I’m just back from the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, where as an author, I sat on two “thriller” panels, where we debated, “Why do people like thrillers so much?”
One of the offered answers was that we chase an adrenalin rush of fear—people love to feel scared. As the other panelists talked about their love of horror movies and novels, I realized that wasn’t the case for me. If The Shining comes on the TV, I have to leave the room.
Another potential answer was that thrillers are a “worst case scenario survival handbook” for our minds, a vicarious way of planning for awful things that will never happen to us. Thriller writers are worriers with active imaginations, maybe even phobias, that they play out on the page like a therapeutic exercise. I have yet to write a runaway car scene, or a trapped in a sinking car scene, but those are recurring nightmares/worries for me. Still—I haven’t taken them to the page, maybe because they are too close for comfort.
Another suggested answer was almost the opposite—that thrillers are a great escape from day to day realities, a way of taking our minds on an adventure and leaving our bodies safely at home. In my writing, I suspect I’m the third kind of person. My heroes and heroines face odds and have adventures that I’m not up to in the flesh, but I can ride their story while I am writing it. For me, that is thrilling.
I think there’s a morsel of truth in each explanation, depending on the reader, depending on the writer.
My new heroine Tor Maddox is much taller, cooler, mouthier, and braver than I am. Here’s a sneak peek excerpt from her first book, Unleashed.
The black car lurked at the curb again, right in front of my house. Surveilling.
Two Men in Black got out. No, I’m not kidding—they were really men in black. Black suits. Impenetrable black glasses. Big black bulges under their black jackets. They walked to the front door and rang the bell. Surprising. I had expected them to kick it down. I froze behind the door, peering through the peephole. They rang again. One of them dragged his hands through his thinning hair. The other one gave a visible sigh. He leaned his face right up to the peephole so that it became huge and distorted. He backed off and pointed at the hole. Spit. He knew I was watching. He reached into his coat, and I closed my eyes tight. I braced myself. I took a final breath. This was the perfect end to a miserable day. I prepared myself to die.
Yet I still had so many unanswered questions. Was there an afterlife? Would I meet God? What would my parents think? How would bullets feel drilling into me after they used up their energy penetrating a door. Would it be over quickly? What was taking so long?
What was taking so damned long?
I exhaled, opened my eyes, and peered out again. One of the men was holding up an embossed gold badge to the peephole, too distorted to read. The other one knocked twice.
Fine. I opened the door. “You can’t come in,” I said firmly. “My parents aren’t home.”
The guy with the badge folded it away into his coat and extended his hand. “Ms. Maddox? I’m Agent Turner. This is my partner.”
“I’m Solly,” his partner said.
“Seriously? You’re sorry? I’m sorry I ever got up this morning. What do you want?”
The agent muttered back “I didn’t say I was sorry.”
“Well, you ought to be,” I said. “Scaring the spit out of a teenage girl. Harassing and following me. Breaking into my house.”
“We’re not in your house,” Agent Turner pointed out.
“Right,” I said. “And stay out.” I slammed the door, barely missing the hand he was still holding out to me. I put my eye to the peephole.
Solly ran his hands through his hair again. If he did that all the time, no wonder it was thinning. Turner rang the bell.
I opened the door four inches. “What?”
A well-shined shoe slid into the opening. “Ms. Maddox,” Turner said through the gap. “We really don’t mean to alarm you. You’re not in trouble. We just need to ask you a couple of questions.”
Great. I’d given him a literal foot in the door. If I slammed it now, I’d be assaulting a Federal Agent. Most likely.
I opened to slightly more than a B-width shoe to size them up. “Are you guys Federal Agents?” I asked, just to be clear on my risk here.
“Yes, ma’am,” Solly said.
“What’s the penalty for assaulting you?”
A slow smile spread across Turner’s face.
That made me mad. Totally mad. So mad I flung open the door, reached down deep, and found my dormant rough, tough, screaming, kicking chick and woke her up. “Heeeeey yaaaah!” I yelled as I dropped into a back stance, ready to let loose with a powerful side kick.
Solly stepped forward, in front of Turner. “Now sweetheart, don’t be—”
“Sweetheart? I’m not your sweetheart, you balding male chauvinist swine!” My foot flew up as if it had a mind of its own, planted one dirty sneaker in the middle of Solly’s chest, and sent him sprawling across the sidewalk. He rolled and came up in a crouch, a menacing black gun pointed straight at me. I lunged forward, ready to deliver a breaking kick to his gun hand and felt myself pulled back abruptly. Turner had my arms twisted behind me in a full Nelson, and I couldn’t get a leg into position to break his knees.
“Calm down, Ms. Maddox,” he said with a soft, silky voice in my right ear while I struggled helplessly. His breath smelled like peppermint. “In answer to your prior question, right now, you’re looking at under a year. But if you do serious harm to my partner there, we’re talking ten to thirty.”
I glared at Solly. He stood and holstered his gun. He smoothed down his coat and raised his hands to his head. I just couldn’t help myself. “Stop it,” I yelled. “You’re pulling all your hair out with that stupid habit.”
Turner shrugged. “She’s right, you know. Now, young lady. Let’s take this off the street and inside where we can have a quiet, civilized chat.” He relaxed his grip and set me loose.
“I know how you guys do this. I have your number. I watch TV. Are you supposed to be the good cop? You know the good cop doesn’t wrench the victim’s shoulders out of their sockets.” I rubbed my shoulders for good measure.
“I’m sorry,” Turner said.
“I thought he was Solly,” I said, recovering my wittitude. “Okay. You can come in and wait. But I’m not saying anything till my parents get home. I’m a minor.”
“You may be a minor, but you’re a major pain,” Solly grumped.
“Ha, ha. Wait till your boss finds out you pulled a gun on a fifteen-year-old girl.”
“Aw, crap. Fifteen? Really?” Solly rubbed the sore spot on his chest.
Turner chuckled quietly, a nice laugh. He let me go and patted me on the shoulder. “Hey. Sorry about your shoulders. I didn’t want you leaping down the barrel of Solly’s gun. It might have gone off, and then where would we be?”
Where indeed? I’d be lying in a pool of my own blood and Turner would be trying to revive me and then my parents would come home. Dad would see this stranger with his face all over me and then he’d go all Rambo on him. Awful. Time to step it down a notch.
“Fine. Apology sort of accepted,” I said. “But the door stays open.”
So these two Federal Agents followed me into the kitchen and sat down at our table. Where I eat breakfast. Where I do my homework. Where I watch CNN. It was a bit surreal.
We stared at each other. I broke first. “You guys want coffee?”