March 14 – 20: “Must religion always be a clash?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Heather B. Moore, Libby Hellmann, Susan Froetschel, J. H. Bográn, Jean Heller and Jerry Amernic discuss religion and thrillers. Must religion, as described in thrillers, always be a clash?


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.


Lost King by H.B. MooreHeather B. Moore is a USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen historical novels and thrillers, written under pen name H.B. Moore. She writes women’s fiction, romance and inspirational non-fiction under Heather B. Moore. This can all be confusing, so her kids just call her Mom. Heather attended Cairo American College in Egypt, the Anglican School of Jerusalem in Israel, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Brigham Young University in Utah.


Firefall_Proof2J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll. FIREFALL, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. Coffee Time Romance calls it “a taut, compelling mystery with a complex, well-drawn main character.” He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild, Crime Writer’s Association, and the International Thriller Writers. He lives in Honduras with his family and one “Lucky” dog.


jump cutLibby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Twelve novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. Her short stories have been published in a dozen anthologies, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ed Gorman’s “25 Criminally Good Short Stories” collection.


Allure of Deceit by Susan FroetschelSusan Froetschel is the author of five novels. Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit are set in Afghanistan. Fear of Beauty was a 2014 Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee and recipient of the 2014 Youth Literature Award by the Middle East Outreach Council and the 2014 top mystery award by Military Writers Society of America. Froetschel is managing editor of YaleGlobal Online, a public-service magazine that covers globalization defined as the interconnectedness of our world. She lives in Michigan.


QUMRANJerry Amernic is a Toronto author. He’s been a newspaper reporter, columnist, magazine writer, and teacher of journalism. His first novel Gift of the Bambino was praised by the likes of The Wall Street Journal. Jerry now writes high-paced, historical fiction. The Last Witness is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in 2039, while his biblical-historical thriller QUMRAN is about an archaeologist who makes a dramatic discovery in the Holy Land.




  1. Yes… we have many grim and disturbing issues that tear us apart these days, but I don’t think there is any issue as inflammatory, divisive, or emotional as religion. Ever since Christianity evolved from Judaism… Sunni vs Shia, Protestants vs Catholics, people seem to throw logic out the window when it comes to their spiritual and personal beliefs. I’m not sure why, but I’ve sat in many meetings at my synagogue, and before that, the High Episcopalian high school I attended, where the observance and underlying assumptions of religious beliefs are hotly debated, sometimes to the point of violence. How many churches, mosques, and synagogues have split apart because of this? Plenty, I suspect. Why? Why can’t people with different spiritual beliefs tolerate each other? Maybe we should all become Buddhists? Of course, the inherent conflict between religions is wonderful grist for our stories, isn’t it…

  2. Suspense and conflict and uncertainty go hand in hand. Goodreads lists many religious thrillers, but the topics most intriguing for me as writer and reader are not clashes among religions, but conflicts within a religious group and how that erodes certainty for the individual. Other believers respond to the uncertainty, or the individual feels compelled to hide such feelings from others.

    Religion also contributes to character building and works well when it’s interconnected with conflict and not simply inserted as background detail.

    Scientific American describes a study by psychologist Michael Hogg about how uncertainty and doubt can lead individuals to sympathize with radical and extremist groups. “Groups that rally around radical beliefs may provide a searching person with a sense of self and social identity they are lacking,” suggests Carrie Arnold in her article “Embracing the Radical: How Uncertainty Breeds Extremism.”

    Also fascinating: How children are captives of their parents’ beliefs, how some parents try to wall their children from others’ beliefs and others encourage curiosity, and how communities must increasingly juggle a range of diverse beliefs and non-belief. The best books introduce us to these social dilemmas.

  3. The history of religion largely is a clash, is it not? If not clashes between religions, then within a religion. Indeed, the history of the human race is fraught with conflict, terror and the most heinous crimes imaginable, and religion – or more to the point, religious intolerance – is more often than not at the core. Coupled with this is ignorance. It’s been said that the greatest crimes in human history are due to people believing things about others that are not true. But for writers this is all fodder for the mill, and I certainly agree with Libby’s observation that the inherent conflict between religions is wonderful grist for our stories

  4. Religion is a hugely divisive subject, and always has been. Catholic vs. Protestant divided Ireland for years and to some extent, may still. Of course the radical Islamist movement is huge (as Donald Trump might say) in many parts of the world. They tolerate no religion but their own and, within that, no interpretation but their own. In fact, radical Islam is at the core of the best thriller I have read in many years, I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes. I almost didn’t buy it because in my head, radical Muslim ideology is subject is so overused it’s become trite. Terry Hayes proved how wrong I was.

    I was also reminded by my wonderful book cover artist that a bit of the history of the conflict in the Middle East is hiding in the denoument of my new book, THE HUNTING GROUND, the second in the Deuce Mora series.

    But I have to say honestly that religion has not been a major subject in the mysteries I’ve read in the last few years, at least not in those I remember. I think some writers might shy away from it for fear of offending a segment of readers. But that said, if there is a religious component to a mystery or to a thriller, I don’t see how it would be a useful as a device in developing a story unless it generated a clash.

    “He was Catholic, she was Jewish, but their families got along fine.”

    Not a very interesting concept, is it?

    1. I do understand why some authors might avoid the hot topic button of religion in order to avoid alienating some of their readers. But even if the religion isn’t present, I do agree that while characterizing, at least the author needs to know the character’s religious or non-religious beliefs in order to justify motivations 🙂

      1. Respectfully, Heather, I have to disagree. My Deuce Mora series is set in Chicago, a very Roman Catholic city, but also with virtually every ethnicity on the planet. The stories take note of all of this, and I use Chicago’s diversity to bring scenes alive because Chicago is a character in my books. But I’ve never even thought of assigning a religious preference to Deuce Mora. Nor have I ever considered making her non-religious. It’s just unimportant to me.

        We know, from something that she says in Book II, that she’s probably not a Roman Catholic, although her last name, Mora, could indicate an Italian ancestry. Reviewers and readers love the character. Not one has asked about Deuce’s religion or possible lack thereof.

        I’ve thought about this a lot, actually, and I don’t see how the injection of religion into these stories would in any way help develop them. The presence or absence of Deuce’s religious beliefs never colors her decision-making. It’s no more a part of her persona than it is mine.

        I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be an element in your writing. If it works for you and your readers, fine. But I take exception to your statement that we have to make the religious question a part of our characters’ makeup in order to fulfill them as characters. I just don’t think that’s true.

  5. I’m not sure if religion always has to clash in a novel. There’s the possibility that religion isn’t a conflict for your characters, but even if it’s not a conflict, it needs to be a motivational force behind a character’s actions. Do they or do they not fear god? Are they steeped in religious tradition? Does prayer or other religious rites factor into their daily lives? I do believe that religion needs to be part of any world-building for any novel, even if your characters aren’t “believers”. Every setting in the world has religious issues and has been affected historically by religious beliefs. Each of my thrillers actually rely heavily on religious conflict and debate. My first thriller FINDING SHEBA explores the question of whether or not the Bible is true as scholars and historians uncover clues about the existence of the queen of Sheba, who is closely tied with David and Solomon. My second novel LOST KING explores the question of whether or not Moses received the Ten Commandments from a divine source or if he stole them from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Religious controversy is a main conflict in both of these stories. It’s interesting that no matter how many generations pass, and how “enlightened” humans become, we still don’t agree on the most basic fundamental questions of “who are we” and “how did we get here” and “where are we going?”

    1. Heather, if we take to heart the old advice to write what we know, and if you are a religious person, then yes, your stories probably reflect your religion’s beliefs. And that’s fine. The subject matter with which you deal and your characters’ reactions to events, as seen through your mind’s eye, would undoubtedly reflect your belief structure.

      But to say the same must be true for all writers can’t be supported empirically. In fact, virtually all of the thriller and mystery writers I enjoy don’t inject religion into their stories unless it’s a story like Terry Hayes’s incomparable I AM PILGRIM, which has a radical Muslim jihadist at its core. And even then, I have no clue as to the religious background, if any, of Pilgrim, the protagonist.

      I think you’re assuming that what works for you must, of necessity, work for everyone. It doesn’t.

  6. “they” say the heart of fiction is conflict on every page, even if it’s someone wanting a glass of water that they can’t have. In that context, as Jerry said, clashes between religions throughout history have provided intense conflict (something I personally love to write about). One aspect of religion, whether we like it or not, are cults. Some authors have written exciting thrillers based on cults. Would you?

  7. I guess it depends on how you define cult. My own view is that every religion is something of a cult anyway; it’s a common belief system shared by its members. I call my last novel QUMRAN an historical-religious thriller because religion is at its very core; an archaeologist who just happens to be an atheist makes this incredible find in the Holy Land, and he is assisted by an Egyptian pathologist – a Muslim – and by his research assistant at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – a Jew. Qumran is the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1948 and the scrolls play a large part in the story too, along with the archaeologist’s earlier experiences with the Holy Grail and the Holy Shroud of Turin. My novel before that, The Last Witness, was about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in the year 2039, but he’s caught in a time when people don’t know much about the past. Religion, and especially religious intolerance coupled with profound ignorance by the masses, is central to that book. I guess I find religion so interesting to write about because throughout history people, and nations, have done such abominable things in its name. And they still do.

  8. I can appreciate the comments from Jean and Heather. Characters have a range of beliefs and non-beliefs, religious or philosophical, that are shared, withheld or unknown. Character actions require motivation that makes sense for readers who are constantly making assessments while moving through the plot – this is what I would do, this is not what I would do. It’s not a bad idea for writers to hold back on some character details, thus triggering reader curiosity.

    And yes, Libby, cults and extremist groups are fascinating and disturbing. I truly believe, as stated above, that no two people can feel exactly the same way about such topics, and that’s why parents can never be sure about perfectly replicating such feelings and beliefs in their children, and the same goes for religious leaders and their followers. My books, whether set in the US or Afghanistan, focus on that uncertain period in life when children observe that old ways do not necessarily work well for their parents and they try developing their own rationales and processes.

  9. Before joining this Roundtable dialogue, I checked out a few lists of the greatest religious thrillers and came across titles like The Quest by Nelson DeMille, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (I know it sold countless millions but it didn’t work for me) and, surprisingly, The Source by James A. Michener which just might be my favorite novel ever but I certainly wouldn’t call it a thriller. Historical epic maybe. Just those three alone offer quite a range. A key common denominator for a thriller is tension or drama or anything that creates conflict, and if religion brings it on, that’s fine but conflict has to be there. So that brings me back to our topic about religion being a clash. Conflict is central to any clash and my experience – both in life and in writing books – is that religion is often an easy way to either make a friend or an enemy.

  10. What makes a person, who is formerly a secularist… or even atheist.. embrace religion? If you were writing a story about someone who suddenly became religious, what would be your character’s motivation? And what religion/cult/movement would they join?

    Is there any difference between a religious journey and a political one?

    1. Libby, that’s a good question and it applies to my novel QUMRAN because the archaeologist starts out as an atheist only to have this discovery upset his applecart, so to speak. As for the character’s motivation, and I refer to any character in literature, I’d say there must be a hole in the person’s life that is crying to be filled with something. It could be religion. And if your story takes place in the Holy Land, then there is a very short divide between religion and politics.

  11. First off I must apologize for posting this late. As it turns out, good intentions are not always all that is needed to fulfill your self-imposed usually conflicting schedule. But hey, even the last day is valid in a week-long discussion, right?
    So. . .clashing religions and thrillers, huh.
    I think that more than religions, the one clashing are fanatical individuals, whether they are Catholic, Muslim or even Jew. It is people who usually hide behind religion to commit atrocious crimes. As writers, we can’t turn a blind eye to those, our fiction reflects the real world—yes even in Fantasy or Sci-fi—and they will be the product of our time and age.
    Now, does religion must clash? I would go out on a limb and claim that if the objective is a thriller then 99% of the time it will.
    As for character’s own personal belief, sometimes they matter to the story and sometimes they don’t. We may not write the detail down, but it can be implied like Helen mentioned. Other times, like the novels from Andrew M. Greeley, religion is central to the plot. Of course, he is a priest, writing thrillers since the70’s. In other works, like the popular DaVinci Code, the plot questions a core belief in Catholicism, that was the plot of the novel, and it worked very well. At least in novel form, it will not hold if you apply it to real life, at least I hope not.
    So there is my one cent. 🙂

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