Weaving Social Themes Into Suspense Novels

Like many thriller/suspense authors, especially those trained as attorneys, I craft intricate, well-researched plots, engage my characters in thought-provoking social drama and spice their lives with alluring romantic entanglements. The most challenging aspect of mastering this genre is incorporating contemporary social issues without preaching or compromising pace.

Two early John Grisham novels illustrate the perils. John’s plot in The Pelican Brief is driven by a greedy businessman’s sacrifice of the environment for profit, but the social issue remains in the background and rarely slows the action. The reader’s heart pounds as an isolated law student tries to foil a sinister plot before powerful conspirators kill her. On the other hand, The Street Lawyer often bogs down in a preachy story about homelessness featuring characters who are either homeless or obsessed by the issue.

The lessons I take away from Grisham’s successes and (relative) failures are that my top priority must be to deliver fast-paced and entertaining stories, but there’s room for idealistic expression. My heroes may be ordinary (Ben Kravner, a young lawyer, in The Jinx)or larger than life (Frank Paine, an ex-Hollywood action star-turned-FBI agent, in King of Paine), but they and much of their supporting cast are intelligent, passionate men and women who grapple with personal flaws and unusual obstacles to ultimately improve their world.

The Jinx is a political thriller involving a 140-year conspiracy against the American presidency (based on the so-called “20-year jinx”–look it up!). The plot pits influential politicians and white supremacists against the President, a nascent black resistance, and young Ben, my aforementioned ordinary hero, an unlikely scenario that takes the nation to the brink of civil war. Seething below the surface is a vision of a colorblind America that led to endorsements by leaders of the ACLU, National Urban League and Artists Against Racism.

At a high level, The Jinx implies racism can only be eradicated the same way the multi-generational conspiracy was perpetuated, “one father to each son, each son an essential link in a chain.” But through my characters, in their own voices, I tried to examine racism from other angles and depths. It’s not difficult to create voices driven by hate and victimization. The most challenging scene to write was when Ben, a white man, needed to reach out to an old girlfriend, a black woman who had risen to a position of influence, and he needed to explain why he abandoned their budding law school romance years earlier. Trying to find the line where race can reasonably be considered in affairs of the heart led my characters to recognize that even the most progressive minds are influenced by subtle prejudices.

My latest suspense novel, King of Paine, is a sexy, fast-paced whodunit that weaves in themes about aging and terminal illness. The story follows two investigations, the FBI’s pursuit of a stalker committing a series of kinky Internet crimes and a reporter tracking the disappearance of wealthy senior citizens across the nation. Both paths lead to a hidden enclave where a reclusive biochemist is rumored to produce a mysterious drug.

Kink and cancer may seem an odd combo for a thriller, but I wanted to explore issues relating to personal accountability of the terminally ill. I was intrigued by the notion that a desperate patient not inhibited by fear of law or religion could be a dangerous man (or woman–no spoilers here!). After reading King of Paine, you might ask yourself: “how far would I go to find my fountain of youth?”

When terminal patients ultimately accept no cure exists, society’s response is controversial. Some of my characters in King of Paine are associated with Doctors With Cancer, a fictional organization devoted to promoting the legalization of assisted suicide. Different perspectives are voiced by the characters in the context of the two investigations, but this passage stands out to me:

Roger [the reporter] mulled over her concern, which was genuine and not easily resolved. In truth, he could not even be sure of his own core beliefs in the wake of these tumultuous two weeks—a period that had begun not with a pledge to renew his faith, but rather with three secular New Year’s resolutions.

“I was raised a Catholic, so certain elements of the religion were drummed into me so hard it’s difficult to distinguish beliefs from habits. Plato spoke of the ‘Big Lie,’ that the masses could be taught to believe almost any reality over the course of a couple of generations. For years, I’ve questioned the basis for my faith and the teachings of the Church. What benevolent God would allow the horror of 9/11 or the atrocities of the Holocaust and Darfur? You’ve caused me to wonder why God would allow his children to suffer the pain and loss of dignity of a long, slow death.”

While the proper aim of medical treatment during our final days is debatable, I hope King of Paine‘s vision for our final years is not. Baby Boomers have scattered across the country, and for many children grandparents are not part of their daily lives. An important character in my story laments today’s emphasis on mobility at the expense of family and takes dramatic action to recapture the reverence for age, wisdom, and tradition of bygone days. I yearn for those days, too. Do you?


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