BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 26, 2009
When Vince Flynn recently finished writing his eleventh novel, Pursuit of Honor, he sent an advance copy to Rush Limbaugh, along with some special reading instructions. Upon arriving at Chapter 50, he told the radio host in a note inscribed on the chapter’s first page, “open one of your bottles of Lafite and grab a cigar and savor these words.” Flynn self-published his first political thriller twelve years ago but, today, has a seven-figure contract with an imprint of Simon & Schuster. He is to the war on terrorism what Tom Clancy was to the cold war, and his books tend to be popular with the type of reader who, like Limbaugh, watches the TV show “24” not just for entertainment value but also for political lessons. Indeed, the protagonist of Flynn’s novels, CIA counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp, exhibits such a talent for maiming, torturing, and killing Muslim bad guys that he makes Jack Bauer look like a simpering ACLU attorney.
But, with Chapter 50 of Pursuit of Honor, Flynn appears to be angling for a new level of conservative street cred. The chapter finds Rapp sitting in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has asked him to explain his torture of a Saudi terrorism suspect. After being scolded for his “immoral techniques” by Carol Ogden--a California Democrat (and thinly veiled send-up of Barbara Boxer) who “moved in the elite circles of her party, listening to the trial lawyers, academics, and the nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”--it’s Rapp’s turn to address the committee. “[W]hat do you think is more morally reprehensible,” he asks, “dislocating the arm of a terrorist … or sticking a steel spike into the brain of an eight-and-a-half-month-old fetus and then sucking his brains out[?]” Reminded by one of Ogden’s colleagues (a “jowly Senator from Vermont” who bears a striking resemblance to Patrick Leahy) that he is speaking in the august chambers of the U.S. Senate, Rapp shoots back: “I’m well aware of where I am, sir. This is where we not only say it’s perfectly okay for a doctor to kill a full-term baby, but we think taxpayers should help pay for it. … And you call me a barbarian.”
Limbaugh, not surprisingly, was impressed. On October 9, he told his listeners that, although he hadn’t yet read all of Pursuit of Honor, “it’s going to be the best [Flynn book] ever.” And Rush wasn’t the only conservative talker offering an aural blurb. On October 12, Glenn Beck hosted Flynn on his Fox News TV show and lavished praise on his new book--one part in particular. “Let’s just say Chapter 50, I don’t want to give anything away, but let me just say it’s almost conservative porn,” Beck gushed. Then, leaving frighteningly little to the imagination, he began to stroke himself on the arm and cooed, “You almost think, ‘Oh yeah, oooh, that’s erotic.’ It’s great!” It was Flynn, though, who received the ultimate gratification when, eleven days later, Pursuit of Honor debuted on The New York Times’ best-seller list at number two, one spot behind Dan Brown.
Politicians and pundits may argue about whether Limbaugh, Beck, and their ilk have real pull at the polls, but, when it comes to selling thrillers, those who work in publishing agree: Right-wing talk jocks deliver. Beck, in particular, has become a make-or-break blurb for thriller writers, with The New York Times recently hailing him as the genre’s Oprah. Brad Thor, who writes political thrillers about an ex-Navy seal battling Muslim terrorists and is a frequent guest on Beck’s radio and TV shows, says, “Glenn has been one of the three best things to happen to thriller books in the last fifty years”--right up there with John F. Kennedy including Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love on a list of his favorite books and Ronald Reagan plugging Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.
The phenomenon isn’t just about Beck or Limbaugh, however. Thriller writers also show up as guests of other right-wing talking heads, such as Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt. And a number of conservative pundits, from Rich Lowry to Oliver North, have recently tried their hand at thriller writing. This convergence of two worlds undoubtedly says a lot about the state of contemporary conservatism. But does it also say something about the state--and future--of the thriller?
Political thrillers are not inherently right-wing. Although Allen Drury, the author who arguably birthed the genre with his 1959 book Advise and Consent, was an archconservative, the writers who followed in his footsteps were an ideologically diverse bunch. For every conservative thriller writer like William F. Buckley, there was a liberal writer like Robert Ludlum. In fact, perhaps the greatest writer of political thrillers, John le Carré, can sound an awful lot like Michael Moore when he strays into nonfiction. (On the eve of the Iraq war, he wrote an op-ed titled, “The United States of America has gone mad.”)
But, while Drury, le Carré, and other thriller writers of their era may have let their politics inform their fiction writing, they did not allow their politics to dominate it. It wasn’t until Clancy’s 1984 book The Hunt for Red October--which became a best-seller after Reagan deemed it a “perfect yarn”--that the genre had an explicitly ideological writer, and a conservative one at that. “Clancy invented something new,” says Patrick Anderson, the weekly thriller reviewer for The Washington Post and author of The Triumph of the Thriller. “It was the right-wing techno thriller. It was, ‘We’re the toughest guys in the world, and our guys can beat their guys.’”
Of course, “their guys” in Clancy’s schema were the Soviets, and the end of the cold war also spelled the end of his career as a successful novelist. For a time, it also spelled the end of the entire political-thriller genre. “Once the ussr fell apart and communism collapsed, the international thriller almost completely died, because you didn’t have this big enemy anymore,” says Neil Nyren, the editor-in-chief at Putnam. But September 11 changed that with the emergence of a new big enemy. And, while Clancy never quite figured out how to capitalize on the terrorist threat, writers like Flynn and Thor took his formula and successfully applied it to the war on terrorism.
In one respect, Flynn and Thor’s books are popular for the same reason that Clancy’s were: For all their violence, they tell what, in their own strange way, are comforting stories. “[Clancy] started writing before the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Anderson explains in The Triumph of the Thriller, “and his message was a reassuring one: The Soviets are tough but our boys are tougher; their system is so rotten that their best men defect to us; and World War III can be fought and won without nuclear weapons.” Flynn and Thor deliver similar reassurances. “After 9/11,” says Emily Bestler, who edits both writers for the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria, “people were wanting to read in the comfortable setting of their living room a story that actually had us winning at the end, instead of the big question mark we face in reality. You close the novel and you can say, ‘At least we won that round.’”
But there is an underlying fear and paranoia running through Flynn and Thor’s political thrillers that was missing from Clancy’s. It’s that sense of menace--as much as any sense of reassurance--that accounts for these books’ popularity with right-wing talk-show hosts, who, after all, are in the business of convincing listeners and viewers that both they and their country are in constant peril.
It’s no surprise, then, that thriller writers often appear on conservative shows as political experts. Take Flynn, for instance. Prior to becoming a thriller writer, he worked in sales for Kraft Foods, but, these days, he routinely goes on Beck’s show and other Fox News programs as a national security analyst. “We have allowed the far left in this country to define torture down, to encompass everything,” he told Bill O’Reilly last December.
Thor performs a similar function, but he has better range. Sometimes he plays the role of Islamic scholar, thanks to his novel The Last Patriot, which Beck has described as “The Da Vinci Code for Islam, except The Da Vinci Code was so much more fiction than this is.” “Islam has some very dark, very scary skeletons in its closet that it does not want out there,” Thor once told Beck. At other times, Thor turns his eye to domestic politics: Asked by Beck whether “foreign operatives” were at work inside the United States, Thor replied, “I have no doubts. I think they’re here. I think some of them even hold public office.” Whatever Beck and his producers need, Thor, who used to work in television himself as the host of a travel show, is ready to provide it. He explains, “Any time they call me and say, ‘They just whacked this guy outside of Islamabad, can you come on and talk about his network?’ I’m happy to do it.”
Even a thriller writer who’s reluctant to serve as a conservative talk jock’s “expert” may be loath to pass up an increasingly rare opportunity to promote his book. Political thrillers are seldom reviewed in The New York Times; and, while their authors used to pop up for interviews on the “Today” show or Larry King’s old radio program, those days are gone. Meanwhile, the new breed of liberal television pundit isn’t interested in hosting political thriller writers, either. “I’d love to be on Rachel [Maddow] or Olbermann--I watch both shows regularly, and I know my publicists have pitched each one, without success,” says thriller author Joseph Finder, who has appeared on Beck and Hannity’s programs. “So, for me, it’s a no-brainer--you go where you’re wanted. And believe me, I’m grateful to Glenn and Sean for the opportunity.”
Of course, Beck and other conservative talkers have only so many guest slots that they can give to novelists--which raises the question of whether the competition to get on these programs will come to define the genre. “Most thriller writers tend not to be politically identified--not publicly, anyway, because they want to sell books and not turn off potential readers,” says Finder. “But I’ve noticed that those few who are open about their politics tend to be conservative, largely because the market favors that.” Mark Tavani, an editor at Ballantine Books, fears the political-thriller genre may be heading toward one-party domination. “If it starts to feel like these books are only being represented by conservative hosts to an audience that watches their shows, then it’ll start to feel like that’s not the book for me if I’m a liberal,” he says. “If you don’t introduce it to both sides, it’s going to feel like it’s limited to just one audience.”
After all, if a thriller writer wants to ingratiate himself to a right-wing talk jock, he doesn’t need to lavish him with cigars or wine. The talk jock will bring his own. All the writer needs to do is supply the conservative porn.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.