Monday, January 14, 2013

The Modern Curse of the Doorstop Thriller

I've went off here before on the subject of how annoyed I get about monstrously long thrillers, so I'll spare you a full-on rant this time. But there are a few things I want to say about it yet...

When I'm perusing the book store shelves, I tend to skip right past those wrist-straining Doorstop Thrillers because it's been my experience that most of them are exactly what you'd expect: over-long, full of padding and extemporaneous detail, uninteresting internal monologues and info-dumps.

However, I've had to acknowledge that SOME of them are quite good. I've read a couple by Dennis Lehane that I really liked, and that didn't feel bogged down with needless bullshit. Also, not long ago, a friend lent me a book by Micheal Connelly called NINE DRAGONS that surprised me. And of course, there's James Ellroy (although, to be fair, I don't consider Ellroy a "thriller writer"-- his books are more like Sprawling Historical Crime Epics).

But I still maintain that, for the most part, the Doorstop Thriller is a bane on my reading pleasure. I can see almost NO reason that a thriller needs to be over, say, 300 pages long. Monster-size paperbacks, in a way, go against the very definition of "thriller". Initially, the thriller was a book meant to be read in one or two or three sittings, something to keep you reading late into the night, turning the pages feverishly. Something to, you know, THRILL you.

Last week, I was giving another Doorstop Thriller a go (never mind which one), and I was about 100 pages into it when my wife asked, "So what's happened so far in that book?" I paused, thinking for a moment, then answered truthfully, "Well... nothing, really." About fifteen characters had been introduced, a whole bunch of back-story had been spelled out, and a whole lot of nothing had happened. It was all decently-written, mind you, but... it was stuck in neutral.

Like many other Doorstop Thrillers, it would've been a decent read if it was, say, HALF the length.

I tossed the book and went to find something else to read.

It's not that I'm impatient. In fact, I have a pretty extraordinary ability to concentrate and let things play out. And it's also not that I don't think bigger themes can fit within the context of a thriller-- they most certainly can. But rule number one is: Make Things Happen.

And yet Doorstop Thrillers top all the best-seller charts. You rarely see a thriller less than 600 pages on the NYT Best Seller List. I don't know why. Perceived value? If you have any ideas about that, feel free to share.

In the meantime, I'll stick with those classic-style thrillers that are short, sharp, and unnerving. The kind that actually THRILL you.

In the words of my friend Christian Klaver-- Stick and move, man. Stick and move.


  1. My tolerance for the doorstop book, in any genre, has gotten very small. There are only a couple of novels I think I’ve read in years that actually worked at 600, 700, or 1000 pages and didn’t feel mind-numbingly dull and in need of a massive content edit.

  2. I would much rather read three 300-page books than one 600-page one. Or maybe a dozen Borges short stories. He could write something completely unforgettable in 10 pages that some writers today would drag out for 800 or a thousand!

  3. Couldn't agree more. Recently I tried to read a novel by a mega-bestselling thriller writer, and after three chapters . . . a guy had walked into a building. That's it. Granted, they were short chapters, but still.

    I remember another one I started where after thirty pages the protagonist had cooked breakfast and answered the phone. That was enough for me.

    And nearly every time I try to read a contemporary espionage thriller, I wind up thinking, "The plot's not bad, but Nick Carter would have cleaned up this mess in a fourth as many pages."

  4. You read my mind, Heath. It's not that I don't mind reading a long book. It's the filler, the padding, the meaningless meanderings that could have used a good pruning by the editor who must have gone for a smoke break. Thanks for saying what a lot of us are feeling.

  5. Heath, you hit the nail on the head with the hammer here, when you said: "And yet Doorstop Thrillers top all the best-seller charts. You rarely see a thriller less than 600 pages on the NYT Best Seller List. I don't know why. Perceived value? If you have any ideas about that, feel free to share."

    I've owned two bookstores (both went bankrupt...) and in both every single day, I watched shoppers pick up two books, one in each hand, and weigh them against each other and then, invariably, buy the one that was bigger. Ask any bookstore owner or clerk and they'll tell you they routinely see the same thing. People buy by the pound... It's why something by Sydney Shelton outsells Camus' The Stranger... I could understand this if people were buying something like lobsters that were priced the same, but books? Probably why I went bankrupt--I thought providing quality would work...

    A mindset that probably won't do my next book much good since it's novella-length... Except there are readers like you and others who've posted here and the kinds of folks we know and respect who don't buy their literature by the ounce...

    Great post!

  6. I am drawn to books under 250 pages. Even great writers with long books need cutting.