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Original Essays

The Origin of the Thriller

by Lee Child
 

  1. Bad Luck and Trouble: A Jack Reacher Novel
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

  2. The Hard Way
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    The Hard Way

    Lee Child

  3. One Shot
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    One Shot

    Lee Child

  4. The Enemy (Jack Reacher Novels)
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  5. Persuader: A Jack Reacher Novel
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  6. Killing Floor
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    Killing Floor

    Lee Child

I live in New York City, and like most residents I don't go to the museums nearly as often as I should. But recently I went to the same one twice, to the same exhibit. This year the American Museum of Natural History opened the Hall of Human Origins. It's a fascinating five-million-year trip through human evolution, heavy with dioramas and charts and models and casts of all the remains and fossils that have ever been found. It shows how proto-human species emerged and changed and co-existed and competed and died out. It has fossilized footprints made a million and a half years ago, and large numbers of hominid bones found in hyena lairs, and the earliest stone tools.

Toward the end of the five-million-year trip, only two contenders had survived: Homo Sapiens — ourselves — and Neanderthal people. A couple of hundred thousand years ago — a blink of an eye, in geological terms — we were both around at the same time, maybe even in roughly the same places, like dogs and cats might share the same city street, or rats and squirrels the same city park. Neanderthals probably had the upper hand. They were heavier and stronger and faster. They were superb tool makers. They were much better equipped to survive the brutal conditions of prehistory.

But they didn't survive. We did. Why?

Because Homo Sapiens developed language. Many primitive species could communicate by making sounds — and many still do: prairie dogs make distinctive noises if a predator is spotted — one noise for a ground predator, and another for an airborne predator. But Homo Sapiens went beyond two words. After a random mutation our brains grew large and the new capacity was colonized by language, with a theoretically infinite number of available words, and more importantly with syntax, such that as well as reporting we could plan and speculate. Not just: a predator is coming, but also: a predator will come, or might come. Not just reaction, but also prediction: if we do this, we'll be OK, or if we do that, we'll be in trouble.

And we needed all the help we could get. We were puny, few in number, often starving, often injured, often defenseless against ravening beasts. Alone, or in small disorganized groups, we were easy prey. The piles of bones in the hyena lairs make that plain.

But a coordinated crowd of two hundred humans is the most powerful animal on earth. The heaviest, the strongest, the hardest to stop, the hardest to kill. Thus, grunting Neanderthals slowly died out, despite their muscle and bone and strength and speed, and talking humans marched on toward the present, despite our slender limbs and fragile skulls. Language guaranteed our survival, but more specifically language in the service of truth. Truth was the whole deal. There wasn't anything else. It would have made no sense to say, "Watch out! There's a saber-toothed tiger behind that bush!" if there wasn't. It would have made no sense to say to a group of departing hunters, "I saw the woolly mammoths in the next valley," if you hadn't. So language was about communicating real facts — in other words, telling the truth. And it still is, fundamentally. If my wife says, "The weather report calls for rain, so take your umbrella," I automatically take it for granted she's telling me the truth. Her statement and advice would be meaningless otherwise. It is the direct linear descendant of her ancient ancestor's warning about the tiger behind the bush. True information, to help one of her tribe to survive. That was the fundamental proposition.

But then something strange happened. We invented fiction. We started talking about things that hadn't happened to people that didn't exist.

When? It's hard to say, exactly. Once a word is spoken, its echo dies to silence and is lost forever. But we can guess. We know that creative expression in the form of representative art was around roughly fifty thousand years ago – there are cave paintings as evidence. We know that music was made around the same time — we have found bone flutes dating back to the same era. It's reasonable to assume that storytelling might have happened earlier. Art and music require technological intervention — mixed pigments, crude sticks or brushes for applying them, musical instruments of one kind or another. Storytelling requires only words and voices, and we had developed them already. All that was required was the change of use. So storytelling might be a hundred thousand years old.

The more interesting question is: why? Why tell stories? To relieve boredom? For fun? No, those are not possible answers. A hundred thousand years ago, we were still deep in prehistory. We were still evolving, both physically and in terms of behaviors. Put simply, no new behavior could possibly become established unless, at least to some slight degree, it made it more likely that we would still be alive in the morning. That is unarguable. It was that simple.

So how could storytelling keep us alive? How could fiction help us get up the next morning a little more energetic, firmer in resolve, surer in ourselves? By managing our fear, I think. Imagine yourself one of a band of perhaps twenty people, in the late evening, huddled in your cave, with a smoky fire burning in the cave mouth, hearing the howls of the night predators outside. Intelligence brings imagination, and you might have been imagining your likely fate. "It will be OK," someone might have said. Eventually — after a thousand years, or ten thousand — that simple "It will be OK" might have expanded to a parable, about a member of the clan who found himself in the open late at night and was chased by a bear, but escaped, but woke a tiger, but escaped again, and made it back to the cave in safety. That parable might have evolved into a full-blown story, with the clear message: Things happen to people like you, but they're survivable. In other words — don't worry. Things turn out OK. Eventually, some empowering human heroism might have been edited in. Now maybe the guy slew the bear, and the tiger, and thereby not only escaped his fate but made the whole place a little safer for everyone.

We still tell stories exactly like that. The modern serial killer stories are direct linear descendants of those cave-based scenarios. Terrorism stories, too. The huddled twenty-strong cave-dwelling clan has changed to a terrified modern community — a nation, a town, or a suburb — and the lone club-wielder has changed to the CIA or the FBI, but the message is the same... yes, there are monsters out there, but we can slay them and live happily ever after. Stories manage our fear, by showing us the precipice and telling us that we don't always fall off.

Then, we added a proactive strain. We started telling stories about clan members who ventured out of the valley and came back a week or a month or a year later with tales of what lies beyond the hill. We legitimized exploration, and adventure, and progress. The rest is history, literally.

So, as a thriller writer, I smile to myself when critics imply that popular fiction is a recent and trashy invention. No, I think, so-called literature is the recent invention. And it was only invented because my storytelling ancestors helped the species survive long enough to be around to invent it. Thriller fiction is the genre. The original form, the essential form, the vital form, the boat on which other genres ride like barnacles. That's why readers enjoy it so much. It connects with something very ancient and fundamental. spacer

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