Superheroes in Thriller Fiction

A few years back, I read three books in a row that sort of opened my eyes to the use of some sort of super human in crime/thriller fiction. The first was Greg Iles’ The Devil’s Punchbowl, the second was Robert Crais’ The First Rule, and the third was C.J. Box’s Cold Wind. Let me throw in Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series with this bunch.

It struck me as I read, that each hero/protagonist was aided by someone with almost superhuman abilities. In the three mentioned books all of them were Special Forces types. Iles’ main character is attorney Penn Cage, and I love his Natchez southern settings. In this book, however, Cage is up against really really bad guys involved with a floating casino, and he calls a guy to help out – an ex-Seal named Daniel Kelly. Kelly and his guys are so good it’s scary in itself. You’re certainly glad they’re on your side.

In the second book, Crais steps away from Elvis Cole, his usual protagonist, to allow Cole’s sidekick, Joe Pike, to move front and center. Pike is another Special Forces type, though I’m not sure about what branch. Totally confident and as tough as nails. And he’s got those Special Forces skills that make him seem invincible.

In the third book, CJ Box’s protagonist is a rather normal game warden named Joe Pickett. But Joe is friends with a guy named Nate Romanowski, who is wanted by the government. Nate is another scary-good ex-Special Forces type whose plans always seem to work out.

I threw in Bolitar’s name because he has his buddy Win Lockhorn, the prissy rich guy who (along with Myron) has some sort of Special Forces training and who also always seems to know he’s going to win. Fortunately for the good guys, he always has, so far.

Some of the other thriller series feature guys who are scary good at what they do, like Jack Reacher of the Lee Child series, or Lincoln Rhyme, the quadraplegic genius of Jeffrey Deaver’s books.

About the only guy who is really good but isn’t exactly a superhuman is Harry Bosch. But he’s close.

Just some stuff that crossed my mind as I knocked out those three books.  Does one “need” a superhero, invincible-type character in order to make things work in these sorts of thrillers?  If you can think of other examples, please post them in the comments.


3 thoughts on “Superheroes in Thriller Fiction

  1. Steven M. Moore

    The definition of superhero has certainly been tainted by the Marvel Comics’ influence on Hollywood. A superhero could be the widow of a soldier who’s now holding down a job and raising three kids. A superhero could be an accident victim learning to walk with prosthetics.
    But I get your point. I think it’s more interesting when the protagonist seems superhuman on the surface and very human after the reader gets to know them. Or, the flip side: an ordinary person like you or me rises to the occasion and performs almost superhuman feats while vanquishing an evil foe. MCs like Reacher, Puller, and others fail in this respect. Land’s Caitlin Strong, on the other hand, seems superhuman at times, but is very human other times.
    If readers can identify with the MC and sympathize with her or his motivations, I think the author is ahead. Falling back on some superhero friends seems like a cop out…just sayin’….

  2. Scott Dyson Post author

    I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that they’ve “failed” because I have enjoyed many stories by these thriller authors. But when you’re sort of reading along, and the main protagonist is in a bind, and somehow in the back of your head you know that their special forces buddy is going to get there in time and save their bacon, well, it could be lazy writing. Almost “deus ex machina.”

    In my two larger stories, THE CAVE and THE INN, I have regular people getting out of extraordinary situations. I was thinking about how silly it would have been in THE INN if one of the band kids’ dads (or moms) who were on the trip as a chaperone was a former Navy Seal or Army Ranger who took over and saved the day for my heroine. I like that sort of story.

    In your own stories, you have your mutants who can end up affecting the story outcome, but I don’t remember them doing so in any sort of forced way. (Plus the character is very cool and interesting, given the science behind her creation…)

  3. Steven M. Moore

    Hmm. Didn’t want to mention my own stories, but, since you did, many of my MCs ARE ordinary people arising to the occasion. Sure, they might have some training, but they’re not exactly superheroes. Castilblanco is an old ex-SEAL and Chen participated in a special Army program for Ranger-like females, but many cops have a military training.
    You’re probably referring to Vladimir Kalinin’s creation, Sirena. He was trying to design a supersoldier. Her lover is one of the clones, though, and he’s pretty ordinary, and they both rise to the occasion. The MECHs in the Mary Jo Melendez stories are also supersoldiers, but they play a small role compared to Mary Jo, a pretty ordinary gal who rises to the occasion to do extraordinary things.
    I think we’re on the same page: characters who are ordinary people doing extraordinary things are more interesting, and, yes, your deus ex-machina comment is appropriate. My standard review comment about the latter might be, “Funny how the Dudley Doright arrives in the nick of the time to save the day.” But then again, most thrillers and mysteries aren’t tragedies where the MC dies. One reviewer complained about my killing off a principal character in Aristocrats and Assassins, and a reader complained about my killing off Old Bob in Full Medical. I’m not above channeling Hamlet at times. What a great way to end a series, by the way!

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