Thrillerology Page #:
4. Thrillerology Historical Sketch (since 1900)
Twentieth Century. The world had never before contained
more human beings than by 1900, and never saw more of them pointlessly killed
in the ensuing world wars, human-caused famines, concentration camps, and other
disasters. To give nature her due, the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 brought
World War I to a swifter end. In less than three years (1918-1920), this
influenza plague killed an estimated hundred million souls, or one in twenty of
all humans alive on earth. In a bizarre twist, it did not kill the weak (very
young and very old) but targeted men and women (often parents) in their most
vigorous years from the late teens through middle age.
Humans gave nature a run for her money. A safe bet is that,
during the Twentieth Century, half a billion souls perished in such nightmares
(to name just a few) as two industrial-scale world wars, plus Lenin's
mass-murder agricultural purges, and the German efforts at world conquest that
cost tens of millions of lives, and worst of all, Mao's great leap back into
the Stone Ages that may have cost as many as a quarter billion lives—making Mao
history’s worst mass murderer, followed by Stalin at about 150 million, and
Hitler at somewhere near 100 million (such numbers can only be approximated).
At the start of that apocalyptic century of horror—whose
inhumanity and bloodshed (usually with stirring music, fluttering penants, and
fancy uniforms) beggar the darkest imagination—we may pick the point where
Erskine Childers published his 1903 The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of
Secret Service. It’s not the first or the last thriller, but it is as good
a starting point as any for the 20th Century. Oh yes, and barely twenty years
later, Childers was executed by firing squad in Dublin as an Irish nationalist.
Stepping forward from the enormous list of 19th Century
suspense and thriller fiction (including vampires, phantoms, and other monsters
both human and not quite human), let's begin in the early Twentieth Century
with a handful of reasonably modern exemplars. These predate World War I and
include Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Joseph
Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (1903), and John Buchan's The
Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).
The range of imaginative fiction is vast; our purpose here is
to pick a narrow path winding among literary giants, to reach our destination
in the 21st Century (Valley of Seven Castles, a Luxembourg Thriller).
We'll sidestep a considerable number of masterworks,
including for example Joseph Conrad's 1904 Nostromo and more. In
particular, I reluctantly avoid discussing Leslie Charteris, creator of The
Saint, and Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond (this is a Ciceronian trick of
oratory; “I will not begin to tell you of Catiline’s evil thoughts and deeds…”
and then the great orator and contemporary of Julius Caesar goes on at length
to detail them). In terms of atmospherics and suspense, Charteris and Fleming
were prime movers in setting the pace for suspense thrillers like the 21st
Century’s (2002) film The Bourne Identity.
* * * *
My Thrillerology, as a personal story, starts tracking with
John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. It is not just a
classic, but an archetype—a story instantly so mythological that it begs to be
retold at least once in each generation. For the most part, the remakes of
Buchan's novel in the 20th and 21st Centuries have been films. I purposely used
Buchan's plot line to craft Valley of Seven Castles, a Luxembourg Thriller.
As already mentioned, I drew inspiration for my pacing from
the 2002 film The Bourne Identity (based on Robert Ludlum's 1980
eponymous novel). In the 2002 film, the characters played by Franka Potente and
Matt Damon go on a frantic run from the Mediterranean to Paris at top thriller
speed. In my novel, the heroes race from Paris to Luxembourg, carrying a
Hitchcockesque McGuffin (the IFS or Intelligent Fuselage Skin technology).
Hannah's Chinese zillionaire owner, Wan, acquired it by having Professor
Hilaire Sander's son murdered in London. Owner? Hannah is a BAN (Butlers
And Nannies) a near-future fad, whereby you sell yourself into something
between indentured servitude and slavery for five years, hoping for a nice fat,
early retirement pension. As with most fads, reality turns out to be a horrific
opposite of what was promised.
Hannah sold herself to pay for her mother's murderous
hospital bills in the U.S. corporate health denial industry, which let the
mother die anyway when her money ran out, including Hannah's desperate
payments. I discuss those sorts of real-life U.S. nightmares in my series Explanation
Nation (website and nonfiction book series).
Early on, Hannah takes charge of her life, steals the IFS
from Wan in Paris, and goes on a deadly run toward Luxembourg to meet up with
the young technical writer Mèlu and her husband Romain (secretly part of a
social-progressive spy network called PAX, with Prof. Sander of Echternach as a
leader). Along the way, she picks up a U.S. Army deserter (Rick Buchan, falsely
accused of a war crime, while suffering from severe PTSD as well). Pursued by
Wan'ss powerful and deadly assassins, the two make their way from Paris to Luxembourg, first the capital of Luxembourg City and later the Valley of Seven
Castles. That's just a quick plot rundown.
I derived my ten-part plot structure from John Buchan's 1915
novel. From there, the history tracks with interesting consequences until we
arrive at a true story involving Alfred Hitchcock, who had similar ideas—and
created one of history's most iconic movies. I'm calling that bombshell Alfred
Hitchcock's Final Secret.
You may notice in Valley of Seven Castles that my
hero is Richard Buchan (strong male lead) and his love interest (strong female
lead) is Hannah Smith. Yes, I took the hero of John Buchan's first novel
(Richard Hannay) and created from his name the male and female leads. The two
meet at the scene of a brutal murder outside a Paris bar in Bagnolet called The
39th Step. That's about as blatant as hints can be, but the real shocker (as I
see it) lies in the string of thrillers built from John Buchan's novel.
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