The Political Mystery or Thriller

So in my ‘other life’ (not that I have much of one!) I’ve been working down at the Colorado State Capitol for one of our State Senators during the legislative session – a job I decided to take on, in part, to gain a more active understanding of the American legislative/political process and, in part, as potential research (for a writer, everything is book research after all!). Of course, as soon as my writer’s mind started ticking over, I started wondering how I could use what I’ve learned in a novel someday (although, to be fair, I thought the same thing last year when I participated in the police citizen’s academy and still haven’t done it!).

For a foreigner like myself the learning curve is always steep as I didn’t grow up in America and so my understanding of state politics is limited at best (and mainly based on Australian politics…). On the plus side though, I probably bring a different perspective to it all – one that maybe I can use to my advantage  in a future book (?). Unfortunately, my knowledge of political based thrillers and mysteries, however, is also very limited (mainly to those blockbuster novels you see at airports in which the machinations of DC politics and international intrigue collide and the resulting stakes are super high). But what of local politics where the stakes are much lower and the machinations are far more mundane? Is it possible to create tension and drama? Of course, the answer is yes, as a good writer can create tension and drama out of any conflict. But in terms of selling the concept of a political thriller, I’m not sure state politics is all that juicy!

When I think of these kind of thrillers and mysteries, often it’s the life of the president or his cabinet at risk, or the fate of the nation…so immediately you know that there will be high stakes and (usually) a high concept novel involved. At a state political level, often those stakes center on corruption or injustice, which obviously provides a fair amount of dramatic tension but still, the question of what makes a decent political based thriller or mystery has been nagging me…and this is where TKZers you come in! What elements do you think make a great political mystery or thriller? Have you read any great ones that focus on state or local politics (and I mean as a central part of the novel, most mysteries and thrillers necessarily involve a certain amount of politics when they have law enforcement/judicial system involved)…And then there’s the challenges of writing a political thriller or mystery. I meant no one really wants politics shoved down their throats, nor, in today’s polarized society do you want to risk alienating readers…so how do you think a writer can find the right balance when politics is a central part of the novel? Enquiring minds (well, mine at least) want to know!

23 thoughts on “The Political Mystery or Thriller

  1. State-level politics and crime are the context of The Commission by Michael Norman. I read it and enjoyed it after meeting Michael at Killer Nashville in 2018.

    “Levi Vogue, Chairman of the powerful Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, is gunned down in the driveway of his home as he returns from a late evening tryst with Sue Ann Winkler, an exotic dancer employed by a Salt Lake City Strip cub.

    Sam Kincaid, Chief of the Special Investigations Branch (SIB) of the Utah Department of Corrections, is assigned to help Salt Lake City Police Department homicide detective Lt. Kate McConnell solve Vogue’s murder. The investigation soon leads Kincaid and McConnell into the city’s seedy underbelly of prostitution and strip clubs.

    Ultimately, they focus on Charles (Slick) Watts, a violent ex-convict with a long criminal history and a score to settle with Levi Vogue. But before Watts can be apprehended, his body is discovered at an abandoned military base in Wendover, Nevada.

    When the medical examiner concludes that Watts’ death was a homicide elaborately staged to look like a suicide, Kincaid and McConnell are forced to turn their attention to a complex conspiracy behind the murders set inside the Utah State Prison.

    As Kincaid and McConnell close in on The Commission, the safety of Sam’s family – his aunt and his eight-year-old daughter – is threatened. Sam is forced to lay his career and his life on the line to protect them.”

    As you say, the international thriller comes pre-loaded with big stakes. But while the future of the world doesn’t usually hang on crime at the state government level, there are all the usual suspects for mysteries and thrillers, as well are a setting less often explored than local and county police/sheriff’s departments. And 50 different flavors of local color.

    Elections to state office–usually not in the spotlight–can be a source of crime. And policy struggles w/in state government. What if, to go back a few years, one faction of the state government is playing politics around the spread of AIDS while others are desperate to get important public health policies in place? Extortion, bribery, murder, voter fraud are some of the things participants might resort to.

  2. I write international political thrillers, mostly because in the beginning I learned that something big has to be at stake. In each one, my protagonist has a goal that is being thwarted by a national or international policy. One character’s employer sends him to mineral-rich Zaire to ferret out US waste, fraud and abuse. A promotion depends on it. But the dictator’s corruption is so systemic, it poisons the American system all the way to the President and threatens the man’s career and then life. In another, a Muslim woman needs to get to the US for her own safety, but the Muslim ban hinders her chances at immigration.

    How does a writer raise the stakes in local politics? I’m excited to see how you do it.

  3. Read All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. The key, unsurprisingly, is the complexity, ambition, and ruthlessness of the main character. Start there, and the local politics become the means through which the MC tries to realize his objectives. You don’t try to make the sewer project exciting; you make it the way the mayor is going to get a leg up in running for governor…and also a good place to stash a body.

  4. I love political mystery/thrillers. I’ve read lots. If I’m faced with reading a straight-up romance, or a shoot-em-up black hat/white hat story, I’ll choose the latter every day and twice on Sundays.

    One of my fave authors is Joel Rosenberg, who is a middle east expert and Jewish. He writes non-fiction and fiction. His novels are action-packed, and display both his inside knowledge of the workings of government spy agencies and his familiarity with all things middle east.

    IMHO, politics in fiction must be “handled delicately”, to quote the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. No matter what side of the proverbial aisle a character is on, no one viewpoint is all good or all bad. That’s kind of a no-brainer, right? Just like no character should be painted all righteous or all evil.

    I like a story that makes me think, consider the other side of the issue, and humanizes even the most reprehensible character. My two cents.

      • An example of my point: no view or position is without weakness. That’s the problem with humanity…our default is always black or white. Instead of seeing the soul behind the face, we see only how they disagree with us.

        If only we could see how we’re alike instead of focusing on differences…

        But, it was a good story. He has a flair for making stories out of current events.

  5. Great question, Clare. Politics isn’t one of my strongest abilities to write about. But those that do, amaze me. It seems like there are more categories to the suspense/thriller genre than meet the eye.

    Is there a book or blog post here on defining certain types of suspense or thrillers?

    For instance – What category would include a crime (series of murders), but does not necessarily have a leading character that is familiar with law enforcement? There is a bit of romance but not the driving force. Survival is the driving force. Would it be a straight-up thriller?

    James, if you have a book on this subject, please share. : )

    Clare, what interested you in writing a political thriller? You inspire me : )

    • Cindy, I’ve been studying this a bit, since one of my WIPs seems to me to be “romantic suspense/mystery.” But my understanding is that just the presence of romance doesn’t put something into the romance or romantic suspense categories. There are certain conventions and mandatory scenes. So lots of novels have romance without being in a “romance” genre. RWA (or what’s left of it) has a “Kiss of Death” subgroup.

      We’ve got people who write romantic suspense at KZB. Maybe a KZB col on this question would be in order. Other questions might include:

      Must there be co-protagonists with equal story arcs?
      Is either the romance or the mystery/thriller plot a sub-plot or are they equal plots?

      • Having published a bunch of romantic suspense novels (and Amazon has created a new category, “Mystery Romance” which I much prefer, because my books are definitely more mystery than romance), the conventions of the genre are that you can’t remove either the romance OR the mystery plots. Which means you’re writing 3 books every time. HIS story, HER story, and then the mystery. I’ll be happy to work on a column for TKZ if that’s what readers here would be interested in.

  6. I think that “political thriller” is one of those genre names that sounds cool, but ultimately means nothing. In the broadest sense, I guess any plot that deals with public servants (cops, elected officials, school bus drivers) can be crafted as a political thriller, because at the end of the day, all of those positions report to an elected official.

    Most of Grisham’s early works dealt with local politics. In film, “In the Heat of the Night” and “Dirty Harry” and countless others were political thrillers because our heroes were always trying to bring justice despite the resistance of politicos. Because my books are often categorized as political thrillers, I try to have a Washington connection in all of my Grave books, but that’s always a side plot. Political incompetence is the vector that justifies Jonathan’s involvement in whatever is going on in the plot.

    As for political sensitivities, they are real. And they are entertaining. Those who’ve read my series might have noticed that time doesn’t really pass from book to book. Nobody gets older. Readers need to really pay attention to know if 2020’s book happened before or after 2019’s book. In real time, if each book represented the same calendar year that passes between physical books, President Anthony Darmond would be entering the 13th year of his administration. And here’s the funny part: Because Darmond is corrupt and barely competent, I used to get hate mail from Obama supporters for being a crazy right-wing nutjob. Now I get hate mail from Trump supporters for being a crazy left-wing nutjob.

    The trick to writing political thrillers is to always remind yourself that you’re not really writing politics. You’re writing fiction. The readers will find the politics one way or the other.

    • “Because Darmond is corrupt and barely competent, I used to get hate mail from Obama supporters for being a crazy right-wing nutjob. Now I get hate mail from Trump supporters for being a crazy left-wing nutjob.”


  7. I’m a strong believer in if you don’t read it, you don’t write it. Political thrillers are something I have no desire to read so no real advice specifically on a political thriller.

    One of the interesting things about teaching online is my students are from all over the world. You speak and read English, and American Me can teach you. Years ago, one student’s first chapters of an urban fantasy were weird. Something about the wording and the location of Seattle felt off. I traded private emails with her and found out that she lived in Australia and had never even been in the USA. She thought she wouldn’t be able to sell to a US publisher if her work wasn’t set in the US. Since Australia might as well be an urban fantasy world to most of us in the US, I convinced her that she should go with her strengths and draw on the cultures and locations around her to create her own world instead of regurgitating the same-old same-old in a glutted market of vampires and werewolves. A yowie would be a nice change.

    In other words, might I suggest a stranger in a strange land political thriller with an Australian dealing with US political weirdness, or a political thriller set in Australia.

  8. I agree with John Gilstrap: remind yourself that you’re not really writing politics; you’re writing fiction.

    To that I would add: start with a character. A real live human being with wants, needs, and flaws. Place said character into the middle of a mess. Politics may be the milieu, but ultimately it’s a story about how the character navigates this mess. Also, I’m going to borrow from one of James Scott Bell’s precepts, although he didn’t repeat it in his comment above: The protagonist must face death–psychological, professional, or physical. So whatever the big-picture stakes are, the stakes must be dearly personal to the protagonist.

    • Rick – great point on emphasizing the personal rather than the political – that’s what always draws me to characters (personal stakes make me care much more than just political!)

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