Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Thrills beyond reason

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERIVCE , NEW YORK

THRILLER: Stories to Keep YouUp All Night
By James Patterson
568 pages
MIRA

International Thriller Writers Inc, an organization founded in 2004, has more than over 400 members whose combined sales figures add up to more than 1.6 billion books. Now this group has issued an anthology -- with its title in raised letters and blood on its cover, of course -- to illustrate what thriller writers do.

On the evidence of Thriller, one thing they do is dust the cobwebs off fragments and outtakes and package them as short stories. Another is direct those stories toward grisly, unmotivated violence, the ghastlier the better. A third is cook up tough-guy names for characters (Major Frost Jorgenson) or for strings of books (Recoil, Recon, Return). Many also lay claim to attributes as interesting as those of their characters. Thriller illustrates that too.

One contributor, Raelynn Hillhouse, is a former Fulbright fellow who lives on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano. She "has not only faced the barrels of Kalashnikovs" but has also "run Cuban rum between East and West Berlin, smuggled jewels from the Soviet Union and forged Eastern bloc visas." Hillhouse's story, Diplomatic Constraints, is comparably daring. It features a shotgun-packing Stella in the midst of real turmoil: a fierce attack on the US Embassy in Pakistan in 1979, two weeks after a similar, better-publicized event in Iran.

Although Thriller has been edited by James Patterson and blurbed by some of the genre's luminaries, its emphasis is not on well-known practitioners. Prolific as he is, Patterson hasn't supplied a story.

One of the few high-profile contributors is Lee Child, the best thriller writer of the moment, whose contribution comes from an early draft of an early novel and offers a brief but revealing glimpse of the author's character Jack Reacher. Child is also a contributor to the dueling anthology Death Do Us Part, the Mystery Writers of America's book edited by Harlan Coben and due later this summer.

So thriller writing and mystery writing overlap. But how? The best answer Thriller offers is that if mysteries depend on deductive processes, thrillers care more about "bloated intestines strung across the ground like festive streamers," as James Rollins so enthusiastically puts it. Each of this book's stories is a build-up to deadly mayhem, which is often committed at the expense of reason. These tales would rather kill off the wrong man than not kill anybody at all.

For instance, one of the better entries here is Gregg Hurwitz's Dirty Weather, which is set in a truck-stop restaurant in the dead of a Michigan winter and develops its characters well, at least for a few pages. The place is near a prison and is popular with guards; when a new guy shows up, he catches the eye of the proprietor's daughter. Then, trouble: "The door smashed open and a man with a gun charged them, screaming so loud flecks of saliva dotted the bar." Although this uproar ought to be sufficient, the story gratuitously leaves somebody to die in the snow.

Law enforcement figures are a major presence here. For instance, there is Alex Kava's Special Agent Maggie O'Dell, who thinks of apple pie as gory because she once saw "a perfect piece of apple pie with the victim's bloody spleen neatly arranged on top." Instead of treating this as a revelation about Maggie, Kava puts it on her story's second page and makes it a way of saying hello.

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