Thriller Tourism

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  • Thursday, May 23, 2013
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  • William Dietrich
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  • Walt Disney once remarked that "I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained."

    That's a common creed of thriller writers, who intersperse their cliffhangers and shootouts with gee-whiz facts we hope will keep the pages turning.

    I grew up with Disney (my parents took me to the first Anaheim park three weeks after it opened, which I was too young to remember) and learned, and mis-learned, about Davy Crockett, nature critters, re-interpreted classics, and so on. His formula has worked for hundreds of millions.

    My recent Barbed Crown has a great many details about Paris in 1804, naval life, and prominent personalities. Dan Brown's latest blockbuster Inferno has been praised and criticized for facts about Florence worthy of a Fodors guide.

    I like that stuff, and Brown's book makes me want to tour the city. I hope my own work has intrigued people with Egypt, Tibet, Martinique, or Antarctica.

    But keeping one's research the servant and not the master is a struggle for all writers. Mystery writer Elmore Leonard writes with a paucity of description completely different from Brown's encyclopedic approach. Both have been very successful.

    Books that helped start the modern thriller genre, such as Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands in 1903 or John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915 are lean greyhounds compared to huskies like Robert Ludlum's Bourne Identity or Katherine Neville's intricate The Eight.

    The master of entertainment as education was probably James Michener. His heir in technique is Edward Sutherford with Sarum, London, and many others, and recent Ken Follett novels.

    One of the best things about John Grisham thrillers are their insights into the legal world. I love his mastery of what I call "money porn," or fascinating detail on the killing a struggling lawyer will make, or won't make, depending on whether he wins the case.

    But James Patterson and Lee Child leave Wikipedia to others, in main, and successfully so.

    Most of us are somewhere in-between.

    As a journalist, I constantly balanced information and entertainment in news stories. Some were light, guaranteed crowd-pleasers, and others so wonky they'd put a government auditor to sleep.

    Fiction is particularly unforgiving, and thriller fiction even more so. A story needs pace, and yet what I enjoy most about many thrillers is detail that persuades me I'm learning about the workings of police, spies, soldiers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and terrorists, not necessarily in that order.

    That's why thriller writer gatherings tend to have a lot of, you guessed it, former cops, judges, lawyers, spies, doctors, military personnel, and journalists. No terrorists, I hope.

    Steve Berry, Clive Cussler, and James Rollins are examples of writers who pack their tales with fascinating true detail.

    I do think readers are driven by curiosity. Some of it is curiosity about a character's fate, a puzzle's solution, or a baffling clue. But there is also curiosity about a story's environment and the workaday lives of its inhabitants.

    So how much to put in? The most useful guide is our own curiosity. In the end we write books for ourselves - and hope others like them too!


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