Thriller Writers And The Artist's Burden
As America struggles to reconcile herself with the results of the recent election and a divided populace, I’ve been thinking about what role artists and, specifically, genre writers have to play in the process. We in the mystery community are more apt to call ourselves craftsmen than artists. Unlike poets and literature authors who proudly wield their MFA degrees and discuss the power of words to change the world, mystery and suspense novelists are a more quiet bunch. In the privacy of our own homes, we plot out winding roads to our conclusions. We don’t claim to be moralists, though our murder detectives, CIA-agents, journalists, amateur sleuths and other protagonists are often endowed with heroic human qualities. We don’t claim to be ethicists, yet our books—arguably more than those of any other genre—are charged with having good win our over evil in the end. Regardless of what we claim, however, I believe all thriller writers must accept that part of our job is to hold up a mirror to some of the worst aspects of the human heart and our societies. At our best, we should also prescribe solutions to these failings through our narrative resolutions. I tried to live up to this responsibility in my first two books. In Dark Turns, I wanted to say something about how success in young people is measured in America and how these yard sticks can encourage education to emphasize academic achievement over the development of required human virtues. The primary antagonist in Dark Turns, Aubrey, is a beautiful young woman who is a gifted dancer and excels academically, but has little empathy for others. Without involved parents, Aubrey relies on her teachers to provide her moral guidance. They fail her. Her scholarly achievements and the resulting accolades they bestow on her school encourages the administration to overlook her apparent haughtiness and cruel behaviors to others. In the end, I make sure that the school is punished for its role in churning out high achieving people who are encouraged to be more competitive than kind. In The Widower’s Wife, I created characters who, because of their financial success, lose sight of what is important to their family–indeed, to all families. And they pay for it. A lot. I was inspired, in part, by the 2008 financial crisis which showed how greed on both large and small scales tanked the American economy and frayed the fabric of our communities. In my next book, I tackle the importance of being true to oneself and how societal structures that encourage conformity to certain ideals can end up corrupting people. In writing that suspense authors should reflect society and prescribe solutions to its ills, I don’t mean that we must be blunt instruments. We should tell good stories. We should have unexpected twists. We should be, above all, entertaining. But we can do all these things and still shoulder the artist’s calling: laying bare the dark side of humanity and showing, by the example of our characters, how we must all appeal to our better angels.