After years of being stuck in a post-Cold War funk, the literary thriller is back. Some two dozen will be published in time for summer vacations, incorporating the news in ways not seen since the heyday of John le Carré.
On top of the usual big historical tomes and popular fiction—this summer’s releases include everything from a 1,600-page deconstruction of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a new novel by The Kite Runner author, Khaled Hosseini—publishers are pushing books that tackle themes ranging from Russian bad guys and contract killings to environmental terrorists and corrupt businessmen. “Some of the smartest and most interesting writing is being done in this [thriller] form,” says Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown, which publishes James Patterson and Michael Connelly.
Modern thrillers date back at least to World War II, a conflict that inspired literary writers such as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. During the Cold War, le Carré took the thriller to the next generation. But with the Berlin Wall’s fall, writers struggled to find a new kind of conflict to dramatize. “After the Cold War, the international thriller went down the tubes,” says Putnam’s publisher, Neil Nyren. The 11 September attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave writers fresh material—and a ready audience.
Behind the revival is the confluence of a world grown more scary and a sluggish $24 billion (Rs96,000 crore) publishing industry seeking a new formula for hits. There’s another factor: Hollywood’s movie machine is hungry for such books. “Thrillers will definitely be the next cycle in Hollywood,” says Howard Sanders, a partner in United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills, California.
Of course, thrillers aren’t the only new titles out this summer. July will see the publishing event of the season, the seventh and final Harry Potter book. There are new novels from literary heavyweights Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan.
In the non-fiction market, major entries include a new history of the Depression, two competing books on Hillary Clinton, a study of the Berlin Wall, a history of the Pentagon and the re-examination of President Kennedy’s assassination by the prosecutor who wrote Helter Skelter.
For our annual summer reading round-up, we spoke with publishers, authors, independent booksellers, online retailer Amazon and chain store giants Barnes & Noble and Borders, asking what titles they are most excited about. We narrowed our list after reading their recommendations.
By Michael Ondaatje, Knopf,
273 pages, $25 (Rs1,022)
THE PLOT: How a violent act fractures a family. In the 1970s California sisters Claire and Anna are split up when their father discovers Anna’s affair with a young farmhand. The novel follows the characters through the years.
THE BACKSTORY: Ondaatje says a particular location inspires each of his stylish literary novels; this time it was a village in southern France. His books sell big: The English Patient sold more than 1.4 million copies in the US, and his last novel, Anil’s Ghost, more than 3,00,000. Knopf is printing 2,00,000 copies of Divisadero to start with.
WHAT GRABBED US: How the evocative prose by the author, also a poet, pulls the reader along until the threads of the story converge.
By Don DeLillo, Scribner, 15 May,
246 pages, $26
THE PLOT: A businessman walks away from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, and the novel follows him, his friends and family. We also see the point of view of one of the hijackers as his plane hits the building.
THE BACKSTORY: DeLillo, author of Underworld and White Noise (which won a National Book Award), says the mental image of a man in a suit carrying a briefcase, “walking through a storm of smoke and ash”, inspired him. His last novel, Cosmopolis, got mixed reviews, but it was a best-seller and he remains a bookseller favourite. Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington, says his staff considers Falling Man one of the author’s best.
WHAT GRABBED US: The grim imagining of the last minutes within an office in the towers. The laconic prose: “Two men ran by with a stretcher, someone face-down, smoke seeping out of his hair and clothes. He watched them move into the stunned distance.
On Chesil Beach:
By Ian McEwan, Doubleday, 5 June,
208 pages, $22
THE PLOT: For a naïve, newly married middle-class English couple in 1962, the honeymoon ends quickly.
THE BACKSTORY: McEwan has become a reliable best-seller of literary books such as Atonement and Saturday. Doubleday is printing a bullish 2,00,000 copies. Instead of sending the author on a book tour, it helped create a short movie about him with Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, to be screened this summer at bookstores across the US.
WHAT GRABBED US: The narrative tone, which is “almost a character” itself, as McEwan says in an interview.
Requiem for an Assassin:
By Barry Eisler, Putnam, 22 May,
356 pages, $24.95
THE PLOT: An assassin is forced to kill two seemingly unrelated people to free his kidnapped friend. Along the way, he uncovers a terrorist plot.
THE BACKSTORY: This is the sixth book featuring John Rain, a Japanese-American contract killer. Eisler writes knowingly of counter-intelligence skills, thanks to the three years he spent as a CIA analyst.
WHAT GRABBED US: An insider’s view of surveillance, such as how to shake off a tail.
Soon I Will Be Invincible:
By Austin Grossman, Pantheon, 5 June,
287 pages, $22.95
THE PLOT: A superhero tale, but not a comic book. Evil genius Dr Impossible tells how he escapes prison to try to rule the world, while the Champions, a reunited group of crime-fighting superheroes, battle him.
THE BACKSTORY: The first-time author designs video games and is a doctoral candidate in literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent five years on the novel, which sold at a publishers’ auction for a six-figure sum. Expect to see him at comic-book conventions this summer.
WHAT GRABBED US: The mocking of celebrity myth-making (his superheroes have publicists and advertising deals) in a believable superhero cosmos. And the humour: “There’s a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.”
The Secret Servant:
By Daniel Silva, Putnam, 24 July,
400 pages, $25.95
THE PLOT: A terrorism analyst in Amsterdam is murdered by a Muslim immigrant. Israeli intelligence agent Gabriel Allon investigates and uncovers a bigger conspiracy.
THE BACKSTORY: Silva’s international thrillers have become increasingly popular—his last, The Messenger, was his biggest seller yet. The killing in the new book echoes that of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004.
WHAT GRABBED US: The newsy sensibility and frightening possibilities—it reads like a prediction of continuing terrorism in Europe.
A Spy by Nature:
By Charles Cumming,
St. Martin’s Press, 10 July,
368 pages, $24.95
THE PLOT: A young man attempts to join Britain’s secret service, and is recruited to befriend a suspicious American couple in London, in a case involving Asian oil contracts.
THE BACKSTORY: The author himself applied to join MI-6, Britain’s secret service, but didn’t get in. This book was first published in Britain in 2001, and was followed by two others. St. Martin’s signed Cumming to a three-book deal because it believes he has the sensibility of a le Carré that might appeal to a younger audience.
WHAT GRABBED US: The excruciating agent-testing process—it comes off as an even more gruelling version of sitting for the LSAT.
A Thousand Splendid Suns:
Khaled Hosseini,Riverhead Books, 22 May,
372 pages, $25.95
THE PLOT: A story of two women in Afghanistan over 30 years, bound by marriage to the same abusive man. The women become unlikely friends under the oppression of their husband, as Afghanistan itself is brutalized by the Soviet and Taliban regimes.
THE BACKSTORY: Hosseini’s first book, The Kite Runner, sold four million copies in the US; a movie version is set for this fall. Barnes & Noble’s head fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, shares the view of many booksellers who were impressed by the novel: “Within 30 pages, I was totally in that world.”
WHAT GRABBED US: The author’s empathy for the two women, and his way of immersing us in his native culture.
By Martin Cruz Smith,Simon & Schuster, 12 June,
352 pages, $26.95
THE PLOT: More than 25 years after making his appearance inGorky Park , detective Arkady Renko returns to a Moscow that is bursting with wealth and corruption. While attempting to expose a dark secret in the past of a charismatic soldier-turned-politician, Renko gets cuckolded, shot in the head, strangled and buried alive.
THE BACKSTORY: Smith never planned to write a series chronicling the Soviet Union and Russia, but he liked the Renko character so much he kept going—this is the sixth novel about him. The author spends several weeks in Russia researching each book, and relies on friends there to keep him up-to-date.
WHAT GRABBED US: Smith’s understated writing, his portrait of Putin’s Russia, the insights into Russian obsession with chess, and his description of how Russia’s Black Berets suppressed rebels in Chechnya.
The Reagan Diaries:
By Ronald Reagan, edited by Douglas Brinkley,
HarperCollins, 22 May,784 pages, $35
THE PLOT: Ronald Reagan jotted down daily events every night during his eight-year presidency, detailing his meetings with legislators, activists, heads of state and celebrities.
THE BACKSTORY: Brinkley, a presidential historian and author, organized the diaries, using as a guide, the published diaries of James K. Polk. “Whether you are an admirer or detractor, these are of historic value,” Brinkley says in an interview. The publisher plans a sizeable 3,50,000 first printing, and Nancy Reagan and Brinkley will promote the book on TV.
WHAT GRABBED US: The inside look at a president’s life:
April 19, 1981: Watched some TV in bed and saw Gloria Steinem take me over the coals for being a bigot and against women...Nov. 9, 1985: Prince Charles & Diana arrived at 11am for coffee. They are very nice...
The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989:
By Frederick Taylor, HarperCollins,29 May, 512 pages, $27.95
THE PLOT: What led to the construction of the Berlin Wall and its eventual demise.
THE BACKSTORY: The author found he’d already done much research on the wall while preparing his 2004 book, Dresden, about the WWII firebombing of the German city. He was surprised by the every day brutality in East Germany. “The malice of the regime was quite shocking,” he says in an interview. HarperCollins is printing 25,000 copies, strong for a serious history.
WHAT GRABBED US: The powerful portraits of East Germans who fled and also of those forced to stay.
Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure and The Man Who Dared to See:
By Robert Kurson, Random House, 15 May,320 pages, $25.95
THE PLOT: The blind can be helped to see—but does it make their lives better? Mike May, blind since an early childhood accident, regains his sight following stem-cell transplant surgery, and is surprised by the consequences. (One issue: He couldn’t tell whether a person was smiling or frowning.)
THE BACKSTORY: Kurson’s 2004 Shadow Divers, about the search for a sunken U-boat off New Jersey’s coast, sold close to a quarter-million copies. Random House is printing 1,85,000 copies of the new book and sending the author on an 18-city tour. News Corp.’s Fox 2000 Pictures bought the rights (and has the rights to Shadow Divers, too).
WHAT GRABBED US: Kurson’s feel for the lives of others. And May himself, who was not a typical blind person: He skied, travelled extensively and launched his own business. It took him a year to decide on the risky operation.
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr:
Nancy Isenberg, Viking, 14 May,540 pages, $29.95
THE PLOT: One of the most scandalous figures in American history was really a misunderstood patriot done in by political enemies and his own inconvenient principles.
THE BACKSTORY: Isenberg, a history professor at the University of Tulsa, spent five years researching Aaron Burr, the third vice-president, who achieved infamy after fatally wounding his longtime political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel in 1804. Viking paid her $135,000 (Rs55 lakh), not bad for a scholar whose first and last book, 1998’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America ,examined the origins of women’s rights and had a print run of 3,450.
WHAT GRABBED US: Insights into Burr, such as his reckless land speculation, letters capturing his college sex life and views marking him as a proto-feminist.
By Steve Vogel, Random House, 5 June,656 pages, $32.95
THE PLOT: How the Pentagon, the world’s most famous defence building, was erected just as the US was pulled into WWII, and its subsequent history, including the rebuilding after the 11 September attack.
THE BACKSTORY: Vogel spent two years writing and researching the book.The Pentagon has drawn rave pre-publication reviews, and within Random House, there is hope that it will fill the usual summer slot for a big history title. It’s printing 30,000 copies to start.
WHAT GRABBED US: Anecdotes about the Pentagon’s early days. The cafeteria couldn’t keep up with the flood of workers; security was so lax in 1972 that the Weathermen walked in and planted a bomb, which exploded in a bathroom.
(All release dates are for the US.)
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