The Politics of the Thriller

The Politics of the Thriller

On Munich and Moral Ambiguity

If history came to an end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the recent rebirth of the political thriller is yet another indication that history has resumed its course. Such thrillers thrive on the melodrama of global political struggle, especially the subterranean world of espionage, assassination, and dirty tricks. The twentieth-century thriller reached its peak in the treacherous setting of a divided Berlin, that nest of conspiracy and big-power rivalry. The early work of John le Carré, especially The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and its spare film version by Martin Ritt, gave local color to the vicious logic of the cold war, turning it into a chess game of operational tactics and down-at-heels characters, reversals and betrayals. Most thrillers are no more than machines designed to build up excitement through spectacular action, chilling suspense, and the head-on collision of unlikely heroes and vicious scoundrels. They show how evil lurks at the edge of everyday life and—in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for example—how ordinary people behave when their lives and families are menaced and they are suddenly thrown into the center of a maelstrom. Wedded to rudimentary notions of good and evil, these works purposely lack all moral shading.

Standard thrillers, the action kind that Hollywood still churns out, care little for credibility: the genre formula demands simple villains but deviously complex conspiracies. Writers like John Buchan, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, le Carré, and, most recently, Alan Furst, had something different in mind. They made spy stories a medium for serious themes. Their agents were burnt-out cases who had lost their ideals or decent men abused or cut loose by their callow or corrupt superiors. They could be covert operatives, posing as diplomats or businessmen, or entrepreneurs of intelligence working in a demimonde of double agents and Mata Haris. In this shady territory, political loyalty, vital information, and even human life itself were always up for sale. These serious thrillers still belonged to a bipolar world; Soviet agents replaced ruthless Nazis as the ultimate enemy, but the good guys and bad guys were not always easy to tell apart. They could be secret sharers, brothers under the skin. The protagonists, weighed down by past experiences, moral scruples, and the distractions of their own messy lives, operated within a gray zone of moral ambiguity. At the same time, the colorful villains took on confusing traits of humanity, including their own family lives and some remnants of idealistic beliefs, however tarnished.

If not for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the end of the cold war would have been a catastrophe for thriller writers. As Niall Ferguson wrote last fall in the Los Angeles Times, “with the benefit of hindsight, 1989 was not the decisive turning point of the late 20th century. That came 10 years earlier, in 1979—the year of the Iranian Revolution.”...

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