Why thrillers/mysteries are becoming more clever, more shocking, and more twisted—and why in an age of senseless shootings and political uncertainty, readers are consuming these books faster than ever by Clay Stafford.
Every generation likes to think of themselves, frankly, as the only generation and their current time as the scariest of all. Why? Because the past is dead, so it is the present where problems lurk, and the future is the great unknown.
Problems. The unknown. These are the crux of all things scary and challenging. They are also the crux of every good story.
Realistically, everything that happens in the past always becomes historical (non-threatening) anecdotes and even legend with time. Human memories are faulty and sensational, but even faulty, the past provides the rock onto which we mentally function. In a world of unknown, it is only the past—and our own human need to make peace with the past—that gives us peace, save one thing: myth. I’ve wondered sometimes unscientifically if dementia and Alzheimer’s (before the confusion sets in) are not the mind’s natural attempt to make peace with a world that has become too emotionally scary in its present and future.
The first humans over 2.8 million years ago experienced violence that far exceeded ours. Cave drawings tell stories of men wreaking havoc on the world and animals around them, and animals (sometimes human) wreaking havoc on the cave dwellers. Violence has always been part of the natural order; something always kills something offensively or defensively to survive. Do we have senseless violence in our time? Yes. But throughout history senseless atrocities have occurred using whatever weapons were popular at the time, even within civilized societies. We think our political system is in havoc, but it is mild. Only 160 years ago, a U.S. senator beat another U.S. senator on the Senate floor and arguably led the way to the U.S. Civil War. Only 2,060 years ago the leader of the greatest nation at that time (Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire) was assassinated in political turmoil. Is anything stable except the past? With 7.3 billion people on earth right now, that is 7.3 billion variables to political uncertainty. Any one of those 7.3 billion people could be the next John Wilkes Booth or Adolph Hitler. Is the world becoming more shocking and twisted? Probably not. Violence is probably proportional to the number of human beings as it always has been. Is the average person who lives the normal life more aware of violence now? Absolutely.
Since the beginning of time, purges and horrors against women, children, nature, species, citizens, men, religious orders, and fringe groups have been committed by dictators, terrorists, fringe groups, kings, cults, religious orders, lone rogues, and polarized societies. But today, news is immediate, along with untruths (many times from over-eager news media trying to beat social bloggers). Non-historically oriented people who are already churning from the fears of the present (and the unknown in the future) are reading online in real time and feeling the horrors of what may or may not actually be.
Hand wringers have no knowledge of history (otherwise they would see repeatable solutions). Harbingers (politicians, news bureaus, clerics) who claim these times are more turbulent than ever (which they are actually more calm and stable than ever) are either ignorant of history or they wish to thwart the peace of their listeners for their own personal gain (hoping to sell them a philosophy, mania, increased viewership—all with the end-goal on the part of the perpetrators with the sole objective to increase financial profits based upon the propagation of fear, which is why we have the perception of more violent times). Is creating fear in the masses for the sake of personal gain something new? No. But people—thinking ones or not—need to make sense of turbulent fiction or nonfiction. This is where today’s writer—and storytellers throughout time—come into play.
Good people do not get press or sell books. Even holy protagonists have unholy adversaries. Note the first thing you see online or on TV. It’s bad. Because shocking sells. An unclothed human gets first glance over a clothed human. Peaceful events do not find places in history books. Yet, most of the people you know are good people. Violence does not represent the majority. Some think we have become desensitized. To test the theory, I watched Where the Red Fern Grows with a group of Tweens. I cried when the dog died. The Tweens did not. But later, they did cry when one of their own pets died. Why? As they told me, “Can’t you tell the difference between a movie and real life?” That’s telling. Are the people of today desensitized more than others? No, there has always been the crowd mentality, the angry mob, the Gestapo advocates. But for your average person, maybe, just maybe, instead of becoming desensitized, they are something else: they understand media better that we realize and better than their parents. That’s a far cry from being desensitized. As a former film professor, I used to teach that when movies first appeared in theaters 100 years ago, the audience jumped when something came towards them because—to them—they couldn’t separate fact from screen fiction. Some viewers then ran screaming from the theaters. But generations today require 3D glasses, and even then, they don’t jump. Are news reports, audiovisual portrayals, teen slasher films, videogames promoting violence to our current generation making them desensitized? From an academic and historian, I don’t see it. What I see is a new generation—not becoming desensitized—but making sense of fantasy versus reality, and maybe seeking meaning even more so than previous generations within the fictional world of story. Does it make them want to commit violence? Absolutely not. The young person enthralled with Voltemort is no more likely to join the Dark Side than the little old lady who reads Agatha Christie is planning to murder the other six people in her room. People with their own agenda can blame media, but media does not represent the good—or the consensus—of the common goodness of women and men.
So why the increased violence in fiction? Well, that historically is also skewed. But let’s just say that in any generation, knowledge on the part of the reader (or spectator) requires more knowledge on the part of the writer to stay ahead, whether it be something gory in an edgy novel or a new evil for the gladiators to fight in true-life 250 B.C. People love the sensational—something beyond themselves—which is why those with imaginations have always found their place as storytellers. From hieroglyphic days to videogames, the stories haven’t changed. In 2.8 million years, the human psyche has not changed. The only thing that has changed is the delivery system and the toys. Are people reading less? Absolutely not. Are they reading more? Absolutely yes! Portable devices have opened the world to a new reading public, a reading public that can campaign for justice and topple evil regimes, all with a click of a few keys and the sound of the receiving ding. Why do people like to say the world is reading less? Because they can’t calculate what people do in their private lives. Older people like myself calculate who reads by the sale of books. People read now for free. We can’t calculate that. The industry laments the loss of physical book sales. If we think we have it badly, think how the cavemen storytellers felt years ago. People today can take phones to the bathroom. Back then and now, cave walls could be taken nowhere. Now, everyone is a reader. And everyone gets the sensational, and being fearful animals at heart, we look for meaning in the overflow of access to reading material. That defines us at this moment in history. Is society more violent? No. Is society more aware? Yes. Are they over-inundated with the sensational? Absolutely. And many even believe what they read!
And, now, in walk the storytellers of our generation. The media presents the human psyche with problems: real, glorified, or imagined. Psychologists know that false information is as powerful to the human mind as true information. The mind knows no difference. So, the problems—I think I’ve shown—don’t exist as badly as we think they do, as each generation thinks they do. Yet, our brains don’t know this. We search for peace…and we find that in stories. News media and Internet pundits present problems; they do not present solutions. Successful writers reflect the truth and fantasy of our world because this is an immediate connect with the reader. We write it more violently and intensely because the human mind is easily bored. But—switching from readers to writers—why do writers write what they write? They write for the same reason people read: to understand within the context of the world as they perceive it.
Thriller and mystery writers are drawn into the worlds they write about—not because they are promoting violence—but because they are trying to understand violence, or something violent and dark, deeper in the psyche of man. Characters become named symbols of generic subconscious fears. To put it into perspective, I was working on a project and my presumption—if media and politicians and end-of-the-world-pass-the-collection-plates folks are to be believed—is that terrorists are taking over the world. It doesn’t take long to see that our U.S. soldiers eliminated the terrorists in a town…all two dozen of them hanging out in a single house. Stepping back (in case the point was missed): two dozen of them in a house in a city of 150,000 people. Is that a threat? Yes. Is it end-of-the-world proportional? No. What then is it? It is 24 kook-heads in a city of 1,476 good people. So writers, being more truthful than your average news bureau and politician, have to look at these two-dozen errant individuals and make them dangerous on epic proportions because 24 kook-heads in a big city is not that big of a deal. That’s what your crime and thriller writer does and, if the writer is worth his weight, he or she will not only present the problem, but also provide the world—and here’s the time-tested truth—where the good guys win over the bad guys. Sappy as it seems, good readers who are good people want stories reflective of themselves where good people in a world of present-day problems and an unknown future win the day so they can sit on their porches in their later years and look back and say, “It wasn’t really that bad after all.” And writers have to provide that within the context of the current world and that world’s current perceived villains—real or media fictional—of the reader.
So to answer the elements in the initial question: Are thrillers becoming more clever, shocking, and twisted? Yes, because the media is reporting more clever, shocking, and twisted rogue stories in order to sell advertising, and non-hack authors are having to develop stories that top what someone can get for free on the Internet or in the pages of supermarket magazines because readers need big villains in order to combat the big subconscious, hidden, and media-saturated fears. Are there senseless shootings and political uncertainty? Absolutely. Death, greed, and destruction have been with us for at least the past 2.8 million years. Nothing new. Are readers consuming these books faster than ever? Absolutely. Our incredible electronic delivery systems are amazing. And why are they doing this? Because people love good stories and, as they did when the first caveman put red clay on the wall, people want to make sense of the world they live in and know—be it against a woolly mammoth or an international spy—that the good guy wins in the end. After 2.8 million years, one would think humanity would have changed. Nope. We’re all still the Smiths next door…or maybe the Joneses in the next cave. And, as from the beginning of time, myth defines us subconsciously and gives our current world—real or conceived—meaning and security. Why? Because if everyone just steps back far enough, we see the good guys far outnumber the bad guys and, as we go through our fearful, unpredictable, and unknown daily challenges, we like feeling a part of the camaraderie we have with amazingly memorable characters challenged by villains greater than any we could imagine in stories reflective of the world in which we readers—in our own time and place—are daily immersed because, by definition, thrillers must be bigger than the world that seeks to hold them.