Today’s best thriller writers on one hundred classics of the genre…
My goal is to eventually make my way through all of these must-reads.
I’ve known for a while that it would be a stretch to read some of these early titles. Sorry, but the classics just aren’t my thing. But even if I wasn’t going to read these classic works cover to cover, I at least wanted to familiarize myself with them as best as I could, give them a fair shot, and understand why ITW chose to highlight them.
This is a post that has been in the works for a while now, as I slowly tackled the first few thrillers on the list. Since my last ITW must-read was an easy YA novel, I figured what better time to delve into the hard stuff. So, without further ado, I give you three (well, four) ancient stories: Theseus and the Minotaur, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Beowulf.
Theseus and the Minotaur
I’m going to have to disagree with Lee Child; this collection would have been better off without Theseus. Sure, there are more ancient myths that contain seeds of the modern thriller, but unless we’re going to look back to previous civilizations, I personally wouldn’t have gone any further than Homer, who already represents the Ancient Greeks in epic fashion. This myth is a weaker start to the anthology. Just my opinion.
I took Child’s suggestion and read Plutarch’s version of the story. Plutarch has a lot to say about Theseus’s life, but here’s the section specifically on his legendary encounter with the minotaur:
“When they reached Crete, according to most historians and poets, Ariadne fell in love with him, and from her he received the clue of the string, and was taught how to thread the mazes of the Labyrinth. He slew the Minotaur, and, taking with him Ariadne and the youths, sailed away.”
Real page turner, that Plutarch.
Though I can’t disagree with the main argument – “the best contemporary thrillers – whenever they are written – will in some way tap into ancient mythic structures” – I still don’t think this was the greatest example, if only because the next stories illustrate the same point, and do it much better.
The Iliad and The Odyssey
William Bernhardt’s argument for identifying these classics as early thrillers is, to me, the big difference between these and the story of Theseus above: “I have no problem labeling them as thrillers, not only because they do indeed thrill, but because that was quite evidently the author’s intent.”
Unlike with Theseus, whose battle with the Minotaur is more an idea than a specific story, here we’re looking at a particular version of these ancient heroes. Homer, whether he was one man or a shared persona, was an entertainer.
That’s not to say that I personally find the books all that entertaining. Sure, they’re filled with exciting events, but they just aren’t told in an exciting way, at least not to my modern sensibilities. In The Iliad, the battle scenes go on and on, all blending together. The Odyssey was more episodic and better in terms of moving the story along. But it was still hard for me to get invested enough to really be “thrilled.”
Technically, this is more Early Middle Ages than ancient times, but I lumped it in with the others since it continues the mythology and epic poetry tradition. Certainly, as the first major literary work in English, it has scholarly value. But is it a must-read thriller? Andrew Klavan argues that it is.
“It may not be a thriller in the modern sense of the word,” he concedes, “but it holds the kernel of the idea that gives our genre one of its key reasons for being.” But I don’t know that I’m convinced.
The whole time I was reading the poem – and Klavan’s essay, for that matter – Beowulf struck me as a precursor to epic fantasy more than anything else. Not to say that fantasy has a monopoly on things like “the existence of evil” and “the need for courage,” but mysterious creatures and dragons and epic battles do seem more common to fantasy.
Of course, fantasies can be thrilling too.
Bernhardt says in his essay on Homer, “Since the dawn of humanity, people have loved thrillers. Long before the written word, men and women told tales that inspired and entertained, that passed information from one generation to the next, that gave their audiences the courage to face the great darkness.” I think it’s good to appreciate where this tradition has its roots. But must-reads? Eh…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that I read them, mainly from a completionist perspective (thirteen down, eighty-seven to go…), but also because this is the farthest out of my comfort zone that I’ve attempted in a long time. I think it’s good for readers to challenge ourselves now and then, and it’s something I probably don’t do enough of. But I don’t know that I have any greater appreciation or understanding of the thriller genre for having read these ancient stories.
What are your thoughts on these classics? Have you read any of them? Do you think they belong in a list of must-read thrillers?