Why Do Smart People Turn Stupid in Thrillers?

For a long time I was the crime fiction reviewer at the Detroit Free Press and I loved my work because I'd been reading mysteries and thrillers for years. I still do, and I have my own series set at a fictional Michigan university.

I usually got one and sometimes two boxes of books every month to sort through for my column. Time after time, I'd be captured by a book and then a smart character would do something really dumb. Like the chic woman investigating a murder who walked into a nasty dark alley in super-high heels. Of course "fem jep" (a woman in danger) is a trope of crime fiction, but the author was forcing a smart character to do something idiotic for the sake of the plot. Or all the people going down into dark cellars without flashlights even though serial killers were after them.


The same thing happens in movies, over and over. I just rented The Gift. A couple has moved from Chicago to the West Coast and there's a good chance they're being stalked by the husband's high school buddy who seems weird. His nickname back then actually was "Weirdo."

So the wife, played by Rebecca Hall, is cutting up a cucumber in her kitchen, all alone, and she hears a noise in her long narrow house which has lots of enormous windows perfect for spying. She puts down the knife and leaves the kitchen calling out "Hello?" Granted, she's previously had a nervous breakdown, but her thought processes are not scrambled now. And she's been a successful designer with her own business.


For the sake of the plot, she's been made deliberately stupid and careless at this point, and while what happens next moves the story forward, it compromises the suspension of disbelief. I've seen this scene play out over and over in movie thrillers, and read it too: People hear noises in houses where they should be alone and they ask, "Hello? Is anybody there?" What the hell could they be expecting? FedEx?

Given how attached everyone is to their smart phones, it's far more reasonable for the character to call 911 right away, which does also happen in films and ups the tension in a very different way.

I've stopped reading books and have shut off movies were the characters were too dumb too often. Here, it wasn't totally egregious, so I kept watching. Despite some lapses, The Gift slowly and cleverly turned the tables on me as it developed and deepened, and Rebecca Hall rose above the clichés forced on her by the script. But it could have been so much better.

Lev Raphael's suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.