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The Religious Thriller And Why It's Here To Stay

Posted: 10/19/10 04:07 PM ET

I remember the meeting as if it were yesterday.

A plush office looming over the Manhattan cityscape. Four of us around a low table across from the publisher's mammoth desk. Walls crowded with framed covers of New York Times bestsellers. Surreal talk--to my rookie ears, anyway--about the huge first print run, the ads, the movie rights. Not that I was really listening. I was fantasizing about how I'd be spending the monster advance they were offering to turn my screenplay, "The Last Templar," into a novel.

Then, the caveat.

"Oh, just one thing. You know all that stuff you have in your story about religion? Yeah, thriller readers aren't into that. Let's lose it. Let's make the Templars' lost treasure something more tangible, you know? I'm thinking, gold. Jewels. That kind of thing."

Cut to me, barfing in the men's room. Then, after four sleepless nights of agonizing over what would be the non-moronic move here, saying "Thanks, but no thanks."

This was the lay of the land back in the spring of 1996. "Lose the religion." Not from some second-rate, clueless publisher, but from one of the biggest players out there.

Fast forward to 2003, and the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code--and to 2006, when my first novel, an adaptation of the aforementioned screenplay (sans the gold-and-jewels switch), and Steve Berry's "The Templar Legacy," are enjoying stellar runs on bestseller lists across the country--and things seemed to be rather different.

What changed? Was it simply one publisher's bad call, or has the landscape shifted since then?
Thrillers live or die on the motivation of the characters in them. The people we invent for our stories--the good, the bad, and the most interesting ones, those who straddle the two simplistic notions--operate on a different plane. We put them through death-defying, conscience-challenging, survival-instinct-ignoring wringers on every page. What the villains are prepared to do to achieve their twisted aims, and what the heroes are willing to risk to stop them--both require serious, supreme motivation. Motivation that we can believe.

It's all about what's at stake.

Things were simpler back when Tom Clancy ruled. It was all about political belief. The Soviets were the bad guys, had been for years, following in the "them and us" goose-steps of the Nazis. Clearly drawn fault lines. Sure, there were some great Viet Nam/Watergate inspired paranoid thrillers, but the biggest, baddest wolf out there was the one that was out to change our way of life, the one threatening us with nuclear annihilation, which wasn't too shabby in terms of motivation. Then in 1989, the Wall came down, and we needed a new set of bad guys.
More importantly, our villains had to believe in something as rabidly as the old guard's baddies believed in their political ideology.

Then the towers fell, and, as we watched in horror, we understood what some people were willing to do for a whole different set of beliefs. Not political beliefs. These beliefs were much more old-school, and much more potent. Timothy McVeigh parked his truck and snuck away to safety, or so he'd hoped. These new psychos gleefully rode the planes into their targets.
Like most of those who read it, I didn't know about Dan Brown's earlier, second novel, Angels And Demons, until after the success of his fourth book, The Da Vinci Code. It's always struck me as odd that the earlier book, first published in 2000, never took off when it was first published. It's a terrific book--on par with, if not better than, TDVC--and yet, it didn't click. Not in 2000, anyway.

Hmmm.

Religion had been sidelined for decades, if not centuries, as bigger issues took center stage--world wars, civil rights, women's rights, the war in Viet Nam, the ever-growing quakes in the financial markets. But in the last decade, faith and its nutty twin, fundamentalism, have come roaring back into the public arena. Both here and in the Middle East, politicians proudly proclaim their unshakable belief in the literal interpretation of scripture. Elections are won by corralling voters in their places of worship. Wars are labelled crusades, and fighters on both sides are sent off to do "God's work."

Religion is back as a primal force in politics in a way it hasn't been since the Enlightenment. It was only natural for it to also become a primal motivator in thrillers. And with the spiralling extremism of both Islamic fundamentalism and the evangelical /right-wing axis, we're now spoilt for choice, with a double whammy in terms of getting our characters to, if you'll pardon the pun, go all medieval on each other: religion and politics.

I suspect it's gonna be here for a while.