It can be impossible to ever know the full truth about a crime. Eyewitnesses don’t have perfect recall, and fingerprints and DNA evidence aren’t the magical solutions that shows like CSI would have you believe.
But how far would you go, and how much would you risk, to seek out justice and prevent future victims from being murdered—without locking up the wrong person?
That tension is at the heart of the new novel by Hilary Davidson, ONE SMALL SACRIFICE, told from alternating points of view: the detective and the suspect.
In college, wise men with Einstein hair stood in front of lecture halls to tell you literature isn’t really about verbs, adverbs and dangling modifiers. No. Beneath the surface, lit-rah-sure asks a fundamental question that some believe is just as important as religion or science.
That question is this: “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?”
But I’m not banging on the keyboard late at night, powered by industrial amounts of coffee, to channel those old men wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows. My closet contains no corduroy whatsoever.
I’m here to talk about those nine words, and why it leads me to one inescapable conclusion: that I do, in fact, know how to spell “inescapable.” Bit surprising. Thought I’d muff that one.
Note: I know there are men who not only read romance novels, but write them. Same thing with thrillers: plenty of women read them and author great thrillers. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of those authors. In this post, I’m trying to make the case that people shouldn’t stubbornly stick to their favorite genre. Venture forth. Surprise the good people at Barnes and Noble with the breadth of your bookish selections.
Why every man must read a romance
Not to pick up girls–and not, if you’re married, to improve your odds of staying out of the dog house.
Every man should read a romance for an entirely different reason. It’s the first part of the question, the bit about, “What’s worth living for?”
You could walk into (1) a cubicle farm, (2) factory break room or (3) sports bar and show ten random single men a photo from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and ask them, drunk or not, whether they would marry this swimsuit model. I’m only half kidding when I say some of those men would shrug and say, “Sure.” Because we men can be stupid that way.
HOWEVER: We need to get over it, and start thinking about these sorts of things. And yes, a fine first step would be reading a romance novel. Watching a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey, who’s last name is impossible to spell, does not count. Neither does firing up Netflix for SEX AND THE CITY 3: SARA JESSICA PARKER SHOPS FOR PURSES IN PARIS.
You must read an actual romance novel, with words and sentences, though I’ll leave it up to you whether it involves Men in Kilts.
On the surface, sure, romances are about relationships. How two people meet, how they fall in love, all that.
Beneath that, romances are often about a massively important choice: Who should you commit to and love?
And that, my friends, is the biggest decision you make in life.
Nothing else comes close. Not where you go to college, what career you chose, where you pick to live. No other decision comes close.
Classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE feature a lot of talking, thinking and scheming about who should get matched up with who. At first I thought this was a lot of gossipy gossip nonsense. But it’s not. These choices are hard, and they mirrored real life. Back then, who a woman married meant everything. It wasn’t like folks had a lot of career choices and birth control options. Could this man be a good provider not just for one or two children, like people might have today. Back then, it could be eight or ten kids. If I were a woman in those days, listen, I’d be insanely careful about this choice. So yeah, there’s a good reason stories back then often featured the archetype of a handsome prince. Tell me that story. Let me live that dream, not the one where I die in squalor giving birth to child No. 9.
High stakes back then. High stakes now, and a big deal for everyone involved.
Who should you marry and have kids with? Can’t think of a bigger decision, and it’s definitely worth thinking about, if not agonizing over.
A lot of men tend to avoid talking about love and relationships. It makes them uncomfortable.
I feel lucky. Also, my beautiful and brilliant wife devours novels like candy, including not just lit-rah-sure but romances of all shapes and sizes, and our house is full of books. So I know enough to be dangerous: that there are romances which really dive into the struggle to choose between two different partners and that it’s cheating to make one a villain and one a hero. That there are romances where the choice is binary: is this relationship going to happen at all, which is the A story in ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE.
All of these choices must have merits and demerits. BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY makes you think twice about the handsome bad boy and take a second look at Colin the Firth and his ugly Christmas sweater.
There’s a long list of stories diving into that decision. They’re worth reading, and watching, and talking about.
Because in the end, a lot of people figure out “What’s worth living for?” isn’t about money, fame or spending more time at the office.
Life’s about picking somebody you love and maybe starting a family with them.
Pick wisely, men. Get all the help you can get, and not from your buddies, because they’ll say things like “Dude, the choice is obvious: Kelly the waitress with the sweet Mustang, unless you want to cruise around town in Sarah the lawyer and her hand-me-down minivan.”
Why every woman MUST read a thriller
Thrillers answer the second half of the question: “What’s worth dying for?”
These days, men and women serve in the military, as firefighters and police officers. Which is as it should be. And if you answer the call to serve — as a firefighter or homicide detective, a Marine or a smokejumper, a coal miner or logger — there’s a chance you’ll die on the job.
The question is, how often do you roll the dice? When do you decide something is worth dying for?
Thrillers answer that question in a visceral way, with the stakes raised as high as they go.
Should you answer the call of your country and fight a war, taking the lives of other young men with families of their own, and possibly coming home in a body bag yourself — even if you suspect the war is wrong?
If a serial killer kidnaps your daughter, do you put your faith in the cops — or turn your CIA training loose and go after the whackjob yourself, despite the risk? Liam Neeson votes for hunting down whackjob kidnappers, which only happens to him every other month.
Should your family suffer under the oppressive fist of a planet-destroying dictatorship, or will you risk your freedom and life by joining the rebellion, which probably has the same chance of victory as the Seattle Mariner’s have of winning the World Series?
When the only hope to save the world is to get on an armored space shuttle with Bruce Willis, fly to an asteroid, drill deep inside and set off a nuclear explosion, will you go on that suicide mission, knowing that you probably won’t come back, or will you stay behind to enjoy one last week of picnics and bottles of Riesling with Liv Tyler before the world goes kaboom?
Just as betrayal is a common theme in romances, it’s also a huge element to thrillers. Because there’s nothing worse than doing dangerous, deadly work for a boss who is secretly an evil jerk. Not only did you get duped, but you did dangerous things, maybe violent and murderous things, for the wrong cause.
Even though it’s a cliche, there’s truth to the typical action movie nonsense about a lone wolf detective, Green Beret or assassin who’s weary and retired from the game. It takes a lot to convince him (or her) to return to work, having lost faith that all the suffering and sacrifice is worth it. Too many good people have died already. Often, the story proves this to be right. The weary warrior is a cog in the machine, a machine that sees everyone as disposable. And is that worth dying for? No.
Action movies and thrillers are about the need to make that choice decisively and wisely. There’s no “I’ll go halfway with you on this assault the Death Star thing.” You only die once, except in Bond movies, though I’m not exactly sure why Bond gets to die twice. I do know this: Bond has terrible taste in women. Are they beautiful? Sure. But after they sleep with him, they all turn up dead. EVERY TIME.
Not your usual sitcom nonsense
All this is why romances and thrillers can be epic. The stakes are high and the emotions are visceral. It’s not the usual nonsense you see in a sitcom every night, where Bart Simpson shoplifts for the first time and in 30 minutes learns the important life lesson that stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong. Roll credits.
Harry Potter is really one big long thriller about whether Harry will get Voldemort — a serial killer who happens to be a wizard — before Voldemort gets him.
STAR WARS takes an unexpected twist, with a father sacrificing his life to save his son and free a galaxy from oppression. I expected the new Death Star to simply get blown up in an even fancier explosion than the first time. I did not expect Darth the Vader to toss Emperor Wrinkly Face of the Lightning Fingers down an endless shaft. A father’s love turned out to be the biggest deal in the end. Interesting, though having Darth Vader be a sad old man with a wussy voice was a let-down. J.J. Abrams, I have faith that you’ll do better.
There’s a reason why many thrillers start out with a family being slaughtered and the lone survivor setting out to avenge them. You’re taking away what’s worth living for, and that leads the hero to answer the question of what’s worth dying for. Your family and kids mattered. You can’t let that slide, and you won’t.
Thrillers aren’t as compelling when the hero is aloof and the mission has nothing to do with his emotions, family or country, when it’s just a job where the hero is busy looking cool while wearing sunglasses and shooting guns. There’s nothing behind it. It’s flat and empty. And yes, though I love the Bond movies, they suffer from this. Bond rarely suffers or grows as a person, unless it’s Daniel Craig, who turned out to be a great Bond because he plays up the damage the job does to a person.
Everybody wants something worth living for, to dedicate themselves wholly and completely to something, because otherwise, what’s the point of waking up, fighting traffic and slaving away in a cubicle for thirty years until you die, right? People get that. It’s why people become obsessive fans of the Green Bay Packers or STAR TREK, why people dedicate themselves to politics, religion or a cause. Some folks divert this urge into collecting every Beanie Baby every made. Don’t.
Great stories, whether movies or books, speak to this need to matter, to belong, to put a stamp on life, to give your all, even if it’s bonkers.
And truly great stories take us deeper.
Harry the Hedonist will argue that lovers leave you, husbands divorce you, kids randomly get leukemia, and in the end, we all die, so pass the wine and live it up.
Isaac the Idealist says you should dedicate yourself to great ideas and institutions, which are the only things that last.
Ned the Nihilist trumps that with, “Nothing truly lasts. Institutions don’t care about you and even a killer asteroid, nuclear war or homicidal robots from the future fail to destroy us, the sun will eventually turn into a red giant, doing a burnt-toast number on earth before ruining THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD by going supernova.”
Do I have video? Yes I do.
But if nothing truly lasts, there’s no point in sacrificing friends and family for an institution or an idea. Be good to others. Do the right thing. Love with all your heart. Or use two cows on a silly blog to explain all of politics and philosophy. (The world explained by TWO COWS)
These questions are tough, interesting and complicated. And every tough, complicated problem has an easy, simple-to-understand wrong answer.
You can get into these kinds of questions with romances and thrillers in a way that Philosophy 402 classes simply can’t touch. Because if you put human faces and names behind the ideas, and real emotions, the neat logic about the deontological notion of equal treatment versus the greatest good for the greatest number turns to dust.
Also, take it from Plato and every dictatorship on the planet: literature and stories are the most powerful, and dangerous, way to talk about ideas. That’s why evil governments burn books and censor movies.
So if you haven’t read a romance, pick something that won an award, or one with Fabio on the cover. But grab one.
And if you haven’t read a thriller, grab one of those. My personal favorite is the Reacher series by Lee Child, who should be sending me kickbacks by now.
Then start a literary knife fight in the comment section about Men in Kilts versus Haunted Homicide Detectives Who Are Allergic to Razors.
I’m no fan of Tom Cruise, so it takes a lot to (a) part with hard currency to to watch a Cruise film and (b) publicly admit how much that film rocks.
He did it with EDGE OF TOMORROW, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. I could watch that thing every day, and the more you dislike Cruise, the better the movie actually works.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Cruise did the impossible again with MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.
Why is this movie so good when the last Bond movie bored me to bits, despite my utter fandom for Daniel the Craig?
(1) Practical stunts beat the snot out of CGI nonsense
Yes, CGI is expensive, and it can create amazing spectacles.
Yet we’re used to it. The wow factor is gone.
When I see a hero take on a CGI monster, it doesn’t scare me at all.
Practical stunts, where real people do really dangerous things, still impress people. And this movie is packed with them.
(2) Surprises on top of surprises
Thrillers are about betrayals, secrets, revelations and surprises.
Action scenes are only a bonus, dessert after the starters and main.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT gives the audience action scenes where the action is simply a setup for a betrayal, revelation or surprise. It’s a great way to move the story forward.
(3) Ruthless editing
This movie clocks in at two hours and 28 minutes. It doesn’t feel half that long.
How did the director and editor pull that off?
They ruthlessly cut the boring parts. Putting together a list of Scenes that Are Always Boring would require an entire post, though it would include Two Characters Talking as One Character Drives and my favorite, the Hero Types on a Computer.
The shorter, easier list is Scenes that Are Always Exciting, and that world champions on that list are (a) chases and (b) fights.
So if you make a movie that’s 90 percent chases and fights, with betrayals and surprises after every chase or fight, yeah, it’s going to be fast and fun. The trick is to avoid repetition. As a big fan of cheesy ’80s action movies, including everything Jackie Chan, Arnold and Jean Claude Van Damme ever made, I testify to the fact that most action movies believe, deep in their explosive souls, that the only way to mix things up for your audience is to multiply the number of bad guys facing our hero until the climax, when the producer has to bus in hundreds of extras and run the costume shop 24/7 to stitch up enough Expendable Bad Guy coveralls so they hero can wade through them all on his way to the Big Bad Guy.
That’s not to say there aren’t cliches and silly tropes in this movie. I pray to whichever gods that are listening, please, please stop Hollywood writers and directors from ever using stolen nuclear warheads as a plot device. I beg you. And the revelation that Clark Kent with a Beard is actually a bad guy came way too early for me.
But the nuclear MacGuffin in this movie doesn’t really matter. What puts us in those theater seats are the chases, fights and stunts, which are all spectacular. Well done, Tom the Cruise–now give us a sequel to EDGE OF TOMORROW.
The library in my secret lair contains Every Thriller Known to Man, including every Lee Childthriller, so reviewing his novels is like riding a bicycle for me.
A bicycle with two seats and training wheels. And a chauffeur.
So let’s make one thing clear, right off: Lee Child is the best thriller writer alive.
Also, Lee is British, though he lives in NYC these days, so he’s got this killer accent to go along with the killer books about Reacher.
ONE SHOT is one of his better books. It’s not THE ENEMY, which is his best. But it’s not one of his worst, and his worst are still good.
Here’s the setup: Reacher is a loner. Six-foot-five. Two-fifty. A giant. He’s some kind of hotshot ex-Army major from the military police, and when you’re investigating bad guys for doing bad things and every suspect is a trained killer, you’ve got to be tougher than they are.
Reacher is plenty tough. And smart. He’s like putting the brain of Sherlock Holmes into the body of Dolph Lundgren, and then giving Dolph another twenty pounds of muscle.
It’s almost unfair to the bad guys. But that’s a post for another day.
ONE SHOT takes Reacher to Indiana, where an Army sniper he arrested years ago in Kuwait, for killing four men, has apparently gone bad again, 14 years later. Except when the sniper is arrested, he asks for Reacher, by name. Because they’ve got the wrong guy, he says. This is despite a rock-solid case against the man, Barr: his rifle did the shooting. Five people are dead. The police have his minivan on tape, driving to the parking garage where it happened. And back in Kuwait, he’d also used a parking garage.
Reacher shows up to keep a promise, a promise meant to keep Barr in line. But he discovers nothing is what it seems. The case it a little too good. There’s a puppet master, pulling the strings, who doesn’t want Reacher asking questions.
Without giving the ending away, it’s a rock-solid thrill ride. Are there plot holes? Yeah, sure. You have to suspend disbelief, especially looking back at the first chapter. There’s a huge gamble there. It’s kind of cheating.
But you don’t care, because it’s too much fun watching Reacher in action. He’s not your typical thriller hero. He’s not suave. He’s not sophisticated. He’s completely rough around the edges, and he doesn’t use spy gadgets or fancy guns. The only thing he carries from place to place is a folding toothbrush.
So, on to the numbers.
Number of beautiful women: Four. An ex-flame who’s now a brigadier general at the Pentagon, an NBC reporter, a defense attorney and a pretty redhead murdered to set up Reacher for her death.
Number of beautiful women Reacher actually connects with: One. I admire his restraint and good taste.
Body count: 13. Five victims of the sniper. Two other men. The pretty redhead. Four thugs. Then the puppet master. I may be missing one or two, but I don’t think so.
Overall: 4.75 glasses of bourbon out of 5.
Sidenote: Yes, it is true — and tragic — that Tom Cruise is starring at Reacher in the big screen adaptation of ONE SHOT. Do not like. Reacher is giant, stone-cold blond, a one-man wrecking crew. Cruise is rather short and hyper. Not a good fit.
Act I: A wealthy, disfigured foreigner toils late into the night
1. The Villain of the Week is a wealthy, disfigured foreigner who (a) steals a nuclear warhead, (b) plans to kidnap the president or (c) discovers a lock of Hitler’s hair and is busy cloning the Führer.
2. The Standard Hero is tall, dark and deadly. He used to work for the government, wears anything as long as it’s black — wet suit, tuxedo or cat-burglar outfit — and solves every problem by beating it up, blowing it up or sleeping with it.
3. The Villain of the Week has an endless army of faceless minions except for two people: (a) the femme fatale, who has a special bond with our hero because her wardrobe is also exclusively black, just tighter, and (b) a giant, impossibly strong thug who never speaks and has a signature way of killing people.
Act II: The Standard Hero wakes from his slumber to blow things up
4. The hero is out of the business and cares nothing for money, but the state appeals to his patriotism — or the villain kills his wife/girlfriend.
5. Although our hero is a lone wolf, he must now work with a team, including (a) one beautiful young sidekick who knows kung fu almost as well as the Kama Sutra and (b) a science nerd who provides exploding pens and tech support. He will also have (c) a Bureaucratic Boss, who will suspend our hero, then turn out to be a mole working for the Villain of the Week.
6. If the president isn’t involved, the prime minister of Britain shows up, plus a politician involved in the conspiracy, who will either be a slick, greedy senator with a southern accent or an ancient and decadent member of the House of Lords.
7. Between car chases and explosions, the femme fatale tries to kill the hero, who bests her, making her decide to sleep with him. This is how you know she is doomed.
Act III: The Big Showdown ends in a fist fight; never mind all the guns
7. The hero infiltrates the villain’s lair with the help of the femme fatale, who betrays him. The villain doesn’t kill him right off. He delegates death-by-torture to the femme fatale, who sets the hero free, then turns bad again at the last minute so she can have a long catfight with the beautiful sidekick.
8. After our hero kills countless minions, he faces the invincible giant. The hero uses the invincible giant’s signature killing move against him.
9. Despite the carpet of dead thugs clutching AK-47s, the Villain of the Week decides to fight the hero bare handed as the lair self-destructs. The Standard Hero dispatches the villain by (a) tossing him down an endless chasm, (b) impaling him on a massive spike or (c) throwing him down a chasm that ends in a massive spike.
10. Nothing changes. Our hero doesn’t change or grow — he’ll be back for more in the sequel.The world doesn’t change. The average person in Cleveland has no idea anything happened at all.