June 17 – 23: “What are the main differences from the thrillers of the 50s, 60s and 70s?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Technology is the easy answer, but beyond that, what are the main differences from the thrillers of the 50s, 60s and 70s with today’s bestsellers? This week we’re joined by ITW Members Jill Hand, DiAnn Mills, Frank Zafiro, Vanessa Werstermann, Gerald Dean Rice and Lee Murray as they discuss the topic du jour. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!

 

Vanessa Westermann is the author of An Excuse For Murder. Vanessa is a former Arthur Ellis Awards judge, a writing instructor and has given a talk on the evolution of women’s crime writing, at the Toronto Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her blog features literary reviews and author interviews.

 

 

Gerald Dean Rice is hard at work on something right now. Whether it’s vampires, zombies, or something you’ve never seen before, he’s always dedicated to writing something unique. He’s the author of numerous short stories, including the Halloween eBook “The Best Night of the Year”, the YA book “Vamp-Hire,” the anthology Anything but Zombies, and the upcoming fantasy thriller The Bureau of Retired Spells and Broken Magic.

 

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Marketing Conference, and the Mountainside Novelist Retreat with social media specialist Edie Melson, where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country.

 

Frank Zafiro is a retired police captain who writes procedurals, hard-boiled crime, PI mysteries, and more. He has teamed up with other writers such as Eric Beetner, Colin Conway, Lawrence Kelter, B. R. Paulson, and Jim Wilsky. He hosts the podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime, which features mystery authors. He is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, hockey, and The Wire. He currently lives in Oregon, where he is also a tortured guitarist.

 

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a two-time Bram Stoker nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thriller series (Severed), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra co-authored with Dan Rabarts (RDSP). Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock.

 

Jill Hand is an award-winning fantasy writer. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. She lives in New Jersey and is a former newspaper reporter and editor.

 

 

 

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
22 Comments
  1. I’ll start with a quick observation — it seems like today’s thrillers are much more willing to hold the camera on bad things happening, whereas the thrillers of yesteryear left a little more to the imagination….

    1. Good observation, Frank. I’d like to add that the thrillers of the 1950s introduced the theme of a dystopian future that was later to emerge in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s no surprise, in the decade following a war that featured such horrors as concentration camps and nuclear weapons, that the future they envisioned would be a cheerless, politically repressive nightmare.

      In many ways the thrillers of the 1950s were more similar to those of today than those of the decade that followed. The thrillers of the nineteen-sixties tended to have white male protagonists who, when they weren’t secret agents, were either rumpled cops or boozy private investigators. In a way it was a step backward, to the noir, pre-war Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

      The nineteen-fifties brought us Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. These books are full of humor, nifty gadgets, a cool hero and, sadly, rampant misogyny and racism. That kind of thing won’t fly today, but back then it sold like hotcakes. Try reading the following quote from Casino Royale (1953) without cringing: “These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men.”

      We won’t dwell on what Bond says about Chinese “negresses” from Jamaica (Dr. No, 1958) or how Koreans are “lower than apes” (Goldfinger, 1959.) When he is captured in Harlem (Live and Let Die, 1954) he ponders advice on the best way to fight “negroes.”

      Such attitudes are repulsive to modern readers. It’s shocking how they once seemed perfectly acceptable.

      1. In fairness to Fleming, in 1954 African Americans still referred to themselves as “Negroes,” as in “The United Negro College Fund.”

        1. That’s true, Dana, but in the novel Fleming describes Bond’s black captors as semi-human thugs.

  2. The thrillers of the 1950s introduced the theme of a dystopian future that was later to emerge in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s no surprise, in the decade following a war that featured such horrors as concentration camps and nuclear weapons, that the future they envisioned would be a cheerless, politically repressive nightmare.

    In many ways the thrillers of the 1950s were more similar to those of today than those of the decade that followed. The thrillers of the nineteen-sixties tended to have white male protagonists who, when they weren’t secret agents, were either rumpled cops or boozy private investigators. In a way it was a step backward, to the noir, pre-war Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

    The nineteen-fifties brought us Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. These books are full of humor, nifty gadgets, a cool hero and, sadly, rampant misogyny and racism. That kind of thing won’t fly today, but back then it sold like hotcakes. Try reading the following quote from Casino Royale (1953) without cringing: “These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men.”

    We won’t dwell on what Bond says about Chinese “negresses” from Jamaica (Dr. No, 1958) or how Koreans are “lower than apes” (Goldfinger, 1959.) When he is captured in Harlem (Live and Let Die, 1954) he ponders advice on the best way to fight “negroes.”

    That seems repulsive now, and for good reason.

    1. Jill, you’re absolutely right about Fleming’s James Bond series. It’s easy to forget how prevalent misogyny and racism actually is in the novels, after the many film adaptations that have affected our perception of both the character and the stories.

      You mentioned that thrillers of the 1950s introduced the theme of a dystopian future that we see in The Handmaids Tale and The Hunger Games. This intrigued me. Are there any titles in particular from the 50s that you would say best represent this theme?

  3. I’ll take a stab at this one. (groan) When I think about the thrillers of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, I think of hardboiled detectives, PIs, and cops who were down on their luck, working to solve a violent crime, and often seen as antiheroes. The quality of writing for a thriller then was often viewed as poor. Today’s thrillers use techniques that are at the top of the scale with outstanding characters and plot. The plots today include a variety of topics, and much of that is due to technology and the crimes that emerge as a result. But the biggest difference is in the upgrade of writing – which makes its popularity soar.

  4. I’ll dive right in with the ’50s. I feel as though, in the post-War era of returning soldiers, thrillers of the 50s often reflect upon the difference between those who kill in self-defence in war and those who kill because they want to.

    Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993), for example, was ahead of her time in her use of psychological suspense, and yet her work is distinctly of its time, rooted in its cultural context of post-War America. A fore-runner to Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, at the heart of Hughes’ novels is an exploration of evil as a sickness of the mind. This sickness is often a result of the physical environment. Evil seeps “like dirty mist” through her cities, and there is the sense that only the unborn are innocent.

    In her novels, Hughes explores the theme of appearance as deception – what does guilt, what does innocence look like? In The Candy Kid (1952), set in Mexico, Jose Aragon is a prosperous government agent, but is mistaken for a derelict in need of petty cash by an upper-class blonde. She offers to pay him to pick up a package for her. Jose decides to play along, thinking he’ll get to see the ritzy blond, the “candy kid”, again. But he soon finds himself being hunted down by border thugs.

    Hughes’s characters reflect the loss of innocence of youth prevalent in thrillers of the 50s, as well as the conflict arising from the shift in gender roles. Her female characters are strong, but are still viewed as “dames” who are “poison”, even as Jose regrets “the world of men” that takes advantage of women.

    Jose says at one point, “when it’s kill or be killed, a man will kill. That doesn’t mean he’s a murderer.” Hughes makes it clear that the “one thing that every man has is the choice between right and wrong”. Dorothy B. Hughes is a female crime writer of the 1940s and 1950s who should not be banished to the realms of forgotten noir.

  5. Hi Everyone! Great comments already. I agree with Frank: either today’s readers aren’t as squeamish, or perhaps we’ve been conditioned differently, but there are definitely fewer soft-focus moments, fewer visual euphemisms, in our current thrillers. Perhaps this is because modern readers prefer to see the evidence for themselves in order to draw their own conclusions, in a kind of ‘play-along-at-home’ approach. I also believe modern thrillers are faster-paced and more action-driven than their predecessors. That doesn’t mean that today’s thrillers are poorly written or that they lack the deeper development of characters. On the contrary, it simply means today’s writers have to be more skillful, using a wider range of techniques, as Diann suggests. With so many things competing for readers’ attention, when they do make time to sit down with a thriller, readers want to get straight to the meat of the story. So, rather than providing a lot of exposition and backstory, authors must develop their characters as quickly as possible using the protagonist’s actions, their dialogue, and internal thought to reveal any underlying motivations. And of course, Vanessa’s comment about themes and context changing with time is also highly relevant. Whereas thrillers of the 50s, 60s, and 70s highlighted post-War and Cold War apprehensions, issues of women’s equality, and the space-race, today’s fiction has its own cornucopia of socio-political concerns to address: climate change, extremism and xenophobia, and feeding the planet, to name just a few.

    1. Lee, I completely agree with you that today’s thrillers are faster-paced and more action driven, with a focus on characters’ internal thoughts. One trend that has fascinated me for a while, is the return of the “domestic suspense” or the “family thriller” (a term coined by Oline Cogdill), as exemplified by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, Laura Lippman, Sophie Hannah and many more. And, yet, the concept of focusing on violence originating in the home is not new. Earlier examples of the genre can be seen in works by Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong’s Lemon in the Basket, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, etc.

      So why the sudden return to popularity? Yes, the domestic tropes in recent “family thrillers” have changed. The family life portrayed within recent thrillers represents contemporary gender roles and family norms, and is therefore more familiar to the modern reader. But why has this sub-genre become so appealing again? Is it simply the authenticity of the setting in today’s “domestic suspense”, the thrill of a dark parallel reality accessed from the safety of an armchair, that has us turning the pages?

    2. Absolutely. I think the internet with the proliferation of true-crime websites in which people join in to weigh evidence, using terms like “unsub” that they learned from watching CSI gives laypersons a sense of thinking they know what being a detective is like.
      Today’s audience has access to more information than prior generation of detective fiction fans. We can go online and read autopsy reports and look at crime victims’ Facebook pages.
      It’s a different world than it was 30 years ago when I started covering crime as a beat reporter.

  6. The nineteen-seventies were a popular time for political conspiracy thrillers, thanks in part to Watergate and distrust of American foreign policy abroad and the idea that there were things the government wasn’t telling us. The existence of UFOs and whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy were still being debated then, and probably always will be.

    The Day of the Jackal (1973) by Frederick Forsyth, is about a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Galle, set at the height of the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) terror in Paris in 1962. A cunning professional assassin known as The Jackal is the target of a global manhunt. Forsyth wrote the book in only 35 days. He later revealed his past role as an agent for the British MI6, putting a stamp of authenticity on the narrative.

    Marathon Man (1974) by William Goldman is another classic conspiracy novel. The protagonist is an ordinary man, a postgraduate history student who’s a long-distance runner. He comes up against a former SS Nazi dentist at Auschwitz who provides information about other escaped Nazis to a shadowy US intelligence agency called “The Division.” If you’re not familiar with it, I strongly advise against reading the chapter entitled “Pulp” before going to the dentist.

    In addition to the theme of “you can’t trust the government,” thrillers of the nineteen-seventies presented the paranoid idea that you shouldn’t trust your new neighbors because they might belong to a cult. Possibly you shouldn’t even trust your own husband!

    The Stepford Wives, a 1972 thriller by Ira Levin took on the hot topic of women’s liberation by presenting a plot by men to replace the woman in an idyllic Connecticut town with robots. Yikes!

  7. I guess I draw a line between “thrillers” and “crime,” though they’re obviously not mutually exclusive. To me, a PI story or a police procedural isn’t a thriller; they have their own niches. Day of the Jackal, Marathon Man, The Taking of Pelham 123 all qualify as thrillers, while The French Connection, Farewell My Lovely are not. I forget where I heard this distinction, but it works for me: In a thriller, the point is to see what happens next. In a procedural/PI story, something has already happened and we have to figure it out.

    1. That’s a wonderful analogy, Dana. I’ll be sure to remember it.
      What’s your opinion of psychological horror, like Rosemary’s Baby, Harvest Home, or The Wicker Man?
      Thriller? Horror? Mystery? All of the above?

      1. Good question, Jill. It’s hard to say. I lean toward horror, but those all have elements of all three.

        The Beloved Spouse and I were talking out this earlier this evening, using the Sean Connery film Outland as an example? Science fiction or crime? I voted for Western set in space, but the lines can cross. Science fiction films in general are thrillers *we’re waiting to see what happens), but they cross over all the time. Alien is sci-fi Gothic; Blade Runner is sci-fi noir. It’s hard to come down too hard on either side in a lot of movies, which, when done well, is what makes them memorable. (And when not done well makes the m a mess.)

  8. Could all these things have to do with a changing readership as well? The Canberra Times had an interesting little article today about a research project at the Australian National University. The researcher is looking at what people read and how that has changed over the generations. This affects the information and knowledge people had and have about the world. Back in the late 1880’s early 1900s to about late 20’s both sexes read across all genres indiscriminately then gradually books became more polarised towards male and female readerships. Now publishers put out ‘womens fiction’ and action adventure etc geared towards male readers. Readers read what they like of course but it’s the publishers that have pushed the change to a more sexist base for their imprints in a time when those genders divides are breaking down.

    1. Good point, Elizabeth. Chick lit, a slightly dismissive term meaning a genre that features a female protagonist has been around a long time.
      William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (one of my favorite novels of the 19th century) would be seen as chick lit today, but when it was published it wouldn’t have been marketed as appealing solely to female readers. It would have been seen as a satirical novel about English society as a whole, and not a romance, although relationships and romance are subplots.
      Recently there’s been a trend toward what’s usually described as strong female heroines.
      Multiculturalism is popular now, too, as is diversity, with MCs who are disabled or LGBT.
      Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, published in 1992, is probably considered a mystery or a suspense novel more than a thriller, but it’s notable for introducing a female hero of mixed race. It gives readers a fascinating look at a Denmark’s small Indigenous/Greenlander community.
      It’s a terrific book: dark and compelling.
      I’d love to see thrillers with similar MCs.

  9. I’ve just finished the first three Bernie Gunther novels by Phillip Kerr. He does an extraordinary job of weaving fiction into the horrendously messy facts of Hitler’s pre war and early post war Germany. Who knows what actually went on and what happened to scores of SS and Nazi war criminals? A German Requiem is based on real events and one such missing believed dead Nazi. Fact and fiction blend seamlessly in those books probably because the facts we know are so outrageous and beyond belief.

  10. I’m not familiar with the Bernie Gunther novels by Phillip Kerr. I’ll put them on my “must read” list. Thanks!
    My father was one of the people tasked with capturing Nazi war criminals. He was in Nuremberg for the trials.
    Dad is long gone, but I’m sure he had interesting stories to tell. He wouldn’t say much about his work in Germany. I know he was shot in the back twice. One time at an open house at the Army base where he worked he introduced me to an old man who was some sort of scientist. Later he mentioned that the old guy was a former Nazi, one of the ones the US government brought over to work on the space program.
    Wernher von Braun was another. There were more, I’m sure.

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