the years since that I think is better, though I will say that "First Blood" is one heck of a book and nothing like the film.

  3. Hi I thought I would recommend the serial of books by the British writer c.j sansom they are brilliant

  4. i'm americans and admit British thrillers are better - among My favourite writers are Desmond Cory and Len Deighton.