January 11 – 17: “Are the lines between good and evil increasingly more ambiguous in modern thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We have a full house this week! ITW Members Blair McDowell, Brendan P. Rielly, Kim Alexander, Rick Ollerman, John H. Gibson, W.D. Gagliani, Bernard Maestas, H.A. Raynes, Jean Heller, R. J. Harlick, C.E. Lawrence and Matthew FitzSimmons have gathered to answer the question: Are the lines between good and evil increasingly more ambiguous in modern thrillers?




hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, Maximum Impact and Handyman by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, The Someday File, to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


unbeatenAn Unbeaten Man is Brendan Rielly’s first thriller. Brendan is a member of ITW and Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and studied advanced fiction writing while attending law school. Brendan is chair of Jensen Baird’s litigation department and lives with his wife and three children in Westbrook, Maine, where he is the City Council President. Brendan is the middle of three generations of Maine authors with his father and son (as a high school senior) also published.


Cold White Fear final coverCanadian author, RJ Harlick writes the popular wilderness-based Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. With an underlying Native theme, each book explores not only the motives behind murder, but also issues facing Natives today and their traditional ways. The fourth book, Arctic Blue Death was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The latest and seventh in the series, A Cold White Fear, was recently released to critical acclaim. RJ is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada.


perf5.000x8.000.inddBlair McDowell spent several years as a university professor and author of six books still widely used in her field. She traveled extensively as a part of her work, studying in Hungary when it was still under the Russian boot, teaching in an Australian university, collaborating with co-authors in Iceland, researching in the South Pacific. And always she wrote. When she retired, she turned to writing fiction. Her recently released fifth novel of romantic suspense, Where Lemons Bloom, is set on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and just two weeks before the attack she was in Paris working on her sixth, Fatal Charm. Blair is a firm believer in on-site research.


Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.



nationH.A. Raynes’ debut novel, NATION OF ENEMIES, was published by HarperCollins/ Witness Impulse in August of this year. Inspired by a family member who escaped Poland in WWII, Raynes combined lessons from the past with a healthy fear of the modern landscape. A longtime member of Boston’s writing community, Raynes was a finalist in the Massachusetts Screenwriting Competition and has published a short story in the online magazine REDIVIDER.


sand princeKim Alexander grew up on Long Island, drifting south until she reached Key West. Sometime later, she regained consciousness and moved to Washington DC, co-programming Sirius XM Book Radio. She began writing when she ran out of authors to interview. Kim lives with two cats, an angry fish, and her extremely patient husband close enough to the National Zoo to hear the lions and monkeys, at least she hopes that’s what those noises are.


short dropMatthew FitzSimmons was born in Illinois and grew up in London, England. He now lives in Washington, DC, where he taught English literature and theater at a private high school for over a decade. The Short Drop is his first novel.



WolfsBlindLgW.D. Gagliani is the author of the novels Wolf’s Trap, Wolf’s Gambit, Wolf’s Bluff, Wolf’s Edge, Wolf’s Cut, Wolf’s Blind (upcoming), and Savage Nights, plus the novellas Wolf’s Deal and The Great Belzoni and the Gait of Anubis. Wolf’s Trap was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award in 2004. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous anthologies and publications such as Robert Bloch’s Psychos, Undead Tales, More Monsters From Memphis, The Midnighters Club, The Asylum 2, Wicked Karnival Halloween Horror, Small Bites, The Black Spiral, and others.


TruthAlwaysKillsCoverRick Ollerman is the author of two previous books, TURNAROUND and SHALLOW SECRETS, as well as the editor and contributor to the non-fiction reference book PAPERBACK CONFIDENTIAL. He has written essays that have served as introductions for over a dozen books, had several short stories published, and is currently working both on a new novel and on the non-fiction story of a woman who had been on the run for over a decade.


Track ThreeJohn H. Gibson was employed in the high-tech Engineering field for over 25 years. Moving around the country for his work, he began writing thrillers as a diversion. It wasn’t long before the diversion became an obsession. His first novel DUMMY, hopefully soon to be republished by Oaktree Press, is an amazing tale of political intrigue, sudden death and a spy-chase that moves from New York City to Atlantic City to Washington, DC to San Francisco. His second novel, to be released Christmas of 2015 also by Oaktree Press, is TRACK THREE, another chilling political thriller, infested with unique characters from our hero Elliott Lawder, a crack investigative reporter, to the CIA and bad FBI agents, to creepy politicians, to a very unique black female London street urchin.


SILENT_STALKERCarole Bugge (C.E. Lawrence) is the author of nine published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction. A two time Pushcart Poetry Prize nominee, her most recent Lee Campbell thrillers are Silent Slaughter and Silent Stalker, under the pen name C. E. Lawrence. Her short stories were selected for the two most recent Mystery Writers of America anthologies. Her Sherlock Holmes novels, The Star of India and The Haunting of Torre Abbey, have recently been reissued, along with her Claire Rawlings mystery series. Her latest book is the historical thriller, Edinburgh Twilight.



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  1. Jan 11 – 17 Are the lines between good and evil increasingly more ambiguous in modern thrillers?

    I believe both from what I’ve read and what I write, the days of the black villain are past. No more Fagans, no more Simon LeGrees. Or at least fewer of them. The reason is self-evident. In today’s world, more than ever before, the difference between good and evil is a movable line. One person’s perceived hero is another’s villain. We live, horribly, in a world where people blow themselves up believing they will wake up in Paradise. That they blow up hundreds of people with them makes them villains to us, but to their own people they are heroes. This extreme ambiguity is reflected in today’s writing. Donna Leon’s detective, Guido Brunetti, seldom sees justice done. None of Iain Pears principal characters in his masterful Dream of Scipio get their just rewards. Daniel Silva’s characters never seem to get what they deserve. To say the lines between good and evil are ambiguous is an understatement.
    In my novel, Sonata, I had a character who simply refused to remain evil. Her humanity broke through against all my plans for her. In Romantic Road, a man who kills his closest friend without compunction takes a child to the zoo. In Where Lemons Bloom, a Mafia boss is sympathetic, and a really nasty woman is a dupe. I’ve tried to discover the reasons behind my both my heroes and my villains’ actions and to show, to some extent, their humanity. I think this reflects a general trend in today’s writing. No more Perils of Pauline black and white. Many shades and colors in between. I have spoken here only about characters, but I believe what I have said applies to story lines as well. Happily-ever-after? Not for all the characters. Justice does not always prevail, good isn’t always rewarded and evil is not always banished. Literature reflects a cold look at the realities of the time in which we live.

    1. The line may blur, but I think more than ever people are trying to understand this wild world. Is there really good in the worst of us? Is there evil in the best of us? Giving the right set of circumstances, I think anyone can break, do terrible things. But, having been a paralegal for years in a criminal law firm, I believe there are people that are pure evil, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Found your take on this quite interesting.

      1. Tena, you are indeed in a position to see some very bad people, through your work. However in a novel, an all good hero or an all black villain is simply not believable today. It makes of them comic book characters.

  2. In popular fiction, I believe when you blur the lines between pure good and pure evil, you increase the opportunity for reader angst, reader emotional involvement and a more pleasurable reading experience. This is not to say that the hard line separation of good and evil in popular thrillers cannot be pleasurable and totally satisfying. For me, Star Wars, though not a thriller, was completely satisfying as a movie-going viewing experience. But there was never a doubt about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And to further illustrate the separation between good and evil, even though the foot soldiers are dressed in white, the ultimate bad guy, Darth Vader is dressed completely and totally in black – his hands, feet, face, not one shred of any color other than black, to enhance the separation of good and evil. And I think we all agree that although the Star Wars movies are great ones they are more or less comic-book movies with not much pressure to induce serious thought or contemplation. And even in my new book, TRACK THREE, a political suspense/thriller, pitting crack investigative journalist Elliott Lawder and a streetwise British street urchin Kate Lambert, against the enormous powers that are trying to eliminate them, although the plot is very intricate and the structure is, I would like to think, fairly unique, and although you don’t always know who the good guys are, there is never a doubt about the bad guys. However, if you insert, say, a Dexter, from the TV series, a vigilante serial killer that targets really well defined bad guys, we are a bit conflicted about whether Dexter is all bad or simply, partially bad; (as we all know, everyone has a dark side). And we then begin to examine the ‘why’ of Dexter’s actions – is he insane, are his actions a result of some childhood trauma. Maybe. We have no such conflicts with Star Wars.. In my first published novel, another political suspense/thriller entitled DUMMY, the line between good and evil is also not so well defined. DUMMY is about a lawyer, Julian Campbell, and a retired Government assassin, Coby Taylor (Taylor now struggling with his violent past and contemplating trying to find redemption), that are suddenly thrown together following the violent deaths of Campbell’s fiancé, are struggling to solve the mystery of why they are being pursued and why these pursuers trying to kill them. Coby has done many bad things, but he is also a morally good man. There is a depth to this tact that we do not feel in straight good and evil narratives. I think blurred lines are infinitely more pleasing in a thriller than not. What are your thoughts?

  3. These days, ambiguity is key. In my experience as both reader and writer, it seems that the increasing gray areas in the real world are seeping into our fiction, and especially thrillers and crime fiction. (It’s already been a horror element for a long time.) In this day and age, it’s less realistic for our characters to wear white hats and black hats – such old-fashioned tropes are just not believable. Certainly I think TV shows such as 24 have forced even non-readers to consider that the mantle of hero is interchangeable with that of villain, at least situationally. The proliferation of terrorism has reminded us all of the old adage: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Perspective changes our feelings, our politics, and even our most-valued beliefs. We would be doing our characters (and our readers) a disservice if we continued to paint black and white heroes and villains. The last bastion of the clear-cut supervillain may be the comic book, and even that genre now gives its villains a more logical and checkered backstory.

    In my own work, I’ve found that it’s more satisfying, as well as more realistic, to try and paint both protagonist and antagonist in shades of gray. My chief protagonist, homicide detective Nick Lupo, also happens to be a werewolf. Generally, he’s the good guy, the hero. However, I’ve learned through his so-far six book arc that he’s getting over it. He’s been backed into corners where his werewolf side, already difficult for him to control, has taken over and led him down a road more often traveled by villains. He’s learned to nurture his “beast within” and let it have its head in certain situations. Even in the first novel, Wolf’s Trap, he considered himself a monster, and slowly he has allowed himself to occasionally act in a monstrous manner – all in the ultimate name of Good. For the most part, I’ve allowed the antagonists to be evil for its own sake, but secondary characters I thought would be clear-cut fought against my expectations and chose their own meandering paths. In my non-Lupo thriller, Savage Nights (a precursor to the “Taken” movie franchise), I made Brant a Vietnam vet, a Tunnel Rat squad commander, and slowly displayed the patches of darkness in his background. On the other hand, these same dark patches allow him to deal with the truly monstrous sex-slavers who have kidnapped his niece. If Brant were all-good, he couldn’t possibly square off against these guys, so his checkerboard background comes in handy. As this kind of hero, he’s also forced to drag others into the same shadowy moral corners.

    Ambiguity with regard to good and evil allows us to explore what it means to actually be “good” — and what it means to be “evil” — in a world that rarely allows us the luxury of choosing a side.

  4. What I’m hearing from everyone is a bid for ambiguity – I’d love to play Devil’s advocate (now there’s pure evil for you – a lawyer representing the Devil!), but it’s hard, because essentially I agree with what everyone is saying.

    However, let me pose a question. Have times changed, or are readers (and writers) simply so much mores sophisticated that they no longer accept simplistic moral views of the world?

    McKee makes the point in his book Story that ironic endings are more lifelike than purely “sad” or “happy” endings. What I’m hearing is that moral ambiguity is more lifelike than a hard demarcation between good and evil.

    Can anyone argue the other side?

    1. I completely think that’s an accurate assessment of today’s readers – that they are sophisticated and won’t accept two-dimensional characters that are unrelatable. With all that we’re exposed to between the news, TV, film, and books, we expect more. We expect surprise. We crave the inability to guess the ending accurately. People want to be surprised.

  5. The question of increased ambiguity in modern thrillers is being asked because it is being observed. I’m not sure if that’s really in question. The relevant point may be that it is clearly a trend.

    The problem with trends of any sort is that eventually they become tired tropes. Look at the alcoholic Vietnam vet who was accidentally responsible for something bad while on duty–we had that character throughout the eighties. Interesting at first, especially when done really well by people like Lawrence Block, but once it was bandwagoned readers eventually tired of it.

    Good for good’s sake or evil for evil’s sake, and even ambiguity for ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, are all simply a trait (or mix thereof) of the characters in any book, not just a thriller. The trick becomes how to be all good, or all bad, or ambiguous, in new and interesting ways.

    I wonder if this would be more difficult for a writer who focuses primarily on character versus one who might think more of story first.

    Regardless, a story needs conflict, and in a thriller that is usually a good guy vs. a bad guy. At some point in the story, despite their characteristics, they need to find themselves opposed to one another. The bad guy is always more interesting than the good guy in the sense that he/she is the catalyst for the story: if they weren’t doing something ‘bad,’ there would be no reason for the good guy/girl to act.

    Is the ambiguity increasing? Surely. Is it a good thing? Yes, it’s fascinating. Can it suffer from over-exposure? Once the ambiguity becomes a stock trait in service more of the character than in the story, then I think it may begin to slide into ‘tired trope’ mode.

    Right now, though, it’s good because it’s relatively fresh and when done well, interesting. I’m sure we have yet to find the limits of what readers will accept as ‘good’ or as ‘bad.’

  6. I would definitely say we’re in a gray area when it comes to good and evil. Today’s authors and readers both crave more complex – and more believable – characters. Look at the show Breaking Bad. To find yourself rooting for the bad guy even as innocent people are killed is a completely unpredictable twist. Yet believable because we truly get to know the protagonist and care for him. Same thing with books, of course. In my novel, Nation of Enemies, the perspectives change from a doctor to an FBI agent to a religious fanatic/terrorist and finally to a presidential candidate. No one is painted as black or white – desperate men (and women) do desperate things despite their history or character. Villains care for their family and may believe in their cause with their whole heart. Nothing in life is black and white…in all likelihood the two are forever entwined.

  7. I think they are, and not only in thrillers. In fact, the only unambiguously ‘good’ characters that springs to mind is Captain America, and he is portrayed specifically as a relic of another age.
    I think it begins with the writer–who can resist the challenge of trying to rehabilitating an ‘evil’ character? And who doesn’t throw as many flaws at their ‘hero’ as they can? If it’s exciting to the writer, it becomes at first novel and interesting, and ultimately what is expected by the reader (we hope!) I think contemporary readers are not put off by flawed men and women (and in my book, demons) who make mistakes. Their heroism (or not) is reflected in what happens next.
    In my novel, The Sand Prince, the hero struggles with depression, and self-medicates with alcohol to hide his social anxiety. He also has a tenuous relationship with the truth. My main adversary loves his family above all things and would do literally anything to protect and defend his daughter. Now, who sounds more traditionally heroic?
    I find that characters whose job it is to be ‘evil’ still want to do decent things, and ‘good’ ones can dislike and undermine each other–and I let them!

    1. I like your comment about Captain America being a relic of the past. That’s right on – think about the shows from the ’50’s and before (Leave it to Beaver, etc. even The Brady Bunch). People were portrayed as more simplistic. When they did wrong they apologized, were forgiven and moved on.

      1. Maybe it’s because I’m a contemporary writer, and I’ve been given the freedom. We write what we are used to seeing around us, and it’s a complicated world. It’s difficult to imagine creating a character who is unconflicted, who, no matter what they do, is always certain of their moral compass. Even if they want to do right, and recognize it when they see it, sometimes circumstance makes it a tough call.

        1. Kim, I agree.
          I loved the Hardy Boys as a young reader, but more complicated characters are more compelling. A hero who never makes a bad decision or never does the wrong thing or the right reason (or even the wrong thing for the wrong reason), wouldn’t resonate.

  8. I thought this a very good question with great potential for discussion, but will admit I find myself waffling with my answer. While I agree there is increasing ambiguity between good and evil in modern thrillers, in fact I play with it in my latest thriller A Cold White Fear, I worry that we might push this ambiguity too far until the lines between good and evil are too blurred.

    I think in some respects crime fiction is the modern day equivalent of the medieval morality plays. I also think we authors write crime fiction because we want good to triumph over evil as do our readers. I’m probably putting myself out on a limb, but I could never condone Dexter, simply because I felt it was essentially saying it’s alright to be a serial killer as long as you kill bad guys.

    As authors I believe we have to keep in mind our readership and the influence our stories can have on them. We know what we put down on paper is pure fantasy, but sometimes our readers don’t view it that way. Sometimes they get confused as to what is real and what isn’t. And if we blur the lines too much between good and evil, so will our readers with possibly more serious repercussions than we would want.

    So what do you think? Do you think we thriller writers are in danger of pushing this ambiguity between good and evil too far?

    1. R.J.
      Well said. But please be advised that my mention of Dexter was not a condoning as much as a comparison. To be clear – I could or would never condone serial killing (of course not, no one would). But I’m not so sure that that is what Dexter is saying. My take is that the story tellers are trying to express that, yes, of course, Dexter is bad, and what he does and why he does it is never in question. But what is going on in his head may not be exactly what you might think. I think that is the gist of Dexter. But again, whatever he is thinking, he is bad fellow, and he is wrong, unequivocally. And to your final point: Any topic or trend is susceptible to overkill. But I’m not so sure if we are to that point quite yet. I think serious writers will feel or sense (or whatever that magic portal is that writers go through to locate and commit those magic words to paper) when too much is too much and begin to make a shift. At least that is my hope. I also believe that you are correct when you say that our readers may not view our stories as strictly fiction, as we might think and hope they would. But we have to be careful to try not to become the guardians of what others think and write. We as writers should be free to write what we feel we need to write, blurred lines or no. If there are repercussions, then we will have to deal with them. But I think we have to be free to write.

    2. Great question, RJ.

      I truly feel that, as artists and writers we cannot push anything too far. I think it’s our “job”, if you will, to make people think and question themselves and how they judge people and situations. There is ambiguity in everything and especially human nature, be it categorized as “evil” or “good”. People have motives – people who do good can have selfish (evil) reasons. And vice versa.

      1. Exactly my point of view, Holly. I am also a huge fan of Westlake’s Parker novels, and that was one bad dude you were still supposed to like. And he did have a code of sorts — he never double-crossed anyone, unless he was double-crossed first. And he paid his debts, good or bad. Since Breaking Bad was mentioned (though in the wrong media, of course), I wanted to mention that I didn’t think of Walter as an evil man, but as a man who chose to do one bad thing for a good reason, from his point of view, but whose choices after that (whether intentional or not) spiraled him into becoming as bad a man as any he dealt with, and even worse near the end. However, his arc was such that he managed redemption at the end by achieving his goal and saving his partner while sacrificing himself. That’s a heck of a great arc, as far as I’m concerned, and it made him more than hero or anti-hero, good guy or villain. It held up a mirror and asked the viewer how far he or she would be willing to go for a noble goal, and how far into evil one would allow himself to be dragged into. At what point do you lose your soul, and at what point do you regain it? So even though BB is the wrong medium for our discussion, it’s a fairly strong example of (I think) the best way to explore all these themes. (BTW, apologies for lack of participation on my part, but I am in the middle of serious medical issues with my mom, and time gets away from you fast when you split time between work and nursing home…)

  9. I’m so glad that someone brought up Captain America so I don’t have to be the first one to go to the comic book well!

    Everyone has made really great points so far but I don’t necessarily agree that ambiguity is always the key. Good and evil are, almost always, a matter of perspective. Never is this clearer than in war, where many of my novels take place. Radical religious terrorists believe, as was mentioned earlier, that suicide bombings, live burnings, and video recorded beheadings are valiant acts. Nazi Germans and Confederate Americans all believed in their causes. They were certain that they were the “good guys” but, as they say, history is written by the victors. That’s what it comes down to, I think. The writing.

    Certainly, there are some great authors and titles out there making use of blurred lines. One of my favorites would be Thomas Harris’ character Hannibal Lecter, whom one might argue is actually a protagonist in the series. He’s a fascinating character and the books (and movies) are true classics. However, Hannibal is based off of real life serial killer Ted Bundy, who, while on death row, helped the FBI capture the Green River killer. Is anyone going to really make a case for Ted Bundy being a “good guy”?

    Even in this example, it’s a question of perspective. In order for Hannibal Lecter to work in this ambiguous role, there were some drastic changes that needed to be made in the Ted Bundy model. The biggest one was that Harris painted Lecter’s victims in a way to make his audience sympathize less with them.

    In the graphic novel “300,” however, the Persians were portrayed as imperialistic invaders (much like, some might say, the United States is perceived to followers of Islam) bent on world domination and enslaving the more enlightened Greek people. Frank Miller took some monumental liberties with history in order to set up a black-and-white backdrop for his story and, frankly, it worked if you’re into that sort of thing. Would it have made a better story if the audience had to struggle to decide which side to root for?

    In the 90s, Image Comics almost ran Marvel and DC right out of business. They came out with dark tales of amoral protagonists that no one had ever seen before. Problem is, superheroes without morals become boring quickly. Now, when you see a hero with a strong moral compass who is forced to bend or break his own rules, you have an interesting story. Is that always necessary, though? Not to me.

    As I frequently say, the Golden Age of 80s and 90s action movies helped mold me as a storyteller and that is something that I tried to bring back when I created my flagship “Internet Tough Guys” series. I still feel like it’s okay to have “good guys” battling “bad guys” with some biting humor and not have to constantly be questioning what they do.

    That said, I’ve also been working for a while on a lit fic novel based upon my experiences in my first year as a police officer. Those are times that really made me understand how much of a difference perspective makes and it’s something I’m really taking my time in getting right.

    To be sure, there’s a place in the market and in readers’ hearts for both brands of storytelling. I think it just comes down to taste. Not everyone wants to read or write a black-and-white story and not everyone needs the anxiety of trying to decide whose team they side with.

  10. Hi all. Fantastic discussion already! Let me also say that I’ve enjoyed Nation of Enemies by H.A. Raynes and Where Lemons Bloom by Blair McDowell. I look forward to reading all of your books and congratulations on them!

    This will be a quick post and I’ll post more later today, but I think there is a fine line between the damaged hero and the anti-hero. I think sometimes we indulge ourselves in heaping damage upon damage upon our heroes to make them more layered and interesting, but we run the risk of simply turning them into a bad person. As much as I want complexity in my characters, I still want them to retain that kernel of goodness that makes me want to root for them to succeed.

    Daniel Silva’s characters were mentioned and I think the Gabriel Allon character is a good example of a difficult person who takes the law into his own hands, but he is still trying to do the right thing.

    It’s a similar model that I tried to use in my thriller, An Unbeaten Man. The main character, Michael McKeon, has had a very troubled childhood. His mother was a drug user who abandoned him and traded his younger sister to clients for drugs. Michael’s mother dies when he is young and he tries to protect his sister, but she is killed by a dealer. A self-styled “street dog who likes to play in traffic,” he ends up at a teen center, where he finds a mentor.

    When we meet him, years later, he is a microbiologist at Bowdoin College and discovers a microbe that can clean up any oil spill, no matter the size. That should be the breakthrough that defines a career, but bad guys figure out a way to weaponize the microbe and kidnap Michael’s wife and adopted daughter to force him to deploy the microbe against Saudi Arabia and Russia to destroy their oil reserves, cripple their countries, and throw the world into chaos.

    Having lost one family already, Michael will do anything to save his wife and daughter. He is in hell and he is sure that people die when he’s not watching. Because of his horrible childhood, he is abrasive and closed-off. He has many, many scars. He draws lines. He either hates or loves, but mostly hates. This makes him a very damaged, scarred person, but he is not evil.

    For me, at least, the line between damaged hero and anti-hero is still an important one.

  11. Wow, so many comments, impossible to respond to every one. Re: Dexter, as someone who studies and writes about serial killers, I regard that show as primarily fantasy. He’s not a portrait of a real serial killer in any important way – the psychology isn’t realistic at all. And his “mission” is really out of the pages of fantasy, imo. I’m not disparaging the show; I just don’t see it as a realistic crime show. It’s obviously a popular gimmick, but when people ask me what I think of it, I’m surprised. It’s like casting Sherlock Holmes as a space alien (okay, no doubt someone has done that at some point.)

    R.J, you make such great points – loved your comments – and what an intriguing question. I don’t feel like I have the moxie to answer it, but I will say that as a reader or audience I resent being asked to root for con men, crooks or people like White in Breaking Bad. On some level, I never really do root for them.

    So I rarely if ever watch heist or Mob movies for enjoyment. But what BB did so brilliantly was put the anti-hero in such a terrible situation that we can at least understand his actions, even without approving of them. But I almost always root for the ones trying to expose the criminals.

    Finally, one quick comment about an ambiguous antagonist who is favorite of mine: Inspector Javert in Les Miserables (very much like the Tommy Lee Jones character in The Fugitive.) He’s not on the side of the angels, really, but he’s driven, obsessed and actually – here’s the kicker – more interesting as a character than Jean Valjean. So I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the character with internal conflict is inherently more interesting.

    Not sure if that’s off topic, but hey, so many great comments here I have to try to keep up.

    1. As you can well guess, I am with you, Carole, on staying away from Breaking Bad, Dexter and other like-plotted TV shows or movies. The same applies to movies, TV shows and books that are all about revenge killings. I have stopped reading an author because I felt they took the easy way out by killing all the bad guys, rather than finding a more civilized and more interesting way of have the bad guys get their comeuppance. It’s too easy to point a gun and shoot. I suppose this is why I tend to like British police procedurals and TV shows.

  12. I love noir fiction, and I often find myself rereading books and stories I’ve read at least twice before, yearning just a little bit for the days when good and evil were easily defined. The good guys weren’t always perfect, but more often than not, the bad guys were perfectly bad.

    In many ways it’s a lot more creative to write today’s heroes and villains. They need to be more complex. We don’t live in a black-and-white world any more – if we ever did – but that certainly seems to be the case. A good person who has strong self-doubts and fears, and the bad person who chases down and beats up a thug who stole an old lady’s purse – then returns the purse to the rightful owner – are much more interesting than Jo March or Moriarty to modern readers.

    (Note: I have been a huge fan of Conan Doyle all my reading life, and I mean no disrespect to Moriarty, whether it is the Moriarty of the Strand magazine or the BBC television series. He is a great villain.)

    Modern characters have urges and motives and secrets to explore. In essence, they are more real.

    We all seem to be in agreement that characters have changed. I, for one, like creating the new-era protagonists and antagonists because I can look into their minds and motives.

    But I’m always happy to pick up a volume of Black Mask stories and lose myself in them for a while.

    Now that I say that, a question has occurred to me. Back in the days when good was good and evil was evil, were there thrillers? Mysteries, yes, in abundance. When did the thriller genre evolve? And was it, perhaps, that evolution that gave rise to the more complex characters?

  13. Jean, I think you’re starting to raise the question of what the definition of a “thriller” is and then the conversation becomes a different ball of wax. But you’re right that heroes and villains have to be more complex. And so do plots and motives. Popular fiction, on the whole, is more complex now than it was in the fifties and sixties, or the heyday of the mass market paperback.

    Part of that complexity that goes into the make up of our characters is ambiguity. The thought in the back of my mind is that when we attribute certain traits to characters because we are supposed to or because the market demands it or because that particular characteristic is hot right now, showing up in multiple books, that we’re turning something that should be organic–character growth–into a formula.

    By the way, when the topic has to do with noir fiction, why are we talking so much about other media, like TV, movies and comic books? Probably my own affliction. The point in bringing in other media escapes me. I’d like to see examples like Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder or Walter Moseley’s Mouse or Robert Parker’s Spenser then TV or movie or comic book characters. I don’t think Captain America has ever been in what anyone would define a thriller. Or Dexter, etc.

    One of the first writers I would think of as a “thriller writer” is Robert Ludlum. The first Bourne book was a can’t-put-it-down book for me. There was ambiguity in his character because his amnesia made him one sort of person and he struggled to come to grips with the bad things he’d apparently had to do as his “real” self.

    Another early thriller writer, despite the fact that his reputation seems to have fallen off lately, was Tom Clancy. But is there ambiguity in his Jack Ryan character? Not that I recall. But “The Hunt for Red October” was another hard to put down thriller. In that book, the chess game between submarines was the thing.

    I like to see elements in the book that serve the story. “The Bourne Identity” wouldn’t be the same book, wouldn’t have the same poignancy, without the ambiguity. “The Hunt for Red October” would have probably suffered for it, as the story’s demands on the character were of a different sort.

    1. Rick, I don’t think I was the one who expanded the conversation beyond books, but I agree with everything you said. And I would love to discuss Ludlum, Clancy, and Parker with you. As with others here, THE BOURNE IDENTITY blew me away. I devoured the sequels, too, until I realized I was reading the same book over and over.

      Parker is and remains one of my guilty pleasures. I own them all and can’t bear to part with any of them, though my bookshelves badly need culling.

      I loved HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, but it was the last Clancy book I liked. When I was reviewing thrillers for several major newspapers, I once wrote of a new Clancy novel, “He must have found a sale on padding at New York Carpet World.” He was also notorious for getting his facts wrong. I think serious research was against his religion.

  14. Brandon, I like your distinction between damaged hero and the anti-hero. For me that sums it up in a nutshell. As a reader, I root for the damaged hero, but don’t even want to read books about the typical anti-hero. I think most readers are looking for characters with which they can identify. And most want, on some level, good to triumph over evil, or at least, on some level, to hold evil temporarily at bay.

  15. Gotta agree with Blair and Brandon about not rooting for the anti-hero…. don’t usually care for them. BUT for anyone else out there who was totally drawn into The Wire (TV, yes, I know), it completely rocked my world. I could not BELIEVE I cared about these people, yet I did. So if something is well enough written, I’m there, hook, line and sinker.

    Great question, Jean, and I think Rick’s answer is excellent. Can I possibly put in a bid for some earlier writers, though? What about The Count of Monte Cristo – is that not a revenge thriller? And Les Miserables – surely that qualifies by today’s standards?

    But I think Rick’s right in that as a genre, it probably came into its own with Ludlam et. al.

    Cheers from foggy Walton on Thames, everyone!

  16. Rick,
    I read the first Bourne book in high school and it blew me away. For me, Jason Bourne is what I think of when you say damaged hero, although Gabriel Allon runs a close second.

  17. Brendan, the issue I have with Gabriel Allon is that his books are all essentially the same. For a while, my hero James Lee Burke did the same thing, where every time a member of the landed gentry made an appearance, you knew two things: that Robicheaux would have a pathological response to their presence, and secondly that they were in fact behind the chicanery going on.

    In the Bourne books, I think Mr. Ludlum jumped the shark after the first one. The last couple were filled with an excess of italics, weaker stories, and the magic of the character, once solved in “The Bourne Identity,” was gone.

    In a series, I might argue that a character doesn’t *have* to change, but the stories certainly do. When an author writes the same book over and over again, the ambiguity of a character–indeed, all the traits of the character–are probably used the same way over and over again. The characters should change, but as always, in the service of the story.

    And to circle back on topic, the character’s ambiguity should serve the story as well, or what’s the point? Unless it’s a commercial consideration, and I don’t think that’s a good enough reason.

    Jean, I just realized that you were writing for the The St. Petersburg Times when I was living down there. All my books (so far) take place in the Tampa Bay area so although I live in New Hampshire, right now anyway I think of myself as a Florida writer.

      1. Hey, Jean,

        I’m not sure if we’ve met or not. I am so terribly bad with names it’s possible we were neighbors for years. I lived in Chicago when I was five years old but that’s likely irrelevant.

  18. Rick,
    I disagree about Daniel Silva’s books, but think you raise a good larger, point. It’s perhaps easier to create a conflicted, layered hero in a stand-along book, but perhaps is more difficult to continue that over a series. I love Lee Child’s books, but people make the same criticism about Jack Reacher. Olen Steinhauer ended the Tourist series at 3 books and moved on to other characters and plots. I really enjoy a good series. I like the familiarity of returning to characters that I know. Over a short series, like the Tourist trilogy for example, the author can go deeper and more complex, but does there reach a point where the character has been mined thoroughly?

    An Unbeaten Man is the first in a series. Book #2 is in the works and I’m enjoying writing it because I can go deeper into Michael McKeon’s life and introduce more characters and situations that force him to react and change, but that is a concern I have going forward. At some point, has he changed all that he can change and then will it be time to move on?

    1. Brendan, I think a conflicted, layered hero can have life in a series. Look at Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. The series now has ten books and is still going strong. Michael Connelly’s Bosch is another complex character that still has life after I don’t know how many books. Complexity is also what has drawn readers to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, now at book no. 23.

      As for delving further into the personality of a main character, it is one aspect I particularly like about writing a series. I am currently writing my 8th Meg Harris mystery. I have enjoyed and still do, watching Meg evolve with each new book. She has taken on a life of her own and does, as we all do, react to the world I have created around her and the obstacles I place in her path. I like to challenge her, because it also challenges me as a writer. In my latest book, A Cold White Fear, I throw something at her, that will haunt her in subsequent books. And so it goes.

  19. for me Gabriel Allon is the prototype damaged hero. I’ve read all the Allon books without finding them the same, except in their portrayal of this fascinating artist, art-restorer, undercover agent. Perhaps as well as the lead character, it’s the art settings that grab and hold me. Whatever — the books continue to hold my attention.

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