Peter Swanson: Four Novels and a Movie

Peter Swanson: Four Novels and a Movie

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First, and it’s an obvious choice, is Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Not only did Highsmith’s brilliant debut novel inspire me when writing The Kind Worth Killing, it almost stopped me from writing the book. I had long had this idea about two strangers – a man and a woman – who meet on a plane and start telling each other secrets since they figure they’ll never see each other again. The man drunkenly confesses that he wants to kill his wife, and the woman tells him she’d like to help. I loved this premise, but was aware that it was awfully similar to Strangers on a Train. It started to worry me, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to tell a very different story.

Strangers on a Train is about one man exerting his will on a weaker man. Even though there are psychological links between the two main characters, Bruno, the psychopath, is essentially stalking the guilt-ridden, morally weak Guy. This relationship defines the book. But in The Kind Worth Killing the relationship between Ted and Lily is all about kismet: they are two like-minded people who randomly meet. It’s a love story about murderers, in a way. At least, that’s how the book started out.

But what I truly took from Strangers on a Train, and from many of Highsmith’s brilliant thrillers, is the idea that one random encounter can change a life for ever. I love that theme. Someone’s sitting in a bar, and the person who sits down next to them alters everything, usually for the worse. The thrillers I love the most often revolve around this type of situation.

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The novelist and playwright Ira Levin is most famous for writing Rosemary’s Baby, but his debut novel, A Kiss Before Dying, is simply one of the best thrillers ever written. The main character, Bud Corliss, is a sociopathic ladder-climber who courts a succession of rich sisters. There’s an unbelievable twist about halfway through this book, but what really stands out for me is the way that Levin segments the book into three parts that almost stand alone but tell the complete story.

This three-part structure was something I thought about a lot when writing The Kind Worth Killing. I realized early on that I wanted my book to take some sharp turns at a couple of points in the narrative, but worried that each new part would be like restarting the novel.

A Kiss Before Dying convinced me that it was not only possible, but definitely worth a try.

Another quality I loved about Ira Levin’s book is his willingness to spend so much narrative time with an unlikeable, psychopathic killer. This brings me to my next book, One Across, Two Down by the recently deceased Ruth Rendell, who, for my money, was the best pure thriller writer of the past thirty or forty years. She never shied away from unlikeable characters (in fact, they were kind of her bread and butter) and One Across, Two Down is a perfect example: a book that asks its readers to spend all their time with the loathsome Stanley Manning, a crossword-obsessed layabout who is constantly dreaming up ways in which he can murder his equally unlikeable mother-in-law.

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Rendell not only makes Stanley a homicidal nut-job, but she doesn’t bother to give him redeeming qualities. It’s a bold move that makes for an occasionally grim book, but it’s so well-written, so beautifully plotted, that it becomes impossible to put down. Whenever I started to worry that The Kind Worth Killing was short on like-able characters I would think of Rendell and what she managed to do, again and again, with despicable protagonists. She taught me that if you don’t have a typical protagonist, someone who the reader might root for, then you better work extra hard at making your story compelling. Sympathy isn’t the only reason readers care about a character; sometimes a reader will care about a character simply out of the need to see what they do next.

The next book on my list is Coma by Robin Cook. I’m picking it not because it has anything specific to do with The Kind Worth Killing, but because it was the first adult thriller I read (I was about nine at the time – probably far too young). I read Coma because it was one of my mother’s beach paperbacks that was lying around my house during summer vacation. The artwork on the cover – an unconscious man suspended by wires coming from the title font – grabbed my attention enough to make me want to read the book. I was gripped, and horrified. There were chapters that scared me as much as any monster movie ever had. Also, it was set in Boston, and I lived in the suburbs of Boston, and there was something about that familiar location that made the book all the scarier.

I think that Coma turned me into a thriller addict to this day. I occasionally read a book that doesn’t involve murder or crime but it has to be a really great book. Yet, I’ll pick up anything that promises it’ll keep you up all night.

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My last pick is a movie, Hitchcock’s thriller Dial M for Murder, based on the play by Frederick Knott. I saw this on television when I was about the same age as I was when I read Coma – nine or ten years old – and it fascinated me, particularly the brilliantly staged murder set-piece that occurs halfway through the film. Grace Kelly, playing Margot Wendice, is being strangled to death by a man hired by her husband. She’s about to go under when she manages to get her hand on a pair of scissors and sticks them in her attacker’s back. There’s a lovely and gruesome Hitchcock touch when the stabbed man falls to the ground, landing on the scissors so that they plunge deeper into his arching back.

That murder scene haunted my ten-year-old brain, but so did the rest of the film, despite the fact that it’s pretty much all talk. It’s a stage play, after all. What I remember is that the main villain in the movie, Tony Wendice, played by a very elegant Ray Milland, is not monstrous looking. He’s a dapper English gentleman in a suit who just happens to have no problem blackmailing someone into strangling his wife. I’d never encountered a bad guy that wasn’t instantly recognizable as a bad guy before. As I got older, and became obsessed with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, I realized that the elegant, softly spoken villain was the type of villain Hitchcock loved best.

It’s the type of villain I love, too. There’s a great scene at the end of Dial M for Murder when Tony Wendice realizes that he’s been found out. Instead of trying to fight it out with the policemen in the room, or bolting through the window, he shrugs and makes himself a drink. He’s even polite enough to ask if anyone else wants one.

I thought about these types of villains when writing The Kind Worth Killing. I didn’t want my murders to involve chase scenes, or fights to the death. I wanted them to be swift and premeditated. I wanted them to be cold-blooded. The type of characters that plan and commit cold-blooded murders inhabit fiction and film a lot more regularly than I suspect they inhabit real life. Probably a good thing.

So those are my primary influences. If some reader out there reads my book and thinks it holds even a flickering, dim candle to any of these books, or any Hitchcock film ever made, then I’ll die a happy writer.