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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Time of the Thriller: Suspense and Continuity after World War II

  • Author(s): Zirulnik, Martin
  • Advisor(s): Heise, Ursula K.
  • et al.

Through the analysis of a selection of thrillers written and produced in the years immediately following World War II, this dissertation defines the threshold conditions of narrative suspense in the twentieth century—the pending disappearance of continuity, not just in techniques of storytelling but in longstanding assumptions about time, about how it is and how it ought to be organized. These works, for instance, seem in various ways to prefigure a more general attenuation of narrative retrospection—narrative retrospection as a grammatical convention of realist fiction but also as a form of belief, as fidelity to the qualitative density of human experience as it is transmitted through time. This period of aesthetic transition, marked by the iconoclasm of the avant-garde, is often seen as a terminal point in the history of storytelling after modernism, a time (though certainly not the only time) when the novel dies along with the systems of value that upheld it. Alternately, as more recent scholarship has shown, it can be seen as the moment when the present tense starts to gain traction as the dominant mode of fictionalizing time. But the works examined in the following pages—including the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, as well as the postwar films of Carol Reed, among others—modify the constraints of genre and reshape the forms of suspense simply by extending the transmission, by perpetuating the same old message about time even when it becomes grotesque in its apparent asynchrony. The death of narrative is perpetually delayed; or, one might say, narrative is undead, and it remains so as it drags itself onward into the cold war era.

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