The thrill of the chase

Christmas on Skye with a copy of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ brought pursuit thrillers to mind.  For those who don’t know John Buchan’s book, perhaps a third of it is a chase across the moors of south-west Scotland, with hero Richard Hannay enlisting what now seem improbable helpers (a road-mender, a literary innkeeper, a young toff) to keep him out of the clutches of the Black Stone.

Yet Buchan’s descriptions of the terrain work even if the coincidences in the plot don’t (he was inventing a genre, after all; he could get away with a lot). The moorland, crags and burns of Dumfriesshire that serve as the stage for Hannay’s flight felt very familiar when stomping around Skye.  Windswept heather, moss and rock, riven with fast clear water fed by lowering skies, with the occasional stunted gorse bush or stand of wind-bent trees as shelter from the weather or hunters – this is scenery that begs to have a chase across it. 

There is something elemental about a pursuit thriller that makes one keep turning the pages even if you’re city born and bred.  For many people the essence of that appeal is the straightforward contest of hunter and prey.  But for my money it doesn’t work as a concept unless the writer gives the protagonist two struggles – against humans, and the land.    

The best pursuit thriller has to show a love, or at least an understanding, of ground.  Most of us don’t get down on the ground much – don’t get that sense of how it smells, feels and tastes; how it can change every few yards; can shelter or cripple or simply leave you sodden; what is growing on it and why.  (I got a crash course decades ago, training to be an infantryman, and I’d much rather be on my sofa with a mug of tea.)

But that’s exactly what the hero of a pursuit thriller, whether hunter or prey, has to do to survive.  Desmond Bagley was a past master at conveying it, in any number of landscapes – volcanic scree in Iceland, the high Andes, the Camargue.  Arthur Upfield’s ‘Boney’ novels did the same for a very specific geography, the Australian outback – very appropriate, given his hero was a tracker.  And chunks of Deon Meyer’s and Stephen Hunter’s books do the same for South Africa and the southern and western US respectively.  Geoffrey Household is perhaps the exemplar of this kind of thriller writing; it’s certainly really hard to read ‘Rogue Male’ or – even better – ‘A Rough Shoot’ and not feel cold, and wet, and hunted.

But last year I read a novel, long out of print, that for me defined what a pursuit thriller could be.  Vardis Fisher’s ‘The Mountain Man’, first published in 1965, is, technically, more a novel than a thriller – but at its heart is a hunt that ranges over hundreds of miles.  Set in the Rockies just before the railways transformed America, it is on one level a novel of a vendetta, yet it’s also an extraordinary paean to the unspoiled West.  The hero feels at one with his environment, and the way it is made is fundamental to his worldview, his survival, and the success of his hunt.  Leonardo di Caprio reputedly used it as source material for understanding the character he played in ‘The Revenant’, though Fisher’s hero finds joy in his surroundings even at the worst of times – something I’m not sure di Caprio really got the chance to show on screen.  Still, it’s a remarkable novel – find it if you can.           

Dominick Donald