Thrillers Bring the Light

by James Scott Bell

 As if things weren’t bad enough.

We’re struggling through this national shutdown and all the dire consequences thereof, and along comes exactly what we don’t need: The murder hornet!

Yes, this unsightly wasp with its ugly orange head and relatively large body mass, has arrived on our shores intent on killing innocent little honey bees and, indeed, the occasional human.

But just when we think we are in the midst of a Stephen King nightmare, along comes a hero, a savior, a defender of all that is good and decent and pure: the praying mantis!

How appropriate that the vanquisher of a grotesque insect villain should turn out to be an insect of another sort—one that humbly supplicates to the Creator before chomping the brains of its adversary.

That’s entomological justice!

Which is what mystery, suspense, and thrillers are all about. They take us through the valley of the shadow of death, toward the light on the other side.

At least, the best ones do.

That’s been the secret of the popularity of this kind of fiction since it took off in the nineteenth century. Most scholars agree that the modern mystery story can be traced to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Here is the invention of the sleuth who, through the powers of observation and deduction, solves a seemingly inexplicable crime.

Which offers hope to a population that must believe, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took it to the next level with the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes endures, even today, not simply because of his brainpower, but because of his eccentricities. He’s entertaining as well as brilliant. He’s flawed, too, just like us. But again we see the hope that deduction brings—justice will be done.

Back here in America we took the simple mystery and transformed it through the hardboiled school of the pulps. The quintessential detective hero of this type issued from the typewriter of Dashiell Hammett: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930). This hero is not refined or dainty or a tea drinker. He is tough, cynical, sometimes brutal. But in the end he still gets justice. The mystery of the black bird is solved, but more importantly each of the nefarious characters Spade has dealt with get their comeuppance, including the femme fatale Spade has fallen in love with, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade “sends her over” because, after all, she killed his partner. Spade tries to explain it to her: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Underneath his contradictions, Sam Spade is still guided by a moral code.

In the detective pantheon, Spade was followed by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, like Spade, is tough and cynical (but a lot more fun to listen to) and has a code based on honor. Indeed, in Chandler’s world, Marlowe is something of knight errant in a fedora. Chandler made this plain in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Here is the famous passage:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and; a good enough man for any world.

As Professor David Schmid puts it in his course on mystery and suspense fiction:

Chandler’s essay helps us understand that hard-boiled mysteries appeal to the reader both because of their unvarnished, realistic cynicism and also because their private-eye protagonists embody an alternative to that cynicism, an oasis of personal responsibility and integrity in a world that is sorely in need of both.

The world is always in need of the heroic vision. The best thriller, mystery, and suspense novels offer that to us. No matter how mean the streets, or dark the night, justice, even if rough, somehow prevails through the strength and courage of the hero.

Yes, there is a type of novel that begins and ends in the darkness—noir. For example, the world of Jim Thompson (e.g., The Killer Inside Me; Savage Night) is not your grandmother’s cozy little village. Yet even as his grifters and psychopaths meet their ends, there is a rough noir-justice being doled out. While it isn’t a hero who “solves” things, there is a price to pay for the criminal choices made.This type of novel provides what Aristotle called catharsis. We see the consequences of an immoral life and thus are instructed not to go there. Thus, even dark noir can have a candlelight’s flame of moral illumination.

All this to say that the lasting popularity of mystery, suspense, and thrillers is based primarily on a hero bringing us justice, re-enforcing our belief that good will prevail and that light will shine again. As Dr. Schmid says at the end of his course:

Although experimental examples of mystery and suspense fiction may be well respected as aesthetic objects, they aren’t popular with wide audiences. In the final analysis, it seems that we can tolerate only so much experimentation and frustration. Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.

Isn’t that why you continue to read this kind of fiction? In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?


31 thoughts on “Thrillers Bring the Light

  1. Well now you’ve got me curious. I wonder if there has been a sales spike during COVID for mystery/suspense. I’ll have to go fishing for info.

    • Let us know what you find out, BK. But thrillers/mystery/suspense has always been at or near the top of the list…for when has evil never existed?

  2. I trotted up a mountain three or four times a week while I lived in Japan, part of my life-long attempt to keep my weight down (it was a big hill, really, but the Japanese called it a mountain). I went up an old logging path, a dirt road.
    I still remember the horror I experienced one muggy day when I heard a deep buzzing just off the road and turned to see an impossibly large bee flying my direction. It was one of those “murder bees”. I guess it made a kind of sense. Godzilla’s Japanese, too, after all. I think I probably set a speed record from that point to the top of the hill. I was Usain Bolt.
    I enjoyed the entirety of your post, Mr. Bell, but the news about our six-legged savior, the mantis, was the highlight.

  3. Nice little sermonette for Sunday morning, Jim

    The “deep-seated desire” of our heart and soul for justice, for the world to make sense, and for the moral code to prevail.

    And to your list of types of mysteries, there’s Sister Justicia Marie, who delivers a moral principle before she delivers a body blow – the “rehab” sub-genre.

    Great post. Just what we need in this time of disorder.

    • Thanks for mentioning Sister J, Steve. I do think her theology has logical merit. To her, if she beats up a guy with a gun she has stopped him from committing a mortal sin. That’s her code, and she’s sticking to it.

  4. Happy Sunday, Jim!

    “[T]he lasting popularity of mystery, suspense, and thrillers is based primarily on a hero bringing us justice.” You are absolutely right, this is precisely why I read this kind of fiction, especially now. I believe I’m far from alone in this. We want affirmation that the light will win out, that justice will prevail. Every life matters, and that value must be defended by bringing justice to the murderer.

    Order will be restored.

    Death/crime has thrown the world of the particular mystery/ suspense / thrillers into disorder. The hero seeks answers, answers that will bring the murder to justice and restore order. Whether it’s Block’s “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes,” Christie’s “Nemesis,” or Coyle’s “What Common Grounds,” to mention three mysteries I’ve read recently, they all provide that satisfying resolution. Either order will be restored, or a new order attained. Chaos and bloody anarchy will not prevail.

    I’m currently reading Bowen’s riveting WW2 mystery, “In Farleigh Field”, and I anticipate a similar satisfying resolution.

    This kind of fiction is giving me great comfort right now. I’ve always enjoyed it, but never appreciated it as deeply as I do during these particular days. Thank you for this post!

  5. The proverbial nail is flattened in this post, JSB. Yes, these are the stories that resonate with 99.9% of humanity. (I think Samwise Gamgee said that somewhere…) The other .1% are probably the ones that cause the trouble.

    I believe it’s because that’s how our molecules are strung together. They say, and I know from the experience of having 7 children and 24ish grandchildren, that kids need fences, boundaries, rules. That need does not go away when we grow up-the boundaries expand, but some sort of “stop here” is necessary throughout life. Without the stop sign, we end up like the boys on the island.

    I think that’s what’s so uncomfortable about our present predicament. Someone is out there moving the boundaries and we don’t know where they’ll end up. One author calls it “The Overton Window”. I wish they’d plant the boundary and leave it alone for awhile.

    We like the whodunits, especially when someone makes whodunit pay a price. 🙂

    • 7 kids, 24 grandkids? Wow, Deb, your very life is a thriller!

      Yes, the uncertainty factor (moving the goalposts, etc.) is another reason this type of fiction helps keep us…sane.

      • At one point or another, my life could (as all of ours) easily fit into any genre…historical fiction (all of the 7 are now over 40); spy/espionage (think peeking out the living room curtains at 2am, waiting for one of the ruffians to get home from the game); romance (well…); YA (goes without saying); horror (what is THAT on your shirt, mister?); and my fave, detective (rifling through the ankle-biter’s room for the Oreo cookie package I brought home not a day and a half ago).

        These days are long gone, but now I get to watch the 7 live their multiple genres….life is good, JSB!

  6. Jim, I’ve been trying to think through this idea that we read mystery/crime/thrillers because we want to see justice done. The problem is that I’m finding a lot of crime stories that don’t show justice being done.

    When I was writing for “The Weekly Knob” on Medium and reading the other contributions, I was struck by how many stories seemed happy with revenge murders, despite the fact that most moral theory does not consider revenge to be morally appropriate.

    I have also been studying Best American Mystery Stories 2018, in which I find a large number of stories that just seem happy to revel in the crime, or at least seem happy to present a crime with no “justice” resolution. I’ve meant to actually quantify the number of stories of that type, but haven’t gotten to it.

    The thing is, the popularity of these stories–they got published, after all, and then got selected by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler–seems to run against the traditional explanation/justification that these stories show justice happening, take us “through to the light on the other side.”

    Have others wondered about this kind of story? Am I missing something in them?

    My short story, “The Wetsuit Solution,” which won an Honorable Mention in the WD Annual Contest, struggles with the morality of revenge. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet found a publishing home.

    • Eric, notice I wrote “At least, the best ones do.” The subject of modern angst in fiction, and the causes thereof, was beyond the scope of my post. Suffice to say I agree with John Gardner:

      “I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth living. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.”

      • Stories that take us on an authentic journey to justice and light are of value in times like this. I agree. And many mystery/crime stories do this. But we can’t dismiss others as “experimental,” the way Schmid does, or based on a stipulated definition of “best” the way Gardner does. Clearly Penzler and Penny wouldn’t accept that definition of “best.” These other kinds of stories are a too-significant part of the crime genre to be dismissed as abberations or defined away.

        _BAMS 2018_ got mixed reviews on Amazon, but only one reader actually raised the question I’m raising here. That reviewer wrote, “Short, dark mysteries – I only read three. No glimmer of hope or happiness anywhere.” Most of the other reviewers, whatever their particular critiques, did not seem concerned with whether the stories resulted in justice or light.

  7. Yes, books are more important than ever! IMO, you can’t put a price on the ability to escape within its pages.

    Love the irony of the praying mantis feeding on murder hornets. Karma at its finest. 😉

  8. “In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?”

    Amen to that. I’d say hardboiled yarns got a big boost from the Western, including the dime novels. A hero who can bridge the civilized and untamed worlds, such as Shane, must risk it all to bring order and sanity. I see a little bit of Shane in Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer.

  9. A praying mantis can kill a hummingbird! There is/was a video on YouTube from the original source, but I really, really don’t recommend it. I’m still emotionally scarred after accidentally seeing it. I also keep an eye out for the six-inch mantis who lives near my back door. It has a serial killer/predator stare that creeps me out because I know it wants to attack me.

    I’ve not heard any numbers on mysteries, but romances are doing really well, according to self-pubs. Most people are looking for happy and light. I can read up to dark fantasy/dark urban fantasy which is a few notches below splatterpunk horror. The new Kay Hooper “Bishop Files” psychic suspense arrived via ebook library loan a few weeks ago. (Psychic FBI agents after psychic human serial killer killers and cults.) I’ve followed the whole series, but I couldn’t make it through the first chapter and returned it. Nope, back the cozies for now.

    • Cozies definitely have a place at this table, Marilynn. And romance, too.

      And speaking of cross-genre, this same rationale explains the popularity of TheDresden Files.

      • “The Dresden Files” is FINALLY coming back after a 5?-year hiatus with a new book on July 14 with the next book after that in the fall. After such a long and annoying wait, I’m not as excited as I should be.

        Urban fantasy like “Dresden” isn’t cross-genre; it’s sub-genre– contemporary fantasy with a mystery/thriller through-plot. The first few were noir private eye mysteries but changed over time in a number of different directions.

        I taught the first novel of the series as an example of how to create a urban fantasy complete with an analysis of the mystery . If anyone is interested, I’ve since posted it on my blog.

        • Well, we don’t need to cavil about definitions. But Butcher himself described the books as a combo of two genres. He used Sam Spade and Parker’s Spenser on the one hand, and Gandalf and Merlin on the other.

  10. “Isn’t that why you continue to read this kind of fiction? In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?”

    I’m reading a lot of mysteries these days, not just because I want to make sense of the world, but because I want to write about it. I want to build that world inhabited by Raymond Chandler’s detective, “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” (Substitute the word “woman” for “man” in that one.)

    Actually, I’m reading Chandler’s novels not just for the story, but for his style. I’m dazzled by it.

  11. Just watched “Out of the Past” for the umpteenth time. It is an excellent example of what Jim is talking about. Justice being done, Imagine, Robert Mitchum in his first staring role — cool, relaxed and dangerous. Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Whit Sterling. And of course I fell in love with Jane Greer who owned the screen when she was in the scene. It is the perfect example of gaining justice in a complex story filled with bad guys. But somehow justice is done. In my opinion, this is not only a great movie but a seminar on how the detective thriller needs to work. It’s playing on TCM.

    • Oh yes, Out of the Past is an all-timer. And a very cold and hard justice, too, for Mitchum doesn’t get to live. He must pay for his past.

      BTW, I like Jane Greer. But the one thing I would have changed is switched Greer and Rhonda Fleming. Rhonda is the one who would have made me say, “Baby, I don’t care.”

      • I Agee with switching Greer and Fleming. I forgot to mention the snappy dialogue the writers gave Mitchum.

  12. Pingback: Home Invasion, Roller Derby, and George Jones - Unlawful Acts

  13. The problem is that so many novels — especially series novels — features heroes who are so virtuous (pitched as “aspirational”) that they’ve been sanded of all edges. They’re not only physically attractive, but they’re financially comfortable, have plenty of friends willing to do them favors, never cheat on their partners, and are widely admired by everyone they meet. And when they feel angst, it’s always because something was done to them, not something they’ve done: My sister was murdered! I still bear the scars of a terrible war! My alcoholism was my genetic destiny! The person I love betrayed me! And when it becomes necessary to delve into darkness, they usually have a dark half to whom such dark chores are conveniently outsourced so their hands can stay morally clean. I’ve always struggled with the novels of, say, John Sandford and Craig Johnson, for instance, because for all their robust plotting and fine writing, their heroes rarely stray from the light. That’s when my attention strays.

    I like noir, but I like moral order too — I just wish their were more stores about antiheroic heroes, people with flaws and weaknesses of their own making, people who own the bad things they’ve done and still try to be good. I don’t see many novels like that, that are actually realistic and don’t just appropriate realism to perpetuate heroic tropes. Good storytelling at its core is about conflict — without and without. I don’t see enough of the within, the kind of within of the hero’s own making. Maybe they’re just not commercial enough.

    • You bring up a good point, Jim. I prefer the flawed hero, too. That’s why I love Sam Spade and think The Maltese Falcon is a great American novel that should replace The Great Gatsby on high school reading lists.

Comments are closed.