Thrillers Bring the Light

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 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?

 

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Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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