Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What I’ve learned from the Masters of Suspense

'Duns's terrific debut will draw inevitable comparisons to early John le Carré, though the lead character, turncoat British Secret Service agent Paul Dark, is a complete original... Seldom has a thriller plot taken more unseen turns as Paul searches for the truth about his past and the reality of his present. Readers will eagerly await the sequel.'
***- Publishers Weekly, starred review of FREE AGENT

HANK: Just back from the sensational (in a good way!) Thrillerfest, (photos to come) where we learned about suspense and villains and plotting and tension. Where I gave a seminar on the secret scoop on TV techniques, and Hallie's panel gave the inside scoop on bad guys. We all got too many new books--can there be such a thing? And met some wonderful people.

So it's perfect to have a master of the thriller genre visiting JRW today. His Free Agent is the first in a trilogy set in the Cold War.(How much fun would it be to be compared to John LeCarre?) Jeremy's here to give the scoop about the authors he sees as the masters. (The UK cover is below.) Afterward--we want to know your favorite thrillers!

JEREMY: For a lot of people, the phrase ‘master of suspense’ immediately brings to mind the film director Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps more than anyone else, Hitchcock has brought suspense into the cultural and critical fold. Many people instantly grasp the idea that he was not simply in the business of creating entertaining films, but was exploring the human condition: that he used suspense to tap into our greatest fears, and to comment on societal taboos, questions of identity and so on.

However, as soon as this argument is applied to books, other rules – or perceptions – often seem to come into play. Many people who understand and appreciate Hitchcock’s use of suspense view suspense novels as incapable of saying anything interesting or significant about life, at best providing a quick thrill.

Is it simply that Hitchcock handled suspense better than any novelist? I don’t believe so. Don’t get me wrong – I love Hitch. But today I’d like to look at three writers who have inspired me, and who I think are just as worthy of the description ‘masters of suspense’.

The Austrian writer Johannes-Mario Simmel was hugely popular in his day – it is thought that 70 million copies of his books were sold worldwide. In the 1970s, several novels he had written in the ’50s and ’60s were published in English translation, with covers that usually featured a spool of barbed wire and a swastika, and titles that recalled the work of Robert Ludlum: The Caesar Code, The Berlin Connection, The Cain Conspiracy...

But ignore the unpromising packaging: these are gripping thrillers coupled with profound psychological insight. There are a few commonalities: there is often a public figure trying to protect a horrifying secret, and a character who commits a crime for love. Many are set in Fifties Vienna or Berlin, and the Cold War atmosphere is palpable: Double Agent-Triple Cross opens with an attempt to smuggle people out of East Berlin via a tunnel.

But above all, these are great suspense novels. My favourites are The Cain Conspiracy, which opens with a man overhearing his brother hiring someone to assassinate him, and The Berlin Connection, which starts with the line: ‘I can remember the moment even now when I died for the first time.’ The narrator of the latter novel is a former Hollywood child star in his mid-thirties making his comeback in a film called Comeback, which is of course about a former Hollywood child star in his mid-thirties making his comeback in a film called Comeback. He has to finish the film because he desperately needs the financial security to divorce his rich wife. And he has to divorce her soon, because she’s on the verge of discovering that he’s having an affair with her daughter, which is illegal in some states (and would ruin his film career). He’s also an alcoholic with a heart condition who can’t act, so the picture’s under threat. Oh, and he’s hiding a secret from the war. You won’t be able to sit still.

My second ‘master of suspense’ is someone whose name I’m not even sure about. The two novels of his I own are credited to ‘Julyan Semyonov’ and ‘Julian Semenov’, but it appears his real name was ‘Yulian Landres’ (or the equivalent in Cyrillic). Most Western readers have never heard of Landres, but he was a giant in the Soviet Union: his 1968 novel Seventeen Moments of Spring (also translated under the title The Himmler Ploy) was a massive best-seller. The TV adaptation was even more successful, making the protagonist an icon in the Soviet Union. Jokes are still told about him to this day, and repeat runs of the series reportedly see a significant drop in crime rates in Moscow, as everyone is indoors watching it.

Set in the final weeks of World War Two, our hero is Nazi officer Max Otto von Stirlitz – who is soon revealed to be a deep-cover Soviet agent, Colonel Maksim Maksimovich Isaev. Both the novel and TV series build the suspense very slowly, with Stirlitz/Isaev looking to uncover which leading Nazi is involved in trying to broker a separate peace deal with the United States while avoiding exposure from the same men. It’s one of the tautest spy thrillers I’ve read.

My final master of suspense is a British writer, Elleston Trevor. Perhaps best known for his novel Flight Of The Phoenix - filmed in 1965 with James Stewart - he also wrote 19 superb suspense thrillers under the name Adam Hall. Featuring a neurotic and battle-scarred British secret agent called Quiller (the first was filmed as The Quiller Memorandum in the Sixties), the series combined an esoteric knowledge of everything from sleep deprivation to martial arts with sweat-soaked action. Like Simmel and to a lesser degree Landres, Trevor was very fond of cliff-hangers, which he built up with successive chapters until it's almost unbearable. Told in the first person, we follow Quiller as he is chased by dogs, grips the underside of trains and enters darkened hotel rooms. But unlike in a film, here we are inside Quiller’s head, and so we experience every last moment of anxiety. My favourites in the series are The Ninth Directive, which revolves around an assassination plot in Bangkok, and The Tango Briefing, in which Quiller must reach a crashed cargo plane in the Sahara before anyone else.

All three of these writers understood the power of suspense, and used it to explore themes close to their hearts: Simmel the post-war environment of Austria and Germany; Landres duty and patriotism; and Trevor the survival instinct. Each of them had his work filmed, and often to great effect. I suspect if Hitchcock had tackled them the results might have been even more impressive – and that their work would be seen in a somewhat different light.

HANK: Thanks, Jeremy! Of course, now my TBR pile is destined to get even higher. So, JRWs, what's your favorite thriller? In books and even movies? Mine is absolutely Day of the Jackal. (And also the movie,the real one, with Edward Fox.)

Oh, and Eye of the Needle. (Book and movie!)

How about you?

*(Oh, PS, Congratulations to FO JRW Alexandra Sokoloff for winning the Thrillerfest award for best short story! And the incomparable Jeffrey Deaver and Tom Rob Smith for book honors.)

Jeremy Duns lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife and children. His debut spy novel Free Agent is out now from Viking in the United States, and Simon and Schuster in the UK and Canada. See http://www.jeremyduns.com/ for more. (Photo credit Jose Figueroa)


  1. Thanks for the tips on the thriller authors who you feel are 'masters of suspense.' I'll enjoy reading some of your suggestions.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I've been pondering the definition of "thriller" since it seems to be plastered on so many books lately. Many of them, to me, are barely suspense, much less "thrillers" which I understood to kick the threat factor up to at the very least, national, proportions, and global was more like it.

    I was flipping channels the other day, and I rarely watch TV, but Air Force One was on, and I'll admit I can watch Harrison Ford no matter what he's in. But I watched the whole movie, heart pounding, palms sweating even though I knew the outcome.

  3. Thanks, Jungle Red Writers for hosting me! I often read and lurk, even if I only occasionally comment. And Hank, if you like The Day of the Jackal and The Eye of the Needle, I think you would love 17 Moments/The Himmler Ploy, which is very much in that vein.

    Thanks also for the comments, Elizabeth and Terry. And Terry, I remember you from our old online writng group, so double thanks for helping me out with very early drafts of Free Agent!

    I agree that suspense has faded a little from books labelled as thrillers - there's a lot of spy novels, for instance, which are really novely about characters who happen to be spies rather than thrillers. I wonder if it's not something to do with this misperception that thrillers *in book form* are lesser art. I (obviously) feel that suspense can be a crucial lens with which to view the world, and can make for great art.

  4. Hi, Jeremy. I'm surprised you remember me.

    I think the "thriller" label is strictly a marketing ploy. Period. Has little or no bearing on what's inside the book.

    Although, after Thrillerfest, I'm hoping some of the folks who attended might give an updated definition of the term. (I discussed this on my blog last week)

  5. Since the word Thriller on a cover is supposed to mean sales, a lot of books that are really suspense novels or even mysteries get falsely labeled.
    My own favorite thriller was the Ipcress File (of course Michael Caine wasn't bad looking in those days. So ditto for Day of the Condor with Robert Redford!Do blond guys make the best agents, one wonders?
    Thanks for the great suggestions, Jeremy

  6. Oh, yes, Three Days of the Condor. Terrific. And still terrific.

    And my little sister and I had a crush on Harry Palmer. (More than you needed to know, I know...)

    Since mysteries are getting called thrillers--what would make a mystery NOT a thrlller? If the murder was clearly a one time thing, and no one else was in jeopardy?

  7. ANd yes, Terry, Air Force One is so wonderful. What does he say--"Get off my plane!"? Or something like that?

  8. I have no idea what a thriller is either. And have to admit I'm not too interested in international-political-historical thriller saga type books:). Would you consider Randy Wayne White's books to be thrillers? he does veer off into international plots and double secret political history with Doc Ford. The funny thing is, the parts of this series I like the best are the scenes set in the harbor where Doc Ford lives on his houseboat with a funky set of local characters. I'm afraid I'm just a small town girl at heart...
    We're glad to have you here today Jeremy--always good to push our horizons!

  9. Yes, "Day of the Jackal" was riveting. For me, the movie was carried by the way the cuts paced the movie.

    Also, the "French Connection" was good popular fare. Mostly carried by the then new Gene Hackman and the intense action and twists.

    That scene in "Air Force One" where Harrion Ford kicks the terrorist off the plane was definitely climactic. And yes, that's exactly what he says - "Get off my plane." What made that scene so powerful was that the whole story was building to it. The president had been so frustrated by the terrorists, they had killed people and were physically threatening his family -it was cathartic and powerful to finally physically kick 'em off the plane. Definitely loved that scene.

    Some good picks here!!

  10. So many authors I hadn't heard of -- Thanks, Jeremy.

    I see the mystery/thriller distinction this way: A mystery is driven primarily by a puzzle--the reader turns pages to figure something out. A thriller is driven by suspense--the reader turns those pages to find out what's going to happen next. The content (whether it's got spies or political intrigue or a serial killer stalking a small town) is irrelevant. And really, it's a continuum because lots of books have both a puzzle and suspense.

    Publishers are happier to be able to call a book a thriller. Even guys buy them.

  11. I think by definition, a Thriller IS a Suspense book. It's more the differentiation of Suspense vs Thriller that I'm interested in. Both are legitimate sub-genres of the continuum of the "mystery genre" but there's some sort of shadowy, wavy line with suspense on one side and thriller on the other. I can't imagine a thriller without suspense, because if you don't know what's around the corner, you aren't afraid of it.

  12. Great article, Jeremy! There's always something fascinating on the table at Jungle Red! :)

    Interestingly enough, Chandler was termed a "thriller" writer. In fact, he's called such by none other than Ian Fleming, in an extant audio interview (the two actually discuss the terminology).

    Definitions ebb and flow constantly--one sign of a healthy language and a healthy reading culture. :)

    BTW--Thrillerfest was simply amazing -- it was a real treat to get to see Hank and Hallie!


  13. Thanks, Kelli! Yes, I've heard that interview, which is fascinating. Chandler discusses brainwashing, which Fleming says he finds very disturbing, but in a later novel he has that happen to Bond. And his admiration for Chandler is evident.

    I think a thriller is what you want it to be, but it had better thrill. :) Although my first novel has high stakes (an assassination plot against the British prime minister that might allow the Soviets to 'take' Africa in the Cold War), I thought it was very interesting that my wife found the most suspenseful scene one in which my protagonist is hiding from a dog in some bushes. It made me think a lot about my approach to suspense when it came to writing my second novel.

    Thanks again for hosting me here, and for the warm welcome - it's been fun!

  14. Thanks so much Jeremy! And I must say..the "dog in the bushes" comment is truly educational. (Hope you're selling piles of books..and that you'll come back to visit.)

    Tomorrow..come back and chat with a multi multi millon selling author..! (Does that keep in you suspense?)