Jane Kramer on Thrillers

In a review for Phillip Kerr's novel Prussian Blue, Jane Kramer, in the New Yorker, expounds on the nature of thrillers

I never knew how hard it was to describe a thriller, especially one in which fact and fiction blend so seamlessly, until I sat down with “Prussian Blue.” Thrillers are thorny gifts for critics. It’s not a matter of Elizabeth meets Darcy, and, after a number of setbacks involving pride, prejudice, and social station, they work things out, declare their love, and, in the end, marry. With a great thriller, the important thing is to tell the story while never giving anything away, certainly not who did it and, in the case of a Gunther thriller—densely populated and always dizzyingly complex—the logic by which our redoubtable protagonist finally gets his man.

The best thrillers share some of that depth and density. They are really social histories, disguised in nineteenth-century-novel form, though often with a bit of late-twentieth-century nouveau roman thrown in, perhaps to signal the sensitive self-searching of some of their toughest sleuths. They paint what could even be called ethnographic portraits of societies in which particular kinds of crimes consistently appear and of the people who tend to commit those crimes. By now, thrillers like Philip Kerr’s have become a genre in themselves and, more to the point, a voyage in themselves. They are exhaustively researched, reportorial in detail, and, in their invention, obsessively liberating, which may account for the fact that most journalists I know love them, and more than a few end up writing them. …