Malcolm Gladwell Admits His Insatiable Love for Thriller Novels and Recommends His Favorites

When Mal­colm Glad­well appeared on The Joe Rogan Expe­ri­ence last month, he admit­ted some­thing about him­self that may sur­prise many of his read­ers. “I read so many thrillers,” he says to Rogan toward the end of the con­ver­sa­tion. “How many do I read a year? Fifty, six­ty, sev­en­ty? You know when you go in the air­port, into the Hud­son News, and you see there’s a whole wall of thrillers? I have read every sin­gle one.” But it will sur­prise exact­ly none of his read­ers that he’s also come up with a cat­e­go­riza­tion sys­tem of thrillers: we all know what a “West­ern” is, but the Glad­well the­o­ry of thrillers also encom­pass­es the dis­tinct sen­si­bil­i­ties of the “East­ern,” the “North­ern,” and the “South­ern.”

A West­ern takes place in “a world in which there is no law and order, and a man shows up and impos­es, per­son­al­ly, law and order on the ter­ri­to­ry, the com­mu­ni­ty.” An East­ern is “a sto­ry where there is law and order, so there are insti­tu­tions of jus­tice, but they have been sub­vert­ed by peo­ple from with­in.” In a North­ern, “law and order exists, and law and order is moral­ly right­eous, the sys­tem works.” (A prime exam­ple is, of course, Law and Order.) A South­ern is “where the entire appa­ra­tus is cor­rupt, and where the reformer is not an insid­er but an out­sider.” Glad­well describes each and every John Grisham nov­el as a South­ern, then has­tens to add, “I love John Grisham.” But he seems to have an even greater love for the mod­ern-day West­ern in the form of Lee Child’s Jack Reach­er nov­els.

“The Reach­er books are West­erns,” Glad­well writes in a 2015 New York­er piece. “The tra­di­tion­al West­ern was a fan­ta­sy about law­ful­ness: it was based on a long­ing for order among those who had been liv­ing with­out it for too long.” But in today’s world, where “we have too much order,” our “con­tem­po­rary fan­ta­sy is about law­less­ness: about what would hap­pen if the insti­tu­tions of civil­i­ty melt­ed away and all we were left with was a hard-mus­cled, rangy guy who could do all the nec­es­sary cal­cu­la­tions in his head to insure that the bad guy got what he had com­ing.” Glad­well had already men­tioned the Reach­er books in the mag­a­zine once before: “Child’s B‑pluses are every­one else’s A‑pluses,” he writes in a 2010 year-in-read­ing piece in which he describes him­self as “first and fore­most, a fan of thrillers and air­port lit­er­a­ture.”

Glad­well also vouch­es for Stephen Hunter and his sniper hero Bob Lee Swag­ger (“They’re fan­tas­ti­cal­ly well writ­ten,” he says to Rogan of Hunter’s work, also not­ing that “any­thing with the word ‘sniper’ in it is gen­er­al­ly one of his books”) as well as Olen Stein­hauer and his “con­flict­ed and neu­rot­ic and hope­less­ly sen­ti­men­tal” Milo Weaver. “I have — by con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate — sev­er­al hun­dred nov­els with the word ‘spy’ in the title,” Glad­well tells the New York Times in a 2013 inter­view. That must owe in part to his sta­tus as a long­time fan of John le Car­ré’s nov­els star­ring unas­sum­ing British intel­li­gence office George Smi­ley. “I’d like to go for a long walk on the Hamp­stead Heath with George Smi­ley,” Glad­well says. “It would be driz­zling. We would end up hav­ing a tepid cup of tea some­where, with slight­ly stale bis­cuits. I would ask him lots of ques­tions about Con­trol, and he would evade them, grace­ful­ly.”

Glad­well dis­cuss­es le Car­ré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the 1963 nov­el in which Smi­ley first appears, in an appear­ance this year on the pod­cast 3 Books. “It’s simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a spy thriller, a kind of cri­tique of post­war Eng­land, a kind of cri­tique of the world of espi­onage and the busi­ness of espi­onage, and an extra­or­di­nary and bril­liant­ly bleak pic­ture of human nature,” he says, nam­ing as one of the nov­el­’s inno­va­tions its por­tray­al of West­ern and Com­mu­nist spy oper­a­tions as “essen­tial­ly equiv­a­lent,” where­as “pre­vi­ous­ly these kinds of books had good guys and bad guys.” But what­ev­er its par­tic­u­lar strengths, “for those of us who tell sto­ries for a liv­ing, a good thriller is incred­i­bly instruc­tive.” Being “over­whelm­ing­ly about plot,” the thriller genre holds each plot to a high stan­dard, and “when some­body man­ages to pull it off suc­cess­ful­ly, that’s intel­lec­tu­al­ly of enor­mous inter­est to a sto­ry­teller.”

Asked recent­ly by the Guardian to name a book that changed his life, Glad­well came up with Agatha Christie’s The Mur­der of Roger Ack­royd. “I was 12 or so when I read it,” he says. “I will nev­er for­get the sheer deli­cious shock of that end­ing, and real­iz­ing – maybe for the first time – that it was pos­si­ble to tell a sto­ry in a way that made the read­er gasp. I’ve been chas­ing that same result (not near­ly as suc­cess­ful­ly) ever since.” And like any addict, he’s sure­ly been chas­ing that Christie-induced first gasp as a read­er ever since. Hence his seem­ing­ly com­pre­hen­sive knowl­edge of the work of le Car­ré, Stein­hauer, Hunter, Child, and all the oth­er thriller and mys­tery writ­ers he tends to brings up when asked, a group includ­ing names like Iain Pears and David Ignatius. To Glad­well’s mind, they all have much to teach us — even if the sto­ries we tell involve mus­cu­lar vig­i­lan­tism and inter­na­tion­al espi­onage less than they do mer­i­toc­ra­cy and spaghet­ti sauce.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mal­colm Glad­well Explains Where His Ideas Come From

The Case for Writ­ing in Cof­fee Shops: Why Mal­colm Glad­well Does It, and You Should Too

Mal­colm Glad­well on Why Genius Takes Time: A Look at the Mak­ing of Elvis Costello’s “Depor­tee” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hal­lelu­jah”

Mal­colm Glad­well Teach­ing His First Online Course: A Mas­ter Class on How to Turn Big Ideas into Pow­er­ful Sto­ries

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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