Monday, August 8, 2011


In praise of fear

Fear –where would we be without it? Flattened by speeding vehicles, done in by chugalugging cleaning products, teetering cheerfully on tiptoes on the railing of tenth-floor balcony offering to display our prowess with the Highland Fling? All to say, like pain, fear can definitely be a good thing if it keeps you more or less sensible.

Of course, unrealistic fears and phobias can often do far more harm than whatever was feared in the first place. Everyday spiders, black cats, strangers. I once had an acquaintance who was terrified to walk in the park, but not at all worried about driving on the highway with her husband when he’d had a snootful. We are all most likely in more danger caused by routinely running stop signs than by the scary spectre of home invasions. But we can’t be realistic all the time.

Still mystery writers (a dangerous group if ever there was one) count on fear. We want the reader to fear the worst. If the stakes are high enough, the fear might be for the end of our society, or the patients in a targeted hospital or the planeload of innocent passengers who might be shot out of the sky. Readers can fear for individuals too: the kidnapped child, the wrongly accused friend, the terrified witness to a violent crime.

I always hope that they’ll be extremely worried that my characters will get shot, drowned, trapped in a bat cave or come to some other perilous end. It’s nice if there’s a few worries for the innocent bystanders or victims in a book too. Share the wealth. Even if there’s a high probability that the sleuth will still be alive and kicking at the end, the same can’t be said for every character, especially anyone with a name and no continuing role. Readers should fret about them. A high body count can keep the reader’s interest in what otherwise might be a flabby middle (not the writer’s middle of course).

Sometimes we just want the reader to fear that justice will not be done, that the bad guy will get away, that heroism can still lead to defeat. With luck (from my point of view) this won’t happen in a book that I am either reading or writing.

So what does the author fear? Right now, realizing that a lot of story lines and characters are up in the air and wondering how to get them down. It’s always darkest before the dawn, as they say. This is nowhere truer than coming to the end of a story and needing to tie it all together. What if this is the time that doesn’t happen? What if this investment of a year or so just doesn’t work out? That’s the stuff of my nightmares. Give me recluse spiders and bungee-jumping any day. I just need to wrap it up. Fingers crossed!

Do you love to feel a frisson of fear in a book? What do you worry about?

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.

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