“Thrillers” are detective, spy or adventure stories. Their basic characteristic is conflict, which means: a clash of goals, which means: purposeful action in pursuit of values. Thrillers are the product, the popular offshoot, of the Romantic school of art that sees man, not as a helpless pawn of fate, but as a being who possesses volition, whose life is directed by his own value-choices. Romanticism is a value-oriented, morality-centered movement: its material is not journalistic minutiae, but the abstract, the essential, the universal principles of man’s nature—and its basic literary commandment is to portray man “as he might be and ought to be.”
Thrillers are a simplified, elementary version of Romantic literature. They are not concerned with a delineation of values, but, taking certain fundamental values for granted, they are concerned with only one aspect of a moral being’s existence: the battle of good against evil in terms of purposeful action—a dramatized abstraction of the basic pattern of: choice, goal, conflict, danger, struggle, victory.
Thrillers are the kindergarten arithmetic, of which the higher mathematics is the greatest novels of world literature. Thrillers deal only with the skeleton—the plot structure—to which serious Romantic literature adds the flesh, the blood, the mind. The plots in the novels of Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky are pure thriller-plots, unequaled and unsurpassed by the writers of thrillers. . . .
Thrillers are the last refuge of the qualities that have vanished from modern literature: life, color, imagination; they are like a mirror still holding a distant reflection of man.
Nobody takes thrillers literally, nor cares about their specific events, nor harbors any frustrated desire to become a secret agent or a private eye. Thrillers are taken symbolically; they dramatize one of man’s widest and most crucial abstractions: the abstraction of moral conflict.
What people seek in thrillers is the spectacle of man’s efficacy: of his ability to fight for his values and to achieve them. What they see is a condensed, simplified pattern, reduced to its essentials: a man fighting for a vital goal—overcoming one obstacle after another—facing terrible dangers and risks—persisting through an excruciating struggle—and winning.
What men find in the spectacle of the ultimate triumph of the good is the inspiration to fight for one’s own values in the moral conflicts of one’s own life.