Why I Write Psychological Thrillers

Since publication of my psychological thriller, Woman Into Wolf I find myself
fielding two main questions: one, what is a psychological thriller, and two, where do I get
my ideas?

I usually end up telling the story about how as a kid I added “motive” cards to the
game of Clue. I just wasn’t satisfied with a “solution” telling us Mrs. White killed
Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with a candlestick. Why? I wanted to know. What the
hell possessed her? Psychological studies typically concern themselves with the
wilderness of the mind, and the “thriller” description represents extreme adventuring
where anything – literally – might happen.

Where I get my ideas is a much easier question. There’s never a need to make
anything up. I am a devoted and fascinated reader of true crime. If anything, reality needs
toning down to make it fictionally believable. Woman Into Wolf weaves three real
cases together in an effort to answer the question, What possessed them? to a reader’s

Certain cases stick in my mind like pebbles while the pearls of fiction form slowly
around them. I puzzle. I speculate. I analyze. One example shows what I mean.

On August 4, 1999 two young men from Boston hiked into Rattlesnake Canyon in
New Mexico. Planning to make camp for one night before moving on. They were
college graduates, best friends, “seeing the sights” on their way to California. One of
the pair, a Jack Kerouac fan and an aspiring writer, was considering turning their
adventures into a travel piece. He was the one airlifted out on Sunday, August 8 with
“moderate to severe dehydration.” His friend left in a bodybag.

What happened?

The survivor told police he only stabbed his friend – two times – because his
friend begged him to. Because of the planned brevity of their stay they had taken in only
three small bottles of water, but got lost, became disoriented and wandered in circles.
They left desperate notes for the park rangers, then became convinced the rangers were
playing tricks on them. They were certain the buzzards overhead were just waiting for
signs of manifest weakness to attack. We know this because they recorded this part in the
joint travel journal they were keeping. Strangely, the dead man wrote nothing about
wanting to die or asking his friend to hurry the process along.

The rangers were bothered by the survivor’s story. No one had ever become lost
in this small park in its hundred year history. The rangers found the campers a ten-
minute walk from the trailhead. After his friend’s death, the survivor covered the body
with rocks weighing as much as fifty pounds. Why hadn’t that energy been used to climb
the hill where the parking lot was clearly visible? The coroner determined that the six
foot tall, 180-pound camper died just a few hours before rescue. If the murder hadn’t
occurred, he would have undoubtedly been rescued with his friend.

But there was no legal need for extensive ratiocination: New Mexico law doesn’t
give a free pass even to mercy killers. The survivor was indicted for murder.
The survivor claimed to be chastened by his traumatizing experience but he also
said that he had done the right thing, and even knowing what he knew now, he would do
it again. The dead man’s family rallied round him; publicly stating that this was a tragedy
for all of them, and there was no way this loyal friend would have intentionally harmed
his buddy. The survivor’s lawyer first attempted a defense of temporary insanity (not
allowed under New Mexico law, which requires insanity to be documented and of long
standing) then went for “involuntary intoxication” – a legal defense – thinking of the salt
buildup caused by a level of dehydration historically linked to hallucinations and poor
coping skills. Incidentally, the judge rejected this defense.

So what happened? If you have any propensity for structuring psychological
thrillers, your neurons must be collectively firing. This tragic scenario is like a two
person play by Beckett or Pinter. It’s pretty obvious any question about who did what to
whom is secondary to the problem of identity. Who were these people? Two young men
who had always done everything right, by all accounts, in their families, at church and
school, on the job, even in their intimate relationships. The dead man was on his way to
California to attend graduate school. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear about
compulsive I-dotters and T-crossers I always picture people who are “outer-directed.”
That means they’ve traditionally taken their life cues from externals – leaving their inner
beings unexplored – possibly even unconsulted. In a good psychological thriller, what the
internal voyager discovers in his subconscious is as much a surprise to him as to the
reader. What this story makes apparent is that as soon as the outward signals were
removed, these two young men fell apart pretty dramatically.

When the rangers found the survivor, he was waiting quietly in his tent, next to
the cairn of stones he built over his deaf friend’s body. Often when he talked about
ending his friend’s suffering, it sounded as if he was also ending his own. It was just
easier to wait for rescue without his friend around. Therein, to my mind, lies Clue #1.
These friends grew up together and did everything together, seemingly using their
relationship as a sort of existential echo-location. I am I because you are you, and if you
are there, then I must be here. It is the demanding drive for self-definition within each of
us that causes us to sever – or at least yank sharply on – tether and lifeline alike.
One of the friends was the leader and one was the follower. And it seems the
leader had made a series of catastrophically bad decisions. We all know how hard that
can be to live with – and to live down. In the noisy whistling of the leadership vacuum
reproach becomes unbearable. In today’s reality-show world, increasingly it is only the
public self that matters. Unknown failures can be literally “undone”. The Victorians
understood this very well. In their day, “status preservation” was a major motive for
murder in both the upper and middle class.

One of the questions the detectives had was why the campers tried to burn a
sleeping bag for a signal fire within sight of a large dead tree. Surely a little arson is
preferable to death? As it turned out, the sleeping bag was a failure as fuel. The bag had
been chosen, the survivor said, because they had two and needed only one. Although
everyone who knew the pair insisted they were complete heterosexuals, my mind does a
little U-turn on this piece of information. The prosecution even tried to make much of
the fact that they had once shared a girlfriend, only to be shot down by the complete lack
of cooperation of the relevant witness. Once again, the fewer people around with first-
hand knowledge of our psychic and emotional dissonances, the easier we may find it to
go on living.

I also think we live in an “instant gratification” society where the only strategy for
change we are used to is the “make it stop” wish. “This isn’t any fun, let’s not do it any

“Yeah man, this is getting to be a real drag.”

But how to make it stop just when we want it to, if there are no buttons, no
switches? How dare the cosmos be so unresponsive when we’ve decided we need a new
game? This question – the relationship between reality and one’s demands — leads us
further into the psychological wilderness.

The young men from Boston listened to the ranger’s instructions with only half an
ear between the two of them. They failed to take the recommended amount of water, they
searched for non-existent campsites and they abandoned their topographical map because
they couldn’t read it. We all know that any sense of superiority carries shadowy
concomitants of guilt and fear. If others knew our superiority, they would resent us. Even
hate us, and I know that because in their situation, I would feel the same. Unlike Jack
Kerouac, these young men grew up with an easy confidence that law existed to protect
their rights and privileges. But their education had taught them that not everyone is so

Hence the stated fear that the rangers were playing tricks on them, moving trail
markers and teasing the campers with unreachable bottles of water. By the third day the
young men feared that the rangers would cover up their deaths to hide their own

And then there are the buzzards, the pitiless “eyes in the sky” waiting to peck out
their own eyes. What do you do when death is inevitable and the universe doesn’t seem
to care? The ancients handled this question through sacrifice; demanding the right to
pick the next to fall. It is an insult to the magnificence of our human capabilities to let the
buzzards choose.

Since a psychological thriller must of necessity concern itself with subjects’ lives
as a whole, it is a real question where to start. Author William Goldman’s advice, to start
“as late in the story as possible” is good, I think. In this case, I can’t help but feel that the
real story begins afterwards, in the throes of survivor’s complex. The surviving camper
was sentenced to fifteen years. He served fifteen months and has now gone back to his
blamelessly unexamined life, in spite of being handed a literary subject Kerouac would
envy and perhaps only Hemingway could handle. One can’t help but wonder what his
days and nights are like. The Apaches who still protect Rattlesnake Canyon could have
told him, when you kill something, it becomes part of you forever.

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