Monday, May 24, 2004

Raelynn Hillhouse

CHIP McGRATH IS WRONG: Spy Thrillers Thrive & Surprise


"With some 160,000 books published annually, it’s no surprise that even The New York Times occasionally misses a trend here or there, including the truth about today’s new thrillers and new authors."
--Gayle Lynds
Last week the The Wall Street Journal published a piece about a new trend in publishing: women writing spy thrillers. My dear friend and fellow author, Gayle Lynds and I were both cited as part of that trend. From our many conversations, I knew that Gayle had her finger on the pulse of these developments, so I pulled her away from her current book project to write about them as my first guest blogger.



by guest blogger Gayle Lynds

Copyright © 2004 by Gayle Lynds

Noted book reviewer and critic Tom Nolan quietly broke a story last week, on May 18th, in The Wall Street Journal, in which he described an important publishing trend that’s escaped the notice of most other literary pundits: Female authors have infiltrated spy thrillers, and the form is thriving. Take it from me, both pieces of information are subversive.

Once the globe’s top reading choice, with tens of millions of copies selling annually, this male-dominated, reliable genre collapsed with the end of the Cold War. As New York Times critic Walter Goodman announced funereally in November 1989, the same month the Berlin Wall crumbled: "The future looks dismal for the trench coat set."

He was prophetic. Sales of bestselling thriller authors plummeted, while new authors seldom found publishing homes. This, of course, was when my first one came out. (More about that shortly.) By 1998, two thriller icons, Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré, had declared it was time to accept reality: The black business of espionage no longer interested readers. Both men fled to fresh literary turf.

The gloomy forecasts have continued unabated for some fifteen years, right up to as recently as February, when Charles McGrath worried in the pages of the august New York Times: "What’s odd is that most of our thriller writers — the people who in the past have taught us most of what we know about intelligence gathering and intelligence failure — don’t seem to be interested in the post-9/11 landscape.... [T]hey’re writing instead about corporate espionage and theological cover-ups in the Middle Ages. To understand what’s going on in the world, ... we readers now have to turn to nonfiction...."

Ouch. Still, with some 160,000 books published annually, it’s no surprise that even The New York Times occasionally misses a trend here or there, including the truth about today’s new thrillers and new authors.

There’s a lesson to be learned from a closely aligned genre, the mystery: Let’s take a quick trip down mystery’s memory lane to 1977, when Marcia Muller’s first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, was published to resounding silence. It was a tiny printing by a soon-to-be defunct publisher, who was willing to take a risk on a woman who was writing seriously about a smart, strong, realistic female private investigator (P.I.), Sharon McCone. No one noticed, including Ms. Muller, that the novel was not only ground-breaking, it dealt a roundhouse blow to the old boys’ school of P.I. fiction. (Note: The thirtieth in the Sharon McCone series, The Dangerous Hour, will be published in July by Mysterious Press.)

Five years passed. Ms. Muller could find no new publisher, but then neither could any other woman. At the same time, the genre, which had already been foundering, fell into malaise, the victim of too much of the same for nearly a half century. Finally, in 1982, within months of one another, the fresh voices of Sara Paretsky (Indemnity Only) and Sue Grafton (A Is for Alibi) burst onto the scene, soon followed by Ms. Muller’s return plus a flood of other female authors. Because a majority of the newcomers were fine writers creating interesting, relevant books, they reinvigorated the P.I. form. New men joined the field. Readers and booksellers and publishers were happy. Cash registers sang.

In his February article in the Times about thrillers, Mr. McGrath goes on to note wistfully, "[Nonfiction books aren’t] as much fun as novels, though, and they also lack the sulfurous whiff of cynicism and conspiracy that makes good thrillers so satisfying." He’s not alone in that longing for the glory days of spy novels. Renowned reviewer Dick Adler of The Chicago Tribune wrote two months later, "Where are the new Robert Ludlums and Tom Clancys coming from?"

In January Magazine, book critic David Montgomery — thoroughly steeped in the thriller — observed astutely within days of Mr. Adler’s comments, "The thriller genre has been pronounced dead so many times that it would seemingly take a miracle even to get it on life-support at this point."

While Mr. McGrath, his gaze firmly on the past, offers nowhere to go, both Mr. Adler and the youthful Mr. Montgomery do. Since this is Raelynn Hillhouse’s blog, and I am concerned about her publishing future as well as that of other excellent authors at last allowed entry to the field, and since I am weary of these endless death notices for a reinvigorated literary form because they discourage readers and insult us by ignoring us, I am now going to serve myself up as evidence. Consider me the sacrificial literary goat.

As Mr. Nolan documents in his Wall Street Journal piece, I finished my first spy thriller, my debut, Masquerade, in 1994. My agent sent it to the president of one of the top New York houses. She told my agent, "I love this book. I want to buy it. But no woman could’ve written it, so I’m not going to make an offer." Blatant sexism, it appears, although maybe not so. It was a low period in the thriller market, but perhaps not low enough to make the gamble seem smart, at least to her.

Steve Rubin of Doubleday, who is rightly considered a visionary publisher, saw it differently. Doubleday published Masquerade in hardcover in 1996, and Berkley sold so many copies in paperback in 1997 that it hit The New York Times extended list. Some 20 countries also published Masquerade, while People magazine named it "Page-turner of the Week." After that, Pocket Books brought out my next two spy thrillers, Mosaic and Mesmerized, again highly political and again dealing with the post–Cold War world.

Fast-forward to today. I’m now at St. Martin’s Press with Keith Kahla, such a terrific editor he could make Maxwell Perkins snap to, and my first novel with St. Martin’s has just been released. It’s called The Coil, and it’s the sequel to Masquerade.

Although Masquerade sold well, there was a stigma to it, a whiff of "she doesn’t belong". In fact, the low point for me was when a male reviewer stopped me in the bar at a writers’ conference and asked why I wanted to cut off the private parts of male authors and readers, because that’s what I was doing by writing in the field. Less insulting but still troublesome was the reviewer who "complimented" me in print for "aping" my betters.

So this is how the business has changed: In April, BookPage not only named The Coil one of its notable new titles, it also called Masquerade a "tour-de-force." Critic Paul Goat Allen wrote in his review, "With the release of Masquerade in 1996, Gayle Lynds joined the deified ranks of spy thriller authors like Robert Ludlum and John le Carré." O, to have even dared to think that back then; I sure would’ve slept better.

As for Mr. McGrath’s latest death knell in the Times for the spy thriller, the capitalist truth is that the form is thriving. According to PW Newsline, the "espionage/thriller" category jumped a whopping 34 percent in sales in 2003. From his critical perspective, Mr. Montgomery agrees: "[Y]ou can't believe everything you read these days, for not only is the thriller not dead, but it is alive and well and safe in the hands of outstanding authors such as Gayle Lynds."

And after asking rhetorically where the new Ludlums and Clancys are coming from, Mr. Adler answers: "Here's one excellent candidate: the tough-minded and talented Gayle Lynds, who co-wrote several books with Ludlum and introduced us to Liz Sansborough – a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an ex-CIA agent – in the gripping Masquerade."

As Mr. McGrath noted, 9/11 happened. While his view is that it made little difference, I think it made all of the difference. After those horrifying attacks, Americans abruptly shook off their post–Cold War exhaustion and resumed their interest in the world at large, searching for information and, ultimately, understanding of what had happened, why it had happened, and what to do about it. We are a nation of readers, so of course we turned to books, but not only nonfiction. One of our favored resources is through the lens of good political fiction, which is what the best spy novels are all about (and which helps account for the surge of sales in 2003.)

Which is also what I write about, passionately, stubbornly, cloaked in what I hope is rousing adventure, as do many other new authors — Jenny Siler (debut: Easy Money, 1999) and Francine Mathews (debut: The Cutout, 2001), to name just two. As does Raelynn Hillhouse, whose marvelous first novel, Rift Zone, is set in the last desperate days of the Cold War and will be available in August.

It’s time for the book world to look realistically at espionage thrillers again. They’re not only alive, readers are excited about them. And as Mr. Nolan observes in the Wall Street Journal, a sea change is happening just as it did in mysteries 20 years ago: Female heroes and villains and authors are infusing new life and much-needed sensibilities into a form that had been not only at risk of becoming disconnected but of becoming a caricature of itself.

The best political fiction is so relevant that it’s predictive, a quality we can claim. Mr. McGrath’s complaint that "most of our thriller writers don’t seem to be interested in the post-9/11 landscape" doesn’t refer to us, nor does it to Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré, who have joined us: They’re back in print with very contemporary tales. But then, there’s so much to write about, proving again what J. Edgar Hoover said many years ago, "There’s something about a secret that’s addicting." When you read our books, you’ll know why.

Gayle Lynds is the New York Times bestselling author of seven spy thrillers.

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