Ancient epic poems such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey and the Mahābhārata use similar narrative techniques as modern thrillers. In the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus makes a perilous voyage home after the Trojan War, battling extraordinary hardships in order to be reunited with his wife Penelope. He has to contend with villains such as the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, and the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. In most cases, Odysseus uses cunning instead of brute force to overcome his adversaries.
Little Red Riding Hood (1697), an early example of a psycho-stalker story, is a fairy tale about a girl who walks through the woods to deliver food to her sick grandmother. A wolf wants to eat the girl but is afraid to do so in public. He approaches Little Red Riding Hood and she naively tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl pick some flowers, which she does. In the meantime, he goes to the grandmother’s house and gains entry by pretending to be the girl. He swallows the grandmother whole (in some stories, he locks her in the closet) and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandma.
The Three Apples, a tale in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), is the earliest known murder mystery and suspense thriller with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements. In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja’far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days. This whodunit mystery may be considered an archetype for detective fiction.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) is a swashbuckling revenge thriller about a man named Edmond Dantès who is betrayed by his friends and sent to languish in the notorious Château d’If. His only companion is an old man who teaches him everything from philosophy to mathematics to swordplay. Just before the old man dies, he reveals to Dantès the secret location of a great treasure. Shortly after, Dantès engineers a daring escape and uses the treasure to reinvent himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. Thirsting for vengeance, he sets out to punish those who destroyed his life.
The Riddle of the Sands (1903) is “the first modern thriller”, according to Ken Follett, who described it as “an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade England”.
Heart of Darkness (1903) is a first-person within a first-person account about a man named Marlowe who travels up the Congo River in search of an enigmatic Belgian trader named Kurtz. Layer by layer, the atrocities of the human soul and man’s inhumanity to man are peeled away. Marlowe finds it increasingly difficult to tell where civilization ends and where barbarism begins. Today this might be described as a psychological thriller.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is an early thriller by John Buchan, in which an innocent man becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and finds himself on the run from both the police and enemy spies.
The Manchurian Candidate (1959) is a classic of Cold War paranoia. A squad of American soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists. False memories are implanted, along with a subconscious trigger that turns them into assassins at a moment’s notice. They are soon reintegrated into American society as sleeper agents. One of them, Major Bennett Marco, senses that not all is right, setting him on a collision course with his former comrade Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who is close to being activated as an assassin.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré is set in the world of Cold War espionage and helped to usher in an era of more realistic thriller fiction, based around professional spies and the battle of wits between rival spymasters.
The Bourne Identity (1980) is one of the first thrillers to be written in the modern style that we know today. A man with gunshot wounds is found floating unconscious in the Mediterranean Sea. Brought ashore and nursed back to health, he wakes up with amnesia. Fiercely determined to uncover the secrets of his past, he embarks on a quest that sends him spiraling into a web of violence and deceit. He is astounded to learn that knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and trade craft seem to come naturally to him.
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