Five Prescient Political Thrillers
At 4 a.m. on a very cold morning in December 1973, I was in my car on Macarthur Boulevard in Washington sitting in a gas line. More precisely, I was the twenty-first car in the line waiting for an Exxon station to open at 5 a.m. so that I could fill up my car with gas, which I hoped they would still have when my turn came.
It may seem hard to believe now but our mighty country with all of its oil resources had been hit with an Arab oil embargo that devastated the oil supply chain of the U.S. All around the country others waited in similar gas lines.
I was afraid to run the car heater so I sipped coffee from a thermos to keep warm while trying to control my anger at our elected officials. How could they have let this happen?
At the time, I wrote op-ed pieces for newspapers and magazines, and I began framing one in my mind about the country’s energy crisis and our inept leadership.
Then I focused on the fact that other writers had used fiction in the suspense genre as the way to present a geopolitical issue. With this approach they were able to reach a wider audience and their work had a longer shelf life.
I thought about the book I had recently read: Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. As in many of his novels, including The Quiet American, Greene used a creative story with gripping suspense as the vehicle to educate readers about a pressing geopolitical issue: in this case, the horrors inflicted on the Paraguayan people by its despotic ruler, General Stroessner. But The Honorary Consul wasn’t a political diatribe. It was a novel about people and the kidnapping of Charlie Fortnum, a British official, by a priest with a passion for justice. I had stayed up very late at night finishing the novel to find out what happened to Charlie. His kidnapping and the suspense about his fate drive the novel, not Paraguay and General Stroessner. As Michael Korda, Greene’s editor, wrote in the introduction, “The characters in The Honorary Consul are caught up in a brutal, botched revolutionary kidnapping with unforeseen consequences for each of them.” And as a reader, while turning pages, I was educated about Paraguay.
As I began roughing out in my mind a novel about the energy crisis, I heard horns honking. The gas line was moving. I would have to wait until I got home to outline the novel.
Over the years, I have used geopolitical issues as the backdrop or spine for my suspense novels. I became more and more convinced that the thriller novel is an effective way to present a geopolitical issue while entertaining readers.
A number of other writers agree. For example, Michael Crichton used this approach in dealing with sexual harassment (Disclosure) and Japan’s economic invasion of the United States (Rising Sun). And John le Carré, for example, wrote about U.S. involvement in Panama (The Tailor of Panama) and Big Pharma’s drug testing on humans in Africa (The Constant Gardener).
How did they do it? How did these authors manage to educate the reader about a geopolitical topic while entertaining with a suspenseful novel?
First, they don’t write a treatise; they write a novel. The action drives the story. The geopolitical issue is only the background for the story. Their characters do not lecture. They let the reader connect the dots.
Second, as in all thriller novels, suspense and plot twists are key. These writers have their readers eagerly wanting to know what happens next. In Crichton’s Disclosure, a man accused by a woman of sexual harassment reverses the accusation to name his accuser as the aggressor, leaving the reader wanting to know who will prevail.
Third, along with the story, the main characters have pivotal importance. These characters are thoughtfully created to give the story vitality. In Michael Korda’s introduction to The Honorary Consul, he characterized it as the best of Greene’s novels because of “the mix of characters” including the “marvelous” Charlie Fortnum.
Fourth, they do extensive research on their background issue. The Internet is a wonderful research tool. Authors want to make sure their facts are both detailed and accurate. Effective research enables them to drive home the geopolitical issue. In its review of Rising Sun, Publishers Weekly wrote, “Crichton’s entertaining, well researched thriller…raises important questions about Japan’s adversarial trade strategy and our inadequate response to it.”
Fifth, when foreign locales are involved, writers visited those places. Being there enables them to bring the locale to life for their readers. Though I have never been in Panama, John le Carré made me feel as if I were there with his detailed descriptions in The Tailor of Panama.
One final thought: writing the geopolitical suspense novel can be great fun. As the writer, you can usurp the role of president, general, or other leader and present your own spin on a pressing world issue, even plotting a takeover of Saudi oil fields.