Books

Tim Weaver on the Difference Between the American and British Thriller

Photo: © Bill Waters

Editor's Note:

Tim Weaver is the bestselling author of four thrillers, all of which feature missing persons investigator David Raker. He is a former journalist and magazine editor, and has written extensively about video games, film, television and tech. His American debut, Never Coming Back, was nominated for a National Book Award in the UK, was voted 2013’s Best Crime Thriller by the Apple iBookstore, and was selected for Richard and Judy, the UK’s biggest and most prestigious book club. Its success has allowed him to concentrate full-time on putting David Raker into new and ever-more-dangerous situations. Tim lives in Bath, England. We asked Tim to share his thoughts on the differences between British and American thrillers. Read on below for what he said. You can find out more about Tim at TimWeaverBooks.com and can follow him on Twitter @TimWeaverBooks.

What are the differences between British and American thriller fiction? I’ll admit, it’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought to since writing my U.S. debut, Never Coming Back, not least because part of the book is set in Las Vegas – something of a departure for a series that was, until now, set entirely in and around London.

Despite placing my previous books on home turf, though (and, in fact, the majority of Never Coming Back is set in the UK too), I read American crime and mystery fiction almost exclusively growing up. Michael Connelly’s debut, The Black Echo, was my conduit to the genre, and a book that had a profound effect on me. Until then, I’d been reading Wilbur Smith and Alistair MacLean (and, it has to be said, very much enjoying them), but Connelly’s layered, morally ambiguous world opened my eyes to a corner of the thriller market that – aged (almost) sixteen – I never even realized existed. Through him, I discovered the classics of the genre – Chandler, MacDonald, Cain – brilliant modern exponents like James Ellroy and Thomas Harris, and standout (for me) examples of the genre like Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan and John Connolly’s Dark Hollow, and soon my own desire to write a novel was cemented. But, the question was, where did I set it?

Not many people know this, but the first draft of my UK debut, Chasing the Dead, was set in the States. It still featured David Raker, it was exactly the same story; it was just set in New York, rather than London. But when I sent it out to literary agents here in the UK, the only one that bit, and asked to see more, said right up front that she didn’t think it “felt” American. As an inexperienced, incredibly naïve (unpublished) writer, I was slightly taken aback. What did she mean it didn’t feel American? When I read it back to myself, it felt like the novels I’d grown up reading. I’d tried to give it that wonderful sense of scale American crime fiction has, I’d ensured New York lived and breathed through my detailed description of its streets, and … and … and then I realized. It wasn’t any of that.

It was my voice.

The fact is, the British and American voice isn’t the same, even if we speak the same language. Can you imagine what a Michael Connelly novel would feel like if it were set in London? Would it feel British? I doubt it. When he took Harry Bosch out of L.A. to Hong Kong in Nine Dragons, that book still felt American, even while Bosch was seven thousand miles away. In the end, it doesn’t come down to ability or to research, it comes down to something more natural. There are just subtleties in language that are impossible to replicate, however hard we try. You can build a sense of a location – a New York, or an L.A., or a Chicago – by which I mean you can describe it physically: how it looks, how big it is, its roads, its highlights. You can go there, take photos of it, drive it, walk it, you can replicate what you saw and heard – but it’s still hard to nail down what makes the city tick, its people, its nuances, if you don’t leave and breathe that place consistently and over a long period of time. That’s not to say it’s impossible: Lee Child writes such convincing American thrillers, it’s easy to forget he’s English; the same with John Connolly, an Irish writer with an ear for what makes Maine such a distinct corner of the country. But I wasn’t able to do it – at least not then.

So, it was with some trepidation that, in planning out Never Coming Back, I decided it might be time to try to go back and make it work; to write that book that I’d always wanted to, that love letter to the American thriller fiction I’d grown up reading. Okay, I cheated a little, giving myself an “in” with a story about British ex-pats in Las Vegas, which got around the problem of language, of making my central characters sound like they came from Nevada, but not all the characters in those sections could be from the UK. Indeed, one major character is Las Vegan, born and bred, and I approached him more carefully than anyone I’ve ever written dialogue for, reading and editing his sections over and over again.

Do I regret trying it? Absolutely not. It was fun, it was frightening, it was a challenge, and so far at least, American readers seem to have embraced those sections of the book – and, in truth, that’s probably the biggest compliment of all.