Low/High Thrillers – Obligatory genre disclaimer here


We all know that genre definitions are inexact (to put it mildly). Stories defy easy categorization, and that’s what genre (and sub genre is all about). Still, humans like to sort things, and we like to think of things by their types. Which is why I’m typing all this out.

Most everyone reading this knows the meaning of the term “High Fantasy” (warning! that’s a tvtropes link!): Fictional-world stories about kings and armies, lots of magic, vast and powerful Evil, an epic scale, and the characters are people firmly within the halls of power.

In contrast, Low Fantasy seems to have been created to cover everything else. It doesn’t, not really, but low fantasy is often characterized as having little magic, small stakes and a less GvE morality. The characters are more likely to be common citizens–often they’re part of the criminal class–and the story centers on their personal problem rather than the fate of the world. And while High Fantasy is often noble in tone, Low Fantasy is frequently cynical or funny.

Now, yeah, we can all come up with examples of stories that straddle definitions–we don’t need to check off every item from the list for something to be one or the other. LOTR is certainly High Fantasy, even though it doesn’t have all that much magic in it, for instance, but Conan falls pretty solidly in the Low Fantasy tradition.

A while back, I decided I should apply these descriptors to thrillers. I’m talking about books here, not films, because in movies “thriller” means something different. My idea is that a High Thriller concerns people in power–not kings, obviously, since thrillers are set in our world, but Presidents, CIA officials, FBI investigators, DEA agents, etc. A High Thriller has gigantic stakes, good guys and bad ones, and a major part of the appeal is that it gives the reader a peek into the “halls of power” to lean heavily on a cliche.

Want to know how the president stays connected while on Airforce One? Want to know how a CIA Agent files secret reports? Curious to see how a White House Chief of Staff spends his day? A High Thriller makes an implicit promise to the reader that the writer has researched the book to the degree that, while the characters and the dangers are fictional, the depiction of how these powerful people and agencies act is bulletproof.* In fact, that research is part of the foundation of the genre’s appeal.

By contrast, a Low Thriller doesn’t portray powerful people. It generally portrays low level criminals or regular citizens who get caught up with low level criminals. An insurance salesman’s black sheep brother turns up after 15 years, with criminals on his trail. The criminals want the money the brother stole, and they’ll do anything they have to do to the salesman’s family to get it. Or a low-level mobster realizes he’s about to be betrayed by his bosses. Or some oddball criminal types try to pull off one last job, with comically disastrous results.

David Morrell and Elmore Leonard write these sorts of books, along with many many others. They might be noirish or comic. The characters are rarely wholly good or bad (although the villains are often crazed killers) and a tense confrontation is more likely to take place in a motel or boiler room than the Oval Office.

Which isn’t to suggest that Low Thrillers aren’t carefully researched, or that the research isn’t part of the appeal. But typically, the research isn’t there to give the reader a glimpse at the tools and methods of power.

Low Thriller is my favorite sort (and I’m still trying to work out how it differs from and overlaps with “Detective Fiction”) but I’ve been trying to figure out how this dialectic would map onto urban fantasy. High Fantasy and (my invented idea of) High Thriller both focus on people of authority and power, and there’s certainly a lot of that in UF. You have werewolf clans, vampire courts, wizard societies, etc., each with its own politics and area of authority. You also have outsiders, criminals and average citizens (well, not as many of those as I’d like). You have stories about the end of the world, and stories about small-scale threats.

It’s something I’m going to be thinking about.

* Police procedurals also rely on this sort of bulletproof research, but they are generally not thrillers and have a different sort of appeal.