Rachel McLean

Author of Twisted Realities

Political Thrillers on Page and Screen – Why Are They So Different?

When you think of a political thriller, what comes to mind?

For me, it’s intrigue. Corruption maybe. The pursuit of power. And politics with a big P.

I enjoy political thrillers that are centred on some sort of struggle for political power or domination. There are plenty of books that do this: House of Cards, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and (oh yes) The Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin.

But that’s a fairly short list. And those books aren’t exactly recent.

If you look at the political thrillers charts on Amazon, these books are crowded out by a very different type of book: the espionage thriller. The charts are full of authors like L.T. Ryan, Andy Maslen, James Swallow and David Baldacci.

Sure, they touch on politics – the hero (and it’s always a hero) often has to fight an enemy that’s been identified by his political masters, and there’s a background of global politics. But the protagonists aren’t directly involved in the struggle for political power. To my mind, these are action books, not political thrillers.

If you look on the small screen, things are very different. Political thrillers on TV are exactly that. They include scenes in the House of Commons, White House or the equivalent in other countries. And the characters are battling for political supremacy.

The recent and hugely successful Bodyguard is one example. Yes, the protagonist is a cop. But there are political machinations and the show would be nothing without Keeley Hawes’ character, the Home Secretary.

Then there’s Borgen. The tale of a woman who becomes Denmark’s first female Prime Minister; it doesn’t get much more political than that.

There have been other dramas: The Politician’s Husband, The Politician’s Wife. And of course House of Cards. Which now has a woman in the White House (yay!).

What is it these dramas have in common that none of those political action books have?

It’s female protagonists. Political thrillers for TV are full of powerful women using their brains to get ahead.

So why aren’t these women represented in fiction? It’s a good question, and one I don’t have an answer for. Although I do hope to have a solution to it, in the form of my political thriller trilogy.

The Division Bell trilogy centres on Jennifer Sinclair. She’s a Home Office minister for whom politics comes crashing into her personal and family life. She has to choose where her loyalties lie, and whom she can trust. Book One, A House Divided, came out last month, and is being lauded by reviewers as the book you should read if you’re missing Bodyguard. Something I’m not going to disagree with!

Maybe I can start a whole new sub-genre of my own? That would be pretty cool. Although it would be even cooler if other women started writing political thrillers with female protagonists.

So this is my challenge: politically engaged women writers (and I know lots of you), why not join me and start writing political thrillers that aren’t about men running around with guns? I look forward to reading your books.

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