I was once under the impression that this genre simply consisted of mysteries or suspense novels that most people would consider “smart.” The truth is that the novel we call an “intellectual thriller” is usually anything with a plot having to do with a famous author/artist/book/work of art. In that sense, you can see that this is a highly successful field of books that aggressively caters (you might even say panders ) to book people.
By association with its sophisticated subjects, it wears a mantle of literariness, but it doesn’t have to be literary—at its heart is a genre novel. In other words, it’s not A Farewell to Arms: it’s a story about how Hemingway’s suicide was actually a disguised murder, and an Ivy League assistant professor must race to expose the assassins before they kill again!
Sometimes the term “intellectual thriller” is used sarcastically.
Because these books can be stupid. We need look no further than Dan Brown to determine this genre’s Marianas Trench. But lousiness notwithstanding (and his popularity seems to withstand his lousiness remarkably well), he’s almost solely responsible for the growth of this genre, both good and bad.
The average intellectual thriller is a book I like. It’s maybe not without cliché, maybe not without the feeling that it’s occasionally putting on airs to win the “intellectual” designation, but it’s usually fun and I learn a little something. It’s a nice elevation I’ll call the Arturo Perez-Reverte Point.
I don’t think I’ve read the summit of the genre, but I have a feeling Matthew Pearl is close. When I saw that he’d sung praises about The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, the debut of his colleague Katherine Howe, then that became the next book for me to read.
Well, I finished Dane, and I don’t echo Pearl’s rousing pitch for it. I’ll go into more detail on that book soon, but for now I’ll just say that as I progressed through the novel, Pearl seemed more and more to be doing his friend a great favor…