There seems to be a paradigm shift taking place in the universe of crime fiction. It is no longer enough to plot a suspenseful story; readers are asking what the writer knows about the subject matter. Is the author a forensic scientist, a gun expert, a retired policeman? If the answer is yes, then you may get a best-seller.

Just as the general novel of today veers towards thinly disguised autobiography by authors who too had a love story that must be put down in writing (which makes one wonder why they bother calling it a ‘novel’), expectations about thrillers and crime novels have changed too.

So what shall we expect of future best-sellers? When it comes to murder mysteries, for example, this question about real-life experience could take on an absurd quality: Is the novelist supposed to have murdered somebody through the method described? If that was the case, Agatha Christie ought to have poisoned hundreds of people. But her knowledge of poisons was purely theoretical: as a young girl she worked a short stint at a pharmacy.

In those days a writer wasn’t supposed to be a professional within the field of criminology; it was enough if he or she had a sense of storytelling and sufficient psychological insight to create believable characters. The interplay between fictional detectives and crooks was really just a cat-and-mouse game.

Not any more. These days the thriller is judged on the basis of how well its equipment is described: hi-tech facts about weaponry, technical specifications about various espionage devices, and so on. The hardware and software has to be accurately depicted and operational procedures are to be nailed down to the smallest detail—such as in Mukul Deva’s latest thriller The Dust Will Never Settle (2012) where the heroes work on security protocol over several chapters.

One of the foremost exponents in the field is John le Carré who, during his years in the British Foreign Service (apparently a cover for being an intelligence officer), was posted in West Germany in the 1960s. His thrillers became known for their realistic portrayal of the drabness of the Cold War—as opposed to Ian Fleming’s flamboyant James Bond. After the Cold War, le Carré has gone on to write extremely well-researched thrillers on significant topics such as The Constant Gardener (2001), which takes on “Third World" diplomacy and dubious medical research.

A journalistic obsession with the accuracy of technical details was a hallmark of Stieg Larsson’s globally best-selling Millennium trilogy, which most of us read a few years back. But will mere knowledge be enough in the future? I’m getting a disconcerting feeling that more and more, the thriller writer is supposed to be a He-Man or Amazon feminist warrior who has done enough of shooting and fighting to account for the depictions of violence in his or her book.

Case in point: exactly 10 years ago we were all reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. His fame rested on the fact that he had broken out of jail in Australia and escaped to India, where he made a career as a professional criminal in 1980s Bombay (now Mumbai)—living in slums and opium dens, and serving a stint in jail. It was a tantalizing read, until we heard rumours that much of the book was made up. It turned out to be inspired by real people and events, but largely fiction. Today nobody reads Shantaram any more.

I predict that the book we’re all going to be reading next year is a sensational new thriller that I heard about during a recent tour to Europe. It was sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair for a substantial six-figure dollar amount to HarperCollins US and a Hollywood TV serial by 20th Century Fox is already on the cards. But the main reason why all of us are going to read it is that it has been written by a professional soldier, wing commander Robert Kariel of the Swedish air force, who has been fighting Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and has done all those other James Bond-things in real life. Until recently Kariel was largely unknown as an author, having penned a few hi-tech military thrillers for geeks, but the forthcoming book, to be called The Swede (published in Swedish as De Redan Döda), is his first to make global waves.

Despite its title, the thriller uses a variety of global settings. It is about the unruly world we all live in, now that the war against terror has being going on, without actually putting an end to terror, for well over a decade. The protagonist, Ernst Grip of the Swedish secret service, works as a bodyguard for the king of Sweden. But Grip is pulled into all sorts of high-level action triggered by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand that leads to an attempted bank robbery in Kansas, US.

The expectation is, given the seemingly accurate detailed descriptions of everything, that Kariel will become one of the biggest Swedish thriller writers ever—perhaps The Swede is posed to outdo the success of Millennium trilogy?

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Close