Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Return of the Wartime Thriller

by Matt Lynn

I've just returned from CrimeFest in Bristol. While I was there, I gave a talk on the return of the wartime thriller, which attracted a fair bit of discussion. Still, some of the six billion or so people who didn't make it to the talk might well be interested as well, so here are the notes I spoke from.
"When I staretd work on the Death Force series, it seemed to me that a military thriller was precisely the right kind of book to be writing at the moment.
After all, Britain has been involved in two long and fairly nasty military campaigns, one in Iraq, and one in Afghanistan.
The last decade has seen more sustained combat operation by the British army than any decade since the 1950s when the British Army was fighting in Korea.
But, so far there hasn’t been very much fiction about it.
There have been plenty of non-fiction books such as ‘Sniper One’ or ‘Eight Lives Down’ and some of them have been really good.
So far, however, thriller writers haven’t been tackling those wars directly.
They’ve been stuck in still writing the kind of spy and espionage thrillers that were popular in the Cold War.
Or else they’ve been writing crime thrillers, usually featuring ever more gruesome serial killers.
But they haven’t, on the whole, been writing about the wars we are fighting right now.
Which is pretty odd.
Because popular fiction is one of the ways we discuss and debate things that are happening in the world around us.
And thrillers have always been a genre that draws on and reflect the world around us.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the world was ready for the return of the military thriller.
After all, if you go back to the origins of the genre, it was often bound up with military matters.
Think, for example, about a book such ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, which many people would quite rightly regard as one of the foundations of the whole thriller genre. Richard Hannay, its hero, isn’t a solider. But it’s a First World War novel, as indeed are the subsequent Hannay stories Buchan wrote. They are bound up with the wars that Britain was fighting at the time the stories were written.
If you fast forward, the work of a writer such as Eric Ambler, who many people quite rightly regard as one of the first literary thriller writers, is bound up with Word War Two. A book such as ‘Journey Into Fear’ is a wartime thriller that capture brilliantly the strange half-war, half-peace atmosphere of early 1940s, and probably tells you more about how people felt about the war at that stage than any history book.
In the wake of World War Two, the military thriller really came into its own. Look for example at the work of Alistair MacLean, one of my favourite thriller writers of all time. Books such The Guns of Navaronne and HMS Ulysses are classics of the genre.
Hammond Innnes started out as military thriller writer, based mainly on his experiences in the Royal Artillery.
And Dennis Wheatley, probably mostly remembered now for his occult novels, also wrote a series of World War Two thrillers.
In fact, when I started reading books, around the early 1970s, the World War Two thriller genre was one of the most popular. There was an endless series of them to choose from in the bookshops or in the libraries.
Then, I think, from the 1970s onwards it went into decline.
There were still military thrillers around. But it became an historical genre – think, for example, about the Flashman books, or Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe series.
There was a reason for that, I think.
As I said earlier, the thriller genre reflects the world around it.
And for most of fifty years after World War Two, we didn’t fight any proper wars. We just had the Cold War. And, of course, in the Cold War all the actual fighting was done by the spies and secret agents. The actual soldiers – thankfully - stayed in their barracks.
Thriller writers latched onto that. From Ian Fleming to Len Deighton to John Le Carre there were countless spy thrillers. Indeed, there were so many of them, and that kind of warfare went on for so long, that we tended to think that the thriller genre and the spy story were virtually the same thing.
But, of course, that wasn’t true. It was just that thriller writers were reflecting the war we were fighting then.
Now, of course, that has changed.
One thing that’s happened to the world since the end of the Cold War is that we are fighting lots of small, hot wars, rather than one big cold one. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan…and no doubt there will be more.
And in these wars, the fighting is done by soldiers, not spies.
So, in fact, this is precisely the right time to be writing a military thriller.
It’s already been happening to some degree.
Ask yourself this question. Who are the most successful British thriller writers of the last decade?
Well, Lee Child most obviously.
But also Andy McNab and Chris Ryan.
I may know a bit more about those books than I really should. But they are both writing great books which are firmly in the tradition of action, adventure thrillers.
I think Alistair MacLean could pick up any book by either writer, and feel instantly at home with them.
But, surprisingly, not many other British thriller writers have been tackling those wars directly.
How many thrillers have been set in Helmand, for example?
In fact, the thriller genre is too stuck in the spy story.
The real conflict in the world right now is military. That’s where the drama and the conflict and the stories are.
And that’s what thriller writers who are interested in the world around them should be writing about."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I think that lot of the classic war time thrillers have been replaced with terrorist thrillers. Some of which are pretty good, like The Deadfall Project, but the shift may have a lot more to do with how war is perceived now.