When writing a thriller, there needs to be a sense of jeopardy for the protagonist. Perhaps a killer is after her, maybe more than one. The killer can be left vague, abstract, distant, and this allows the reader to imagine how terrifying they can be. [nice image by Jiceh, by the way]
The author can go inside the killer’s head, show the reader what is in there. This approach is less followed, for several reasons.
(1) The writer is not a killer (well, usually, one hopes), and writers should ‘write what they know’.
(2) In explaining what is inside the killer’s head, the reader may actually begin to understand the killer, and so there is less fear.
(3) By showing what is in the killer’s head there can be less suspense than when the protagonist is running from unknown motives and plans.
Two recent examples I read of both approaches are David Baldacci’s Memory Man and Lee Child’s… well, pretty much most Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. Baldacci’s Memory Man is a masterpiece of suspense because it is actually pretty difficult to work out who the murderers are, and how and why the killings are happening. However, once the motives were revealed at the end, I felt a little short-changed, because so much trauma had been caused for what didn’t seem quite enough pain to twist two minds so badly. Having said that, I’m going to read another one, because he’s such a great writer and the suspense, plotting and sense of jeopardy are masterful.
With Child/Reacher, we get glimpses into the minds of the perpetrators, as in 61 Hours, and recognize how evil they are. Child keeps it brief. Short passages, usually a page here and there, to let us know that the baddies are after Jack and they are real bad. When payback finally arrives, it feels satisfying because the villains aren’t abstract.
So, when I wrote 66 Metres (and yes, the title is partly a tribute to Child and 61 Hours), I wanted to go further. I wanted to climb into the heads of three villains and maintain the fear and suspense. One of the villains in particular is warped and twisted, and you wouldn’t want to spend any time with him or get stuck in a lift with him or be alone in an underground parking lot with him. His name is Danton.
The first time we meet Danton, he’s about to kill someone, so rather than give a spoiler, here’s the second time we meet him when he’s arrived in the Isles of Scilly to find Nadia and kill her. He’s just a dude sitting in a beachside cafe watching some kids playing. Harmless. Unless you know what is going on in his head…
There was a ruckus outside, a couple of young kids, both with toy machine guns.
‘You’re dead!’ one of them yelled, the taller one, eyes full of fire.
‘I shot you first!’ the younger one pleaded.
The older one raised his gun as if to smash the other boy’s face with it. ‘I said you’re dead.’
The younger boy looked as if he might cry, then lowered his gun and lay on the floor. The older boy grinned and put his foot on the chest of the other boy, raising his own gun in the air, and yelled something Danton didn’t understand, maybe a reference to a video game or a movie. He saw the look in that boy’s eye, the feeling not only of triumph, but power through domination. Being able to make another person obey you, submit to your authority through fear. The kid probably didn’t understand it fully, nor the fact that he should relish it before life – society – would chisel it out of him or put him in prison, unless the kid became either a soldier or a boxer or a killer, like Danton.
The waiter shooed the kids away. The younger boy sprang up and both ran off, as if pals again, but Danton knew harm had been done, the younger kid had been made to eat shit. His spirit would remember it. If he was smart he’d have learned a lesson today, that rules don’t mean anything where raw power was involved. And if he was dumb, well, he’d just end up another sad loser like most people, and vent his frustration on anyone who was vulnerable later in life.
Danton remembered the second time he’d killed, after some punk had cheated him in a high-stakes poker game. Danton had lost a year’s wages, knew the fucker had cheated, but the entire game was rigged, and there were too many heavies around. He waited outside the backstreet gambling joint for two hours, hiding behind the rubbish bins, then followed the guy from a distance until he neared the deserted docks at 3am.
Surprising the guy and beating the crap out of him had been easy, but he’d only gotten a fifth of his money back – obviously the others had shared the winnings. Anger brewed in Danton like a firestorm. He tied the schmuck’s hands behind his back, using the guy’s own belt, and shoved a handkerchief in his bloodied mouth to stop him begging for mercy. That was when he spied a run of rusted chain nearby. At first, he did it just to scare the crap out of the guy, which worked, as Danton wrapped the heavy chain around the guy’s legs in a crude knot, and rolled him closer to the water’s edge. The pure terror in the guy’s eyes drove Danton on. It was like a kid’s game: see how much he could frighten the dolt. To top it all, Danton heaved the guy up, doing a deadlift with him, chain and all, and staggered over to the drop.
The guy and chain weighed a lot, easily two hundred and fifty. Danton thought about the weightlifting championships, how a shot at an Olympic title had been torn away from him a year earlier, and in that moment all the pent-up rage from being screwed over in life too many times surged through him, and he felt so good, holding this man’s life, writhing and squirming and whimpering in his bare hands, felt the absolute pure God-like power of life over death. He tossed the guy into the cold water below.
Never even knew his name.
Danton didn’t sleep that night, dizzy with elation, and ended up in a brothel in the red light district, taking one hooker after another till dawn, fucking like a lion. In a way, looking back now, he’d been like the smaller boy, but he’d managed to gain the upper hand and kill the older one. Would that younger boy have gone so far? Course not. Unless he’d been shafted by life again and again. Danton hadn’t had a great life, but after that first kill, word had got around once the bloated body was found and the local mafia put two and two together. Nobody messed with Danton any more. In fact they gave him work. Respect. That was what mattered.
The second killer is less frightening, perhaps more atypical. His name is Lazarus, because he died and was brought back by medics before brain death set in. Here’s the second time we meet Lazarus. He’s a really big guy, and while he’s not scary the way Danton is, you wouldn’t mess with him…
Lazarus crunched his way up the gravel pathway to Kadinsky’s dacha, aware there would be a marksman upstairs training cross-hairs on his face. Americans aimed for the heart, Russians for the head. The gravel was thick with pebbles, impossible to run on, and Lazarus’ significant weight left dimples in the circular path surrounding the empty clay-coloured fountain, a statue of Pan in its centre. The Greek god of mischief’s flute was bone dry.
Lazarus had to leave his car and the key with a guard down at the estate entrance, and trek the remaining three hundred metres alone. He didn’t mind the walk, but he detested the psychology. Everything about Kadinsky was a reminder of who was boss. As if on cue, two men in identical dark suits came down the stone steps from the front door, carrying a black body bag. Lazarus slowed. The bag was moving. Something – somebody – writhed inside. The end of the bag slipped from the front guy’s hands and fell with a sickening thud onto the gravel. The man at the front gave whoever was in there a good kick, yelled a few expletives and told him to lie still. Lazarus heard a man sobbing.
Someone who had let Kadinsky down, had almost certainly been beaten to a bloody pulp by Kadinsky himself, and was going to be taken into the woods and buried alive. Lazarus would have liked to put the victim out of his misery. But no doubt Kadinsky was watching. So instead he walked on, not meeting the eyes of the men carrying the bag. The body had stilled, at least.
A gruff man with designer stubble, wearing a suit stretched tight by muscles on top of muscles, held open the wine-red door. The goon inspected Lazarus, taking in his sheer size, probably wondering how much was lean, how much was fat, and where best to pop him with his .38 if necessary. The face, or the back of the head, as always. He patted Lazarus down while another watched from the upper landing, a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder. Lazarus wasn’t carrying a weapon. He didn’t need one. There were plenty around. And his hands could snap necks when required. Not that he enjoyed killing, but he preferred it to being killed.
Whenever he was in hostile terrain he made rapid assessments of opponents, putting them into one of three categories: commas, semicolons, and full stops. Commas could be scared off, they’d turn and run, and didn’t need a bullet. Semis, when wounded, would go crying to their mommas, no longer a threat. Full stops needed to be put down quickly, a head or neck shot so their finger couldn’t pull the trigger in that last second of shocked clarity. These two were semis. One shot, one bone broken, they’d call it a day. They weren’t in it for love or loyalty, just dreaming of an early pension. Lazarus never dreamed. He was saving that for when he was dead.
The search over, the goon jerked his thumb towards a set of double doors with frosted glass to the left on the ground floor. A golden Labrador intercepted him, and Lazarus squatted down, held his hand out, waiting while the dog hesitated then came over and sniffed his hand. Lazarus stroked him. The dog lapped it up. If only humanity were gone, just animals. The goon nudged Lazarus in the back with his knee. Lazarus rose and spun around on the spot, towering over him, making him step back in surprise. Lazarus heard the swish of the Kalashnikov being unshouldered and clicked into readiness, trained on his face, but he didn’t look up. Nor did he glare at the goon who had fumbled for his gun, he just loomed over him, the dog at his side sensing who was master.
‘Lazarus,’ a voice came from the room, ‘stop shitting around and get in here.’
He turned to see Kadinsky – expensive baggy suit, chunky gold jewellery – in the doorway, before he turned and went back inside. Kadinsky was fixing the back of his collar over his tie. His shirt looked fresh. No doubt he’d just changed due to spattered bloodstains. Lazarus followed, the dog too.
In the scene above we also see another killer, Kadinsky, who’s head we never go inside. There’s no need, you already know it’s pretty nasty in there. There’s one other killer, but that would be a spoiler.
Of course the book is mainly inside the head of the protagonist, Nadia, the target of all these men. She has never killed, but will she have to in the end? And what will be in her head when she does so?