AS a glance at any bestseller list will attest, thrillers have become America's favorite reads, edging aside their venerable cousins, mystery books. The difference between the genres is not just elementary: One consists of brain-teasers in which readers try to figure out who killed the girl next door. The other is a heart-racer that we finish to learn whether the girl's leader will be blown up. The essence of the distinction sometimes boils down to dramatic props: arsenic or anthrax, detective or conspirator, bloody corpse or bloody ticking clock?
But if thrillers have won over audiences, the big riddle consuming their writers these days is why America's top critics routinely dismiss suspense books, calling them beach reads or brain candy or, worse, ignoring them completely.
And so, tired of the snubs and determined to get the respect they feel they deserve, thriller authors have formed their own breakaway group: the International Thriller Writers (ITW), a challenge to the older and better-known Mystery Writers of America (MWA), known for its prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
Infused with its mission, ITW arrived in Los Angeles on a recent Saturday to launch its "Brunch & Bullets" luncheon series, which drew about 100 Southern California thriller fans who paid $150 each to chat with bestselling ITW authors. (Disclosure: Last year I edited the group's newsletter.) It was an auspicious setting: the Renaissance Hotel at Hollywood & Highland, around the corner from the site of the Oscars ceremony at the Kodak Theatre and, as it turned out, in the middle of a large antiwar demonstration. Several authors had flown in from the East Coast, but all appeared to be in their element, sandwiched between the twin cultural exports of entertainment and armed conflict -- the basic ingredients of a thriller, by the way.
A new generation of thrillers
ON the hotel's second floor, attendees walked past balconies overlooking crowds of policemen in riot gear. The scene, replete with potted palms and bullhorns, could have been ripped from an espionage classic by Graham Greene or John le Carre, except this was a new world order and another generation of writers was chomping at the bit to break from the narrowly defined course of Cold War spy novels.
"In this room today are authors who've written 100 New York Times bestsellers and have sold 200 million books," said author Jon Land, who introduced ITW's headliners.
Romantic suspense maven Sandra Brown discussed her book "Ricochet," which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Suffice it to say Brown has never been profiled in the New Yorker, although she's written 65 novels that have sold 70 million copies worldwide. Paranormal thriller author Heather Graham described "The Dead Room," her latest in a string of 100 books, including several New York Times bestsellers. Military thriller author Gregg Hurwitz, legal thriller bestseller John Lescroart and financial thriller writer Christopher Reich bantered at the bar, a sign of just how expansive the genre has become in the last decade.
ITW used its L.A. event to announce those books nominated for its new Thriller Awards, whose winners will be revealed at its conference this summer, two months after the Edgars. "It's a healthy rivalry," said Reed Farrell Coleman, former executive vice president of MWA. "But they've motivated us to take some steps we needed to take."
When ITW first organized 2 1/2 years ago, many longtime MWA members began to openly question their membership. "We were the big boys on the block, and we'd grown complacent," said Coleman. The 62-year-old Edgars had become a premier literary award, but thrillers were often passed over. Yet, during the early 2000s, annual sales of thrillers were jumping as high as 34%, and in 2002, the British Crime Writers Assn. inaugurated its Steel Dagger Award for best espionage book. Still, major U.S. critics continued to write about the death of the spy genre so often its cadaver could have collected royalties.
It was at a Bouchercon Mystery Convention in October 2004 that Gayle Lynds and David Morrell discreetly asked some thriller writers to meet hours before that group's awards banquet. The covert meeting snowballed into history after all 35 authors voted to join the mild insurrection and form ITW.
It helped that the revolt was led by two name writers. Short and avuncular, Morrell wrote what's been called the "father of all modern action novels," "First Blood," which became the 1982 movie that introduced the John Rambo character. An English professor at the University of Iowa, he continued writing books, including "The Brotherhood of the Rose," which became an NBC miniseries in 1989. His 28 books have been translated into 26 languages, and his newest, "Scavenger," received a starred notice in Booklist.