Here the genre is broken down into sub genres. I was generously given permission to reprint this by http://www.cuebon.com/ewriters/index.html
Legal thrillers take place in and around the courthouse. Often a lawyer finds a new case to be anything but typical, and soon lives are at stake. Those who bypass the law are ultimately judged by it. This subgenre was popularized by John Grisham, with his blockbuster novel The Firm. Also popular are Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and others. David Ellis’s novel Line of Vision is another example.
Medical thrillers are well-described by their name. Often a doctor’s life is threatened (perhaps because they helped a certain patient), or a mysterious (usually artificial) disease has broken out. Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen are leaders in this subgenre. Sandra Wilkenson’s novel Death On Call is an early example. (Often the authors are themselves doctors.)
Mercenary tales center around this morally ambiguous type of character. Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Dogs of War, filmed by John Irvin, is a powerful example. (Because of mercenary involvement in various infamous conflicts, Hollywood often creates this type of movie as a political statement.)
Paranormal or Supernatural thrillers bring in an otherworldly element, overlapping the ‘horror’ genre, though usually in a restrained fashion. Often the hero and/or villian has (or at least claims) some psychic ability. Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is fantastically complex, and touches upon many elements of European occultism.
Political thrillers are a popular subgenre, and often reflect poorly upon what Mark Twain called “America’s only native criminal class” — the U.S. Congress. Usually a low-level protagonist attracts unwelcome attention from the powerful and desperate. Brad Meltzer’s novels combine deadly action with genuine civics lessons. Jeffrey Archer’s novel Shall We Tell the President? is a gripping example.
Psychological subgenre tales build up slowly, with ever-increasing doubt and tension, until some explicit action/violence takes place at the finale. Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed by Anthony Minghella, is an oft-cited example. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies fit the bill.
Religious thrillers evoke this compelling aspect of of our psyches. Usually a sacred artifact or historical secret centers up the plot, and groups both known and secretive vie for dominance. Often the protagonist is drawn in through research into a seemingly innocent topic. Many of David Morrel’s and Jon Land’s novels contain such elements. Julia Navarro’s novel The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud has vivid historical depictions, while Dan Brown’s hit book and film The DaVinci Code have unleashed controversy — and a horde of imitators.
Romantic is a fairly new thriller subgenre, primarily from romance publisher Harlequin’s Silhouette division. (Their offerings are technically known as a ‘continuity series.’) Instead of a ‘romance’ style plot-line, these novels/series follow ‘thriller’ patterns, with long story arcs and numerous crossover characters, emphasizing strong and compassionate heroines. One example is Harlequin’s “Athena Force” series, with numerous authors.
Survivalist thrillers center upon such rugged specimens of humanity. A disaster has struck a specific group of people, if not the entire planet, and survival depends upon toughness and skill. Jerry Ahern’s epic “Survivalist” series leads this pack, and devotes long descriptions to every knife, gun, and other weapon in use. David Brin’s novel The Postman, filmed by Kevin Costner, reverses this by making survivalists the villians. On a more personal scale, Michael Armstrong’s short story “A Little Walk Home” depicts its stranded protagonist hiking 500 miles across the Alaskan wilderness.
Technothrillers are a category large enough to almost merit full genre status. Tom Clancy is the undisputed father of this subgenre, mostly via his “Jack Ryan” franchise. These tales overlap with ‘science fiction,’ in that cutting-edge technology always plays a key role in the premise and ongoing conflicts. Dale Brown, Harold Coyle, and numerous others have followed suit. In Dean Ing’s novel Loose Cannon, the nerdy protagonist saves himself via hand-tinkered little devices. (Experience and advisors often lend authenticity, yet some of these novels — and their film versions more so — slip badly on the science.)
Treasure Hunter stories usually overlap with other ‘thriller’ subgenres. Whatever their motive, these protagonists seek lost treasures of obvious innate value, such as hidden gold. (Inca, pirate, Confederate, etc.) Many of Clive Cussler’s novels fit the bill. The “National Treasure” movies, from Jon Turteltaub, take this premise to ludicrous extremes.
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