The Changing Face of the Cheap Thriller

I had the joy of reading Bradley Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction. This was an annotated chronology of the type of mass-produced Mack Bolan follow-on novels. Like “progressive rock”, the style of book, which has been called everything from ‘men’s adventure’ to just ‘action-adventure’, is very hard to define. Mengel calls them “serial vigilantes” and leaves out a few edge cases while including some I’d think were oddballs. Literature does not neatly fall into categories.

Still, I could see two clear phases. “Phase 1” was kicked off by War Against The Mafia and the Executioner, spawned countless “The ________” vigilantes, and spanned across the 1970s. “Phase 2” was in the 1980s and, like its technothriller cousin, declined quickly and sharply after the USSR’s fall. There was surprisingly little overlap between the two outside of the big-ticket franchises. Of course (at least before the independent boom), Mengel shows that kind of book reduced to a few sputtering, short-lived series formed after 1991.

But really, the cheap thriller itself, as opposed to that specific kind, was not failing. I know this myself-the Dirk Pitt (Clive Cussler) and Jack Reacher (Lee Child) books I found even as a youth speak to that. These were/are cheap thrillers with premises and action that range from “ridiculous” to “really, really ridiculous”. They were in the bigger supermarkets and they were right in the prominent bookstore shelves, while the surviving mass-produced Gold Eagle novels sat in awkward corners.

Serial Vigilantes itself, though dry, is a very interesting book and I recommend it to anyone interested in such fiction.

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