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By Paula Tutman

Thriller writers kill people!

That’s what we do.  We conjure a delicious brew of intrigue, suspense and yes, violence.  We bait our hooks with our novels and lure innocent people into a world that invites them to revel in who died and how gruesomely.

But after the Newtown slayings, any writer who’s ever killed off anyone in their novels has probably pushed pause this year—if even for nanosecond to wonder if they’re part of the problem.

Mark Sullivan, the author of ROGUE and co-author of PRIVATE BERLIN with James Patterson, has been thinking a lot about violence in his fiction in light of the mass shootings.

“I think the scrutiny is warranted,” Sullivan says.  “The things writers can do in their prose and the things entertainers can do with film and computer graphics are incredible.  But if we’re too graphic, we have to be having a numbing effect on a reader or watcher’s mind.”

In PRIVATE BERLIN, he and Patterson kill off eight people and a few other deaths are referenced. “Two of the deaths are ‘on-camera’,” he says. “And the others are depicted in a way that is suggested, in a way that activates the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.”

In the eleven novels he’s either written or co-written,Sullivan has killed off as many as seventy people.  That means since the debut of his first novel, FALL LINE in 1994, he’s averaged6.36 murders per book.

“Sobering to think that,” he says.

But Sullivan knows that anyone who writes has to be willing to shrug off the opinions, insecurities and inhibitions of others to tell the story as it should be told. In the case of thriller writers, no matter what their personal concerns about violence they have to be willing to depict conflict.

“Dramatic fiction is about always about conflict at some level,” he says. “Violence is when the conflict explodes. Because I write suspense novels, the conflicts have to be greater and more intense than most other genres. Given that, there’s going to be more violence in my books than say a cozy.  But I try not to make the violence gratuitous.  By that I mean that in instances where I could go very graphic, I try to step back and ask myself what Alfred Hitchcock would do with the scene.  Hitchcock had the amazing ability to give his audience a glimpse of some horror, but only that.  The rest was conjured up in the mind of the audience.  I’m mindful of that when I’m working, knowing that the reader will summon up emotion and in effect scare themselves if I do my job properly.”

Sullivan says there has to be a concrete reason for the characters in his books to be killed off.

“They die in appropriate ways, especially the villains,” he says.  “In PRIVATE BERLIN, Jim and I crafted the demise of the bad guy with great care. There was an absolute reason the villain had to succumb in the manner we portrayed. It was a justified killing. ”

At the same time, Sullivan is not callous. He mourns the death of certain characters.

In his novel, THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY, there’s a character named Grover who is mentally challenged and works on a remote estate.  Grover blunders into his death off-screen, but the aftermath is so shocking to the reader that the story changes inalterably.

“I really loved Grover,” Sullivan says.  “But his murder changed the entire scope of the book, which exponentially amplified the reader’s attitude toward the killer, so ultimately it was the right thing to do.”

Where a death takes place can be as important or more important than the manner of it.

In PRIVATE BERLIN, a Berlin homicide detective goes to question his father about a horrific discovery in an old abandoned slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the German capital.

“In our outline, the detective catches up to his father during the old man’s nightly walks,” Sullivan says. “During the second round of questioning, his father has a heart attack and dies. All well and good, but we had no idea where to set it. Then I went to Berlin to do research and I wandered into Treptower Park and the Soviet War Memorial. It dawned on me that the detective’s father took his walks there, among the graves of 5,000 who gave their lives to liberate the city from Hitler, and then to enslave Berlin in communist rule. That setting for the old man’s death totally changed the book, gave it dimensions we couldn’t have fathomed up front.”

Despite the fact that Sullivan has already thought a lot about violence in his novels, the Newtown killings have left him deeply troubled as he waits for edits on the sequel to ROGUE, his 2012 novel from St. Martin’s/Minotaur, and plots the sequel to the sequel. The books all feature a continuing character named Robin Monarch, who’s a professional thief and former CIA operator with DNA from Sherwood Forest running through his veins.

“Monarch can be dangerous and violent in the pursuit of a greater good,” Sullivan says. “But as I revise the sequel to ROGUE and outline the third book, I know I’m going to pay even closer attention to how I deal with violence.  In every case I’m going to force myself to look at the conflict in light of how it might be perceived by a troubled mind.”

Violence and the way we write violence is a part of the writing process.  This is something all thriller writers must be thinking about today and tomorrow.  Even if they believe what’s happening in the world has nothing to do with what they’ve written or what they’re writing, certainly people who borrow from real life to make the worlds they create spin, are thinking about the impact they have on others.

Should that change how they write?

In the end there’s one immutable fact of writing.  Books don’t kill people.  People kill people.


Mark Sullivan is the author of eight thrillers, including PRIVATE GAMES, which he co-wrote with James Patterson. He was an Edgar Award finalist, winner of the W.H. Smith award for “Best New Talent,” and his debut novel, THE FALL LINE, was named New York Times Notable Book of the year, a rare honor for a debut. His next novel with Patterson, PRIVATE BERLIN, launches in 2013 and his next standalone novel, ROGUE, launches in October 2012. He currently resides in Montana with his family.

To learn more about Mark, please visit his website.

Paula Tutman