What Is the Primary Job of a Thriller?

What is the primary job of a thriller? Entertainment? Escapism? Or to provoke thought?

I recently joined group of authors who tackled this question as part of the International Thriller Writers’ weekly Thriller Roundtable series. It was interesting to see that to a person we each agreed that the primary job of a thriller was to entertain the reader.

If a book isn’t entertaining, why would readers pick it up in the first place? An entertaining book provides the reader an escape from the realities of everyday life, especially in these days of the novel coronavirus.

But that doesn’t mean a thriller can’t be thought-provoking.

Getting into the Way-Back Machine and looking at some of our ancestral authors, we can find some great thought-provoking thrillers. Mary Shelley’s Gothic thriller Frankenstein questions the meaning of life and the morality of trying to create it. H. G. Wells’ sci-fi thriller The War of the Worlds is a thinly veiled commentary on European colonialism and questions the right and morality of nations conquering less advanced populations. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim isn’t taught in English lit classes as a thriller, but it is one exciting, action-packed adventure story. At the same time, its plot involving a disgraced seaman seeking redemption raises questions of courage, cowardice, trust, and betrayal

Moving back to contemporary times: In Cormac McCarthy’s neo-western thriller, No Country for Old Men, a drug deal gone wrong launches a manhunt for a cache of stolen drug money that pits cartel hitmen, a troubled lawman, and a dishonest hunter against each other. The novel throws out the old western good-guy vs bad-guys theme and raises questions about ethics and redemption.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a rip-roaring page turner, but it also entertains thoughtful questions about divinity. To wit: If Jesus had descendants, does that mean his teachings were not divinely inspired?

My most recent Peter Brandt thriller, The Fourth Rising, revisits the post-WWII idea that the Nazi Party did not die with the surrender of Germany in 1945. It’s a familiar road travelled by Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil. Together they raise questions about the undying evil of Nazism that still plagues the world today.

But thought-provoking questions don’t sell books. Without readers, the questions can never provoke thoughts. So, indeed, I think the primary job of a thriller is to entertain.