Good Reading : August 2006
18 goodreading ı AUGUST 2006 Step into your local bookshop at this time of year, and along with the latest biographies, political rants and memoirs, what you’ll most likely see stacked up at the front are large novels with small titles and big names. For as much as we love our literature, our crime and our science fiction, Australians are huge consumers of action novels. There’s nothing like an adventure/ thriller to take you away from the everyday. Thinking back to the first bookshelves I ever saw, I remember huge hardbacks embossed with names like Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, James Clavell and Jack Higgins. I’m a child of the ’70s, and these were my father’s books. Inside were tales of spies and assassins, terrorists, high adventure and danger. My mother’s shelves, in contrast, were filled with black spined paperbacks – she was always reading crime. But I was drawn to the action. Prominent surnames with small titles and pictures of planes, ships and guns. In these stories, hard men were pitted against extraordinary odds, and they always came out on top. Fast paced, set in exotic places, with frequent action sequences and over- the-top plots, these novels were a welcome antidote to the mundane. Action adventure stories are predomi- nantly written by men, and although a minority feature female heroes (of the Lara Croft ilk), mostly the heroes are male. In pure action stories, the heroes are often soldiers, adventurers or spies, and their struggle is not only for their own survival but for that of the world.Though frequently outgunned and outnumbered, somehow they overcome the odds. Unlike crime and police stories, the object isn’t to solve a crime or catch a criminal. The aim of the thriller is to glue the readers to their seats for as long as possible. A thriller should be all-consuming, heart-stopping and undeniable.Thrillers usually involve a struggle between good and evil, and as often as not, the fate of the world is at stake. In the mid-twentieth-century, good and evil were often decided along political lines (communist v capitalist), but in this age of terrorists and individuals out for world domination, the latest generation of thriller writers has a much less black and white view of things. As readers have become more knowing, so have writers. Nonetheless, every adventure story needs a hero, and every hero needs a nemesis. As Matthew Reilly says: ‘The world is constantly changing, and thrillers have to change with it.The Soviet Union died, so we needed new villains. I went for our traditional allies, Dan Brown went for the Catholic Church, others go for interna- tional terrorists.The genre has to keep pace with movies and TV ...The public is constantly evolving, getting used to more and more complex stories.Thrillers will have to keep up with that.’ The adventure thriller goes back as far as the birth of the novel. Perhaps the first was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which an ordinary man is marooned on an island and left to fend for himself.The basic premise is still in use today in tele- vision (Lost) and film (Cast Away). Alan Mills’s The Raft twists the castaway idea around to strand his hero on the rooftop of a flooded farmhouse after a cyclone.Throw in a mass murderer, a corrupt cop, a family in danger and an ordinary man who has to find it in him- self to save the day. ‘[The books] I like are where a lone person is trapped,’ he says. ‘What happens if you are put in a situation that is utterly dangerous to those you love most? What can you pull out of yourself?’ Other classic examples are Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure and Gordon Williams’s The Seige ofTrencher’s Farm. Mills’s latest, City of Animals, traps its protagonists in a zoo at night, hunted by a killer in a deadly game of survival of the fittest. Looking back at the classics, there are Sir Walter Scott’s adventure stories, and Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Robert categorical lights! computer! action! Books with plots that propel us into the thick of the action, where guns blaze and spies lurk, where kamikaze terrorists swoop and every page is thick with swashing and buckling, have never been more popular. LACHLAN JOBBINS nosedives into a genre whose heroes ‘eat fear for breakfast and save the world before lunch’.