Shakespeare: Thriller Writer

Many moons ago as a young American furnished with a backwards Nike cap and more confidence than I deserved, I trooped off to Trinity College, Oxford, ostensibly to further my insomnia-curing research bringing Jungian analysis to bear on Shakespeare, but also to complete my first thriller, play football, and drink pints. The degree, a Masters of Study, abbreviated properly to M.St., but the more meatheaded of my companions preferred the designation M.Stud.

The more years that have passed, the more I've recognized how the term itself adheres perfectly to the Upstart Crow. Billy Shakespeare: Stud. It's not just because of his language, blowing out the walls of English as it was known. Nor his plumbing the depths of the human psyche, paving the way for Freud and the rest of those bearded couch-watchers. Nor even for the fact that a close study of Shakespeare's canon encompasses (through six degrees of Kevin Bacon) the whole of Western knowledge that preceded him. It's also because he was one of the world's pre-eminent thriller writers.

I sit perched on the eve of my thirteenth book launch, for a Hitchcockian suspense ride called Tell No Lies, my dirty love letter to San Francisco, the city of my birth, and a modern homage of sorts to "Vertigo." This is the time when we little thriller writers are called to come out of our caves, blinking into the sun, to answer for our typing. Year after year, the question I get asked more than any other (after the obligatory "Where do you get your ideas?") is: "What's a Shakespearean scholar doing writing thrillers?"

To which I first clarify: I'm not really a Shakespearean scholar. More like a Shakespearean dilettante. But nonetheless, the view of the man implied by the question--lofty muse-entranced philosopher holding aloft Prospero's staff, the better to illuminate the ages--seems to me askew. Shakespeare was an asses-in-seats guy, doing his best to sell out the Globe theater night after night. He was a genius of the highest order, yes, but he wasn't some free-form chronicler of middle-class ennui. He wrote highly structured, convention-bound tales of lust, murder, and intrigue. Sound familiar? That's what thrillers are, people. Turns out our man in the ruffle collar was more Thomas Harris than Thomas Mann. Additionally, his stories were designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Cut the Globe Theater in half and there you'll see a literal cross-section of Elizabethan society, from the royalty on high to the groundlings below. And for him to make his box office every night, pay his fellow thespians, and live to see another opening? Well, top to bottom, the audience had to delight in what he presented. Everyone had to shudder. Everyone had to gasp. And everyone had to laugh. Which is why the narrative will veer from, say, a glancing reference to Ovid's Metamorphosis to a dick joke (after all, who doesn't like a good dick joke?). Keep it moving; keep 'em laughing; be clever but don't bellybutton gaze. When there are stretches of great intensity--Lady Macbeth working that damn spot out of her hand--they are inevitably broken up by comedic relief, in this case, a quick cut downstairs to the porter, drunkenly ranting that booze "proves the desire, but...takes away the performance." This modulation in pacing, designed to let us catch our breath after an intense sequence, lets the suspense breathe and allows us--groundlings and dukes alike--to release a relieved laugh before we gird our loins and wade back into the bloodshed. Crime writers take note: That's how it's done.

My own academic work dealt with Othello, specifically how the Moor of Venice's own Jungian shadow gives rise to Iago. As we all learned in high school lit, it must be something within our tragic hero himself that is cause for his downfall. So too with crime fiction. There must be some moral misstep, no matter how small, that sets the plot in motion. The mistake needn't be commensurate with the consequences any more than Lear's hubris makes him deserving of the Job-like lashing he ultimately submits to, but the fault must be found not in the stars, but in the dark little hearts of our protagonists. This is one of the tenets of noir, of thrillers--indeed of drama itself. Without this, we are merely reading about when bad things happen to good people, and that makes for dull reading indeed, as life proves eager enough to provide examples of that, thank you very much. Look at Mitch McDeere's status-grab choice in The Firm. John Creasy's lapses in Man on Fire. Jimmy Marcus's love-fueled rage in Mystic River. Each of the characters errs as surely as Othello or Coriolanus, and each finds himself entangled in a web of his own making. The thrill for us is experienced, and the vicarious lesson learned, in our watching the untangling of the web--or the tightening of the noose.

Generations later, we tend to elevate writers into the rarefied air space of the pure aesthete, forgetting that some were the bestsellers of their time with bestseller aims and concerns. Dickens was paid by the word (why do you think those books are such doorstops?). Camus, that name-droppy-est of the existentialists (okay, fine, Albert, you're an "absurdist"), found inspiration for The Stranger in James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. And virtually every writer since Shakespeare, quaking under the anxiety of influence (whether they know it or not), has learned from his structure and themes, and most of all, from that killer thriller pacing.