Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre
Jerry Palmer

“My theory is that people who don’t like mystery stories are anarchists,” Rex Stout. p. 1

… the thriller formula… is competition and conspiracy. p. 3

Thrillers promote the belief that the ends justify the means, and rarely stop to examine what the ends are. They have scant respect for any of the moral institutions of our society.

“I knew why I was allowed to live while others died. I knew why my rottenness was tolerated and kept alive and why the guy with the reaper couldn’t catch me and I smashed through the door with the tommy-gun in my hands spitting out the answer at the same time my voice screamed it to the heavens. I lived only to kill the scum and the lice that wanted to kill themselves. I lived to kill so that others could live. I lived to kill because my soul was a hardened thing that reveled in the thought of taking the blood of the bastards who made murder their business. I lived because I could laugh it off and others couldn’t. I was the evil that opposed other evil, leaving the good and the meek in the middle to live and inherit the earth.” Mickey Spillane, One Lonely Night, chapter 10.

… when we read and enjoy a thriller there is no doubt in our minds that the hero is on the side of the angels, and we adopt his point of view, wholeheartedly, for the duration of the reading; we couldn’t enjoy the story if we didn’t. In doing so we distinguish between the hero and the villain. p. 6

The Amateur, the Professional and the Bureaucrat —

The world is divided into three categories:

The improviser/professional is a person who can learn from experience;

The programmer/bureaucrat is a person for whom nothing is new; and

The total incompetent/amateur is most often female; lacks the necessary expertise to improvise successfully; has no master plan; doesn’t belong; the opposite of the programmer/bureaucrat and a person for whom everything is new. pp. 10-13

The hero MUST be a professional. p. 14

The professional is the only one of these three categories who is entirely self reliant: the Amateur is permanently incompetent and the Bureaucrat is incompetent once deprived of his organization. But his self-reliance in its turn implies isolation, since it can only be demonstrated by placing the Professional in a situation where he is effectively deprived of all support; in the thriller his usually means face-to-face confrontation with the enemy. p. 15

Villains motives, insofar as they are visible, can be reduced to three categories: profit, revenge or power. p. 16

“… through only cruelty one rises to heights of superhuman awareness, of sensitivity to new modes of being, that can’t be attained by any other method,” Marquis de Sade, The Philosopher in the Boudoir. p. 18

… underlying the three kinds of motivation is a single unifying factor: the preference for things before people. p. 19

The villain appreciates other people insofar as they behave like things. p. 19

Insofar as there is any distinction between the violence of the villain and the violence of the hero beyond the way in which it is described, it is to be found in the cold-bloodedness of the villain. p. 20

The villain is thus a supplementary figure in the thriller. His role is to conspire… … it is the conspiracy that is a structural necessity. … it is the conspiracy that drives the plot into action. Without it, there would be no reason for the hero to act… … the justification of his actions is always that he reacts to prior aggression… … an otherwise ordered world (a world which is posited as otherwise ordered) is disrupted by villainy, and the hero acts to restore normalcy. p. 23

The main function of the Hero”s back-up team is to be less competent than the Hero, thus demonstrating the Hero”s worth. p. 27

The relationship between the hero and the back-up team is thus always potentially contradictory. They are there to help, but only to certain extent: if they help too much, the hero loses the claim to being the hero. p. 29

Two things are assumed, therefore: firstly, that they are in fact less competent than the hero, and therefore cannot help too much; and secondly, that they are loyal, that they do not see themselves as his competitors – they never want to prove that they are better than the hero. p. 29

The keynote of sexuality in thrillers is aggressiveness. p. 29

A girl who can be a companion cannot be a lover. p. 34

… when Chandler married Marlow off to Linda Loring at the end of Playback, he was unable to finish the sequel, The Poodle Springs Mystery, and in the surviving fragments of the text the tensions surrounding the idea of a domesticated hero are clear. p. 35

… seek to establish their reputations according to an ideal type: the stand-up cat. p. 37

Specifically [the hero] shows that he is above the fear of loss of sexual pleasure, which would make a lesser man cautious, just as he is above the fear of physical danger. p. 38

If the hero is to be credibly isolated, he has to demonstrate the strength not only to beat his enemy, but also to control everything in himself that might reduce his self-reliance. p. 39

Conclusion: A world that is riddled with conspiracy in opaque: things happen that are only very partially comprehensible. When conspiracy is compounded by treachery, the world is extra-opaque. when the truth of treachery is out, we are left in a very bleak landscape. This bleakness is a quality… that dominates many of the best thrillers. p. 39

In the positive thriller the hero”s professionalism results in glorious isolationism. The conspiracy is scotched an the World is secure and problem-free. In the negative thriller the hero”s fallible professionalism results in bleak isolation. The conspiracy is scotched but the World is not really secure and problems will reappear. p. 52

What the hero can be is limited: he can be neither amateur nor bureaucrat. The hero cannot be impersonal in his relations with others.

The villain may be characterized by being a bureaucrat and/or impersonal, but it is equally possible that he is neither. What is most significant is that the villain is dispensable: provided there is a conspiracy.

It is immaterial what the personal characteristics of the conspirator are. It is the characteristics of the conspiracy that are important. The fundamental characteristics of the conspiracy are mystery and disruption.

It is only the truly monstrous that can serve as the subject of a thriller. Mystery is integral. Devoid of mystery, one is in the presence not of conspiracy but of opposition or obstacles.

It is the conspiracy that kick starts the plot, and it is this initiative that justifies the hero”s response. The morality of the thriller is the morality of the playground: he started it! The conspiracy and the hero constitute the most fundamental layer of the thriller. The plot is the process by which the hero averts the conspiracy, and this process is what provides the thrills the reader seeks. p. 53


  1. mario says:

    Good advice. Thanks.

  2. Jeff Hess says:

    Shalom Mario,

    First, thank you for stopping in, for reading and, most importantly, for taking the time to enter the discussion. Building community demands conversation.

    What did you find helpful?



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