January 25 – 31: “Do thriller writers have conservative or liberal leanings?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The presidential campaign is starting to heat up! This week, join ITW Members Jean Heller, Alan L. Moss, Claude Berube, Bernard Maestas and Michael Byars Lewis as they debate whether thriller writers have conservative or liberal leanings. Or, are they apolitical?




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.


SomoaAlan L. Moss is a unique and emerging voice in the thriller genre. His writing draws upon Ph. D. research capabilities and many years in Washington D.C. as a federal Chief Economist, Congressional Fellow in the U.S. Senate, and Adjunct Instructor at the University of Virginia’s Northern Virginia Center. In 2002, he put his government career aside and moved to the Jersey Shore to pursue his writing. His published novels spin sophisticated tales of conspiracy, love, sex, revenge, and subterfuge. After years of politics and bureaucracy, Alan has found the freedom of writing fiction an intoxicating and satisfying calling. His latest work, The Samoa Seduction, is the story of two lovers trapped by a deadly conspiracy to gain millions from the sale of a stem cell cure for diabetes.


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.



syrens songClaude Berube is the author of the Connor Stark novels – THE ADEN EFFECT (Naval Institute Press, September 2012) and SYREN’S SONG (Naval Institute Press, November 2015.) He earned his B.A. in History and Soviet Studies, his M.A. in History from Northeastern University, and his M.A. in National Security Studies from the Naval War College. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation through the University of Leeds on Andrew Jackson’s Navy. He has co-authored two books: A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution (Potomac Books, 2005) and Congress: Games and Strategies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007 & 2009). He is the co-editor of Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2012) His articles have appeared in The Washington Times, Forbes.com, The Christian Science Monitor, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Orbis, Small Wars Journal, Vietnam Magazine, Naval History and Naval Institute Proceedings. He is a regular contributor to WarontheRocks.com.


lewisMichael Byars Lewis, is a former AC-130U ‘Spooky’ Gunship Evaluator Pilot with 18 years in Air Force Special Operations Command. A 25-year Air Force pilot, he has flown special operations combat missions in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His first novel, SURLY BONDS, won three awards and his second novel, VEIL OF DECEPTION, will be released in April.




  1. I think thriller writers should go out of their way to remain apolitical or at least to mask their political leanings as best they can. My reason is purely pragmatic. If your characters are obviously conservative or liberal – whatever those terms mean any more, if anything – you risk alienating a large chunk of your potential audience.

    That said, there are some writers that leave you with a definite sense as to their politics. I’m willing to bet a nickel that the late Tom Clancy was a political conservative. And there are hints in the stories of Le Carre, Forsythe, Ludlum, Cruz Smith, and others who populated the thriller genre with foreign intrigue as to which way they leaned at any particular point in their careers.

    Others are harder to read. I had the privilege to know Robert B. Parker, and we had many conversations about things other than books. I know how he leaned politically. But it’s harder to judge Spenser. While he had sympathy for the less fortunate in society, that was part of his job. He often pointed up the absurdities of the privileged, but that was part of his personality. It never felt political to me.

    Readers might assume I’m a raging liberal because at one point in THE SOMEDAY FILE, my current thriller, the protagonist rages against a man who was able to buy a gun illegally at a gun show, took it home, and murdered his girlfriend and her infant son. Those who think they have me pegged might be shocked to learn I own a handgun and a shotgun, purchased legally, licensed properly, and always used with safety as my first concern. I have murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands of paper and cardboard targets. And a few clay pigeons. Never once a living, breathing critter.

    Those who peg me as a liberal might have second thoughts after reading the second book in the Deuce Mora series when my protagonist breaks down and buys a gun for herself.

    My politics are my business and have no place in my stories. If nothing else, they would be a distraction.

    I don’t think the question – thriller writers, liberal or conservative? – has a definitive answer. Besides, those are labels generally hung on Americans, and the world of thrillers has a lot of outstanding writers from other countries, and in many of those countries those labels don’t apply.

  2. This is an interesting topic. I agree with Jean. Hopefully, the author doesn’t broadcast their political views, that has a tendency to alienate readers. I think it may vary by sub-genres. For example, writers in the military/espionage category are often viewed as having conservative leanings. I’m sure that is not always the case. Writers of a psychological thriller might be considered liberal. I’m sure that’s not always the case either.

    A good writer will craft a story that has universal appeal (politically). In an era where blogs and social media rule the day, we have an opportunity to know writers on a more personal level than simply reading their books. It seems to me that this is the area where most of these authors let fly their political views. The politics in their books meanwhile, seem to be geared toward the story.

  3. Although I’ve encountered thriller writers who are liberal and others who are conservative, I’m not sure it matters actually matters. We’re all trying to tell a story. Each of us has different experiences and different perspectives that are political, experiential, emotional, etc. and those will be reflected either overtly or subtly. I think we might rephrase that second question from “are they apolitical” to “should they be apolitical?”

    I would argue that it’s better to be apolitical as a thriller writer. I have a little experience in politics. As an independent, I’ve worked for two Senators on Capitol Hill – a Democrat and a Republican. I started working on political campaigns at the ripe old age of four for my mother who served in my home state’s legislature nearly thirty years including being the first woman to run for governor there. I learned a lot of lessons about politics from her. For example, she very rarely endorsed another candidate – I think only three in the course of her career. The primary reason was that she felt if you endorsed another candidate, you may or may not make a difference in their own campaign, but more assuredly you were more likely to hurt yourself because voters who were against that candidate might then be against her. What’s the lesson for thriller writers? Maybe if you label yourself as a conservative writer, you’ll have a solid conservative following; the same is true if you label yourself as a liberal thriller writer with a liberal following. Maybe potential readers will dismiss you and your work based on political leanings.

    As writers, I think we all want to broaden the base of our readership. If you avoid labels, that is more likely to be the case if readers have to guess. It was the same reason when I taught Political Science courses at the U.S. Naval Academy I took the political position equally critical of all the parties. The students couldn’t figure out which side I was on and, therefore, were more likely to express their own views, which is what I wanted them to do so we could have real discussions and debates.

    Instead of whether thriller writers are conservative or liberal, we should agree that we’re all capitalists. We all generate an idea/a story. We all work on a product (the book.) We all try to bring that book to market and then publicize it to sell it.

  4. Political issues and motivations, conservative and liberal, can be powerful vehicles to drive thriller plots ahead. In my latest novel, The Samoa Seduction, controversy over minimum wage increases in the remote U.S. Territory of American Samoa is the subject that controls the fate of the main characters. In previous thrillers, Insidious Deception and Surviving The Endgame, conspirators seek to win the presidency for a U.S. Senator under their thumb. They reason that presidential power is required to provide subsidies to corner the market for rare earth minerals. In Deception, the focus is on a unique Middle East peace plan designed to win acclaim for their Senator, soon to be a candidate for the U.S. presidency. In Endgame, domestic concerns, such as campaign financing, the use of nuclear energy, and the control of military drones take center stage. Whether political objectives are liberal or conservative, they offer timely subjects that advance thriller realism and relevance.

  5. So, first of all, I think this question assumes we’re ignoring political thrillers which almost have to have a political leaning by definition, as well as authors like Glenn Beck whose fiction is definitely an illustration of their political affiliation.

    I think I’ll take on the role of devil’s advocate again like I did for a similar topic we discussed a few weeks ago. Then, we were discussing the amoral nature of thriller protagonists and how the lines between “good” and “evil” have been blurred of late. Again, I say that it comes down to audience and the writer’s own tastes.

    For one thing, there’s some success to be had targeting a more niche audience. I’d cite religious fiction like the “Left Behind” series. It offers a built in and almost guaranteed readership. A reboot, say, of the “Manchurian Candidate” starring a caricature of Obama would definitely draw a lot of heat, heat which is good for selling books. Yes, as was mentioned, it would alienate a staggering number of potential readers, but it also might attract a similar number who might share those views.

    I’ve made the mistake often enough, and on forums public enough, of hinting at my own leanings. However, I think I’ve done well to avoid much political shading in my novels thus far, which is interesting as they hover near the military fiction genre. As mentioned above, I think all but a tiny minority of readers of that genre would be described as “conservatives”.

    My current flagship series, “Internet Tough Guys” (almost with a new techno-thriller I’m currently developing) is more apolitical, I think. One of the interesting areas I’m gradually exploring in it, though, is the fact that the protagonists (and, often, the antagonists) are contractors or “mercenaries” (as one of the two protagonists is fond of saying). With allegiance only to the almighty dollar, they are, in many ways, purer of spirit than those who wrap themselves up in a flag and use it to justify their means, which could describe both sides of the political coin.

    Generally, I think the idea of trying to appeal universally is a myth. Many people abhor the idea of pouring a bottle of water on a suspected terrorist’s face, even if it would save hundreds of lives. An equal number think that’s way too soft and gentle an approach with that many people on the line. So, if that’s a topic of your novel, you’re going to have to go one way or the other at the risk of alienating your fringe audience while drawing in the core group.

    Of course, “thriller” is such a broad term to begin with. Depending on the subgenre, political values may be completely irrelevant to the story. There’s also enough room under that all-inclusive umbrella for liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between when it comes to the authors themselves.

  6. Bernard, those are good points and it goes back to the original question. I don’t think we’re talking about avoiding political issues – in my first novel, THE ADEN EFFECT, there were scenes with the President and his Chief of Staff. Tough to avoid politics when you have characters who are inherently political. But I don’t think that means one has to write only about conservative or liberal politicians in the novels. The way I write about them is that there is good and bad that reflects either party. I realize that West Wing and other shows have been very popular. The reason I never watched them is because only one side was represented in a positive, noble manner For me, I’d like to see conflict in stories and how ideas are resolved. It makes the story less predictable and, in my opinion, more interesting. Thoughts?

    1. Claude, you missed some great television by not watching “The West Wing.” It didn’t take just one side. I recall one notable episode where the White House staff was incensed because a drug company wouldn’t donate free medicine to Africans dying of HIV/Aids. These were impoverished people unable to afford the drugs that might save their lives, and the drug company was turning them away? Really? That’s unconscionable, isn’t it? Well, no, as it turned out. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say the White House staff fully understood the drug company’s rationale when the episode ended, and it was a shocker.

      But as you point out, there is a lot of difference in writing about politics and telling a story from a political POV. And I think it’s the latter we’ve been discussing.

  7. As it happens, I have raised this question more than once with our small group of mystery readers. Generally, they have suggested that it hasn’t bothered them if an author has a political POV in a mystery or thriller. But I’m not so sure.

    I think that in most cases authors do write with an apolitical point of view. But some authors make it part of the fabric of their main character. And when that happens, I find myself getting annoyed with characters who clearly make comments with which I do not agree. It’s for that reason that I stopped reading Vince Flynn, who wrote a great plot but involves a hero who verbalizes his right-wing views pretty much throughout the stories.

    On the other hand, if the central hero is revealed to be left-leaning through deeds or rhetoric, I am aware that I appreciate the hero more and feel a kinship with the author. Sara Paretsky and her PI come to mind. John Grisham comes to mind as well.

    I’m not sure if this affects other readers or not, but I think it does. There are many nuances. And the question of morality (mentioned earlier) overlaps here since certain values may be more left leaning or right-leaning in the mind of the reader. Perhaps certain “dirty language” is associated one way or another. Robert B. Parker’s inclusion of Spenser having various gay friends (70s and 80s) might, for some readers, have pegged Spenser as a lefty. The reader may think nothing of a cop or agent using a gun. But if the hero in a thriller is a private citizen with an arsenal in his cellar, the reader might perceive the character to be a right-wing gun nut. And so on.

    It’s possible to have a conservative-minded CIA agent I’d enjoy as a central character as long as he/she does not make reference to “those damn libtards” — like Flynn’s character does. So the author needs to walk a careful line to be widely read… unless the goal is, as has been said, the niche audience.

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