(Answering Last Week's Question)
At the beginning of “The Insider,” my protagonist Will Connelly responds to extreme danger in a way that I can fully understand and appreciate – he flees. While I have never been terrorized by Russian mobsters, I can imagine that if I was, I would very quickly get in touch with my inner Usain Bolt. Let’s not call it cowardice. Let’s call it a healthy instinct for survival.
That same instinct for survival allowed Will to rise through the ranks as an associate at a large San Francisco law firm. After years of grinding out billable hours, Will is on the verge of being elevated to partnership one morning when a very bad thing happens, the first of a series of very bad things. The events that unfold first threaten Will’s career, then his life, then the lives of many.
A few chapters in, Will displays a mundane, but still admirable, sort of courage when he defends an associate that he believes is being blackballed at his first partner’s meeting. Will expends much of his meager political capital at the firm to protect the associate who is being wrongly set-up for firing. We begin to see that Will is braver than he first appears.
But in a later chapter, Will starts looking downright heroic. He grows tired of being a pawn of his tormenters and does something that I’m not sure I would do. He walks alone into Dacha, a Russian restaurant in San Francisco’s Little Russia community that is the headquarters of the local Russian mob, in an attempt to learn the truth about why he has been targeted. Readers seem to like their mystery and thriller protagonists to take charge of their fates and face the most dangerous adversaries without batting a squinty, steely blue eye. Of course, those books would lack a certain dramatic tension if their protagonists responded as risk-aversely as most of us would. For example:
If I were Jason Bourne, I wouldn’t have gone searching for the secret of my identity and Operation Treadstone. After that fishing boat crew hauled me out of the Mediterranean, I would have just settled down on one of those Greek islands. Maybe I’d open a falafel stand. So what if my memory is a little fuzzy? At least no one's throwing ninja stars at me.
If I were Jack Reacher, I would stop walking the earth without possessions defending those in need like Caine in "Kung Fu." Reacher has been a roaming badass for so long that I think he's forgotten the pleasures of kicking back in your favorite armchair and watching your very own big-screen TV. If I were Reacher, I'd get myself a driver’s license and a Social Security number. Then I'd buy a house and a car (Reacher would be a used car salesman's worst nightmare). And, by all means, I’d get myself some good insurance.
And if I were Dave Robicheaux, I’d stick to my bait shop and boat rental business on the Bayou Teche. Solving crimes is stressful and that can’t be good for a tortured ex-cop who’s trying to stay clean and sober. Dave (and most other crime thriller protagonists) seem to have trouble remembering a very simple lesson -- if you want to protect the ones you love, stop provoking sociopathic killers. Because Rule Number One in The Sociopathic Killer Playbook is "Go after the spouse/child/significant other."
I guess those who can’t be action heroes, write action heroes.