Chasing the Antiquity Thriller!
When asked for a quick description of The Witch of Babylon, I usually refer to it as an ‘antiquity thriller’ – as such it’s a sub-genre of a sub-genre in the crime writing world. For writers with established reputations in the field – Dan Brown, Steve Berry, Ray Khoury, Doug Preston, Chris Kuzneski to name only a few – the constant ka-ching of the cash registers is a given. Their works are consistent top sellers in the book market over all. And yet at crime writing conferences and on mystery forums we don’t often hear them discussed (with the notable exception of Thrillerfest).
Like a rich aunt who wears too much make up and too many baubles these books are tolerated but not always given their due by opinion-makers. How many times have we heard about issues with characterization and writing style in The Da Vinci Code? I’ve lost count of the number of books in this category that deal with undiscovered Shakespeare manuscripts, missing templar treasure, the Nephilim (fallen angels) or Noah’s ark. And yet readers love them and keep going back for more. Why?’
I think it’s because they offer an irresistible combination: strong narrative, exotic locales and large doses of information about interesting periods in history. I’ve often thought historical novels are close companions to antiquity thrillers, except that, of course, the thriller takes place in present time.
Dan Brown is generally regarded as the father of this brand of novel although notable examples did exist before The Da Vinci Code. Katherine Neville’s international bestseller The Eight was first published in 1988 and still sells strongly today. Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose and Arturo Pérez Reverte’s The Club Dumas, remain benchmarks for excellence in this field of literature.
I became interested in writing an antiquity thriller because I love reading them and the platform this type of book offers allowed me focus on subjects that really engaged me: ancient Near East history and the war in Iraq. Most antiquity thrillers feature Roman, Greek, Egyptian or Holy land antiquity. The Witch highlights Mesopotamian history which I found, rather amazingly, hadn’t yet been addressed.
Antiquity thrillers do tend to follow a clear formula. The prologue describes an event in where a sacred and valuable treasure is hidden by its protectors who are caught up in a threatening historic conflict. Early chapters of the book switch to a contemporary protagonist(s), often an expert in the field – a book restorer or salvage expert for example – who gradually learns about the object’s existence and sets out to recover it. Or, the artifact in question may be a well-known painting or manuscript in which its creator has embedded a hidden code or revelation. The object often possesses ‘secrets’ that threaten deeply held religious beliefs or indeed, world stability, and the antagonists will stop at nothing to win.
Within the formula, however, there’s a lot of scope to flex a writer’s wings and a great variation in how skilfully the author handles his/her material. I envy authors of historical novels because the history forms an organic part of the novel’s setting and action. With an antiquity thriller, the writer must convey a considerable amount of detailed historical information in a less natural way.
Because they concern historical events with a direct influence on contemporary realities, antiquity thrillers also brush up against volatile political or religious currents in the world today. So the lost golden menorah or the hidden Book of Genesis, for example, becomes embroiled in the strife of the Holy lands. A number of antiquity thriller writers are journalists and I suspect that fiction offers them a way to express their opinions more broadly than they’re able to as professional reporters. This too is a potential minefield in that it can easily descend into preachiness, something that is anathema to a novel’s entertainment value.
Two superlative examples of how to avoid this come from another sub-genre – political thrillers. David Ignatius’s Body of Lies’ and Robert Harris’s The Ghost both succeed brilliantly. Whether or not you agree with their political viewpoint, you’re sure to love reading their books.
Antiquity thrillers are now firmly entrenched in the annals of crime fiction. If you haven’t been introduced any yet, why not give one a try?
D.J. (Dorothy) McIntosh is a former co-editor of the Crime Writers of Canada newsletter, Fingerprints. She divides her time between First Nations land on the shores of Lake Huron and Toronto where she indulges in two loves: live music and museums. She is a strong supporter of Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Witch of Babylon has been sold in nine languages and in World English audio. It will be available on store bookshelves next June.