This was the deeply philosophical question posed to a panel of top British thriller writers at the recent Crimefest conference in Bristol.
Well actually, I have paraphrased the question for the sake of brevity. But basically, the panel, which included Lee Child, was asked to choose between thrillers that used brains or brawn to get their story across.
Lee Child, the British writer who created the bone-breaking ex-US Military Police hero Jack Reacher, said without hesitation that brains are what every reader likes. In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs there was no brawn, he told delegates. It was all brain provided by the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter.
The same could also be said for Sherlock Holmes, he added, even though Holmes was a great fighter who knew how to box and use a walking stick in defence. “People respond to the deductive process… and it’s brains that always wins.”
Lee Child said it is hard to come up with deductive ideas. The process is to start with a good opening scene and figure out as you go along. There is a temptation to go back and make the route a lot easier. But he said he tries not to do that. He has to solve the problem of say a highly complicated lock rather than just ditch the idea altogether.
In his forthcoming Reacher novel, which is out in September, Child raises an ethical question when his hero kills three bad guys entering the house. The woman he has just saved notices one of the men is still alive and Reacher pushes his finger hard on the artery of the neck. She asks him why he’s doing that and he replies to cut off the blood supply to the brain. The woman argues he can’t do that as the man was still alive, opening up an ethical discussion with Reacher who points out to her that it was okay when he tried to kill the man the first time, but not the second?
Zoe Sharp, author of the Charlie Fox thriller series, was a brawn supporter. She was so fed up reading about female characters being hopeless and always twisting their ankles that she created Charlie who is basically “a guy in nylons”. Charlie is a self-defence instructor from a failed military background who works in close protection.
British crime and mystery writer Chris Ewan favoured brains. He said he much preferred deductions and dilemmas in a plot as he found them exhilarating to figure out. Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Siguroardottir prefers to write “creepy stuff” and not to make anything random.
Tom Harper, the thriller writer and moderator of the discussion, pointed out that action sequences are done so well by Hollywood that it is hard for novelists to ever compete.
But Zoe Sharp disagreed that Hollywood does it better. A street fight normally only lasts 30 seconds and boxers are exhausted after two minutes, she said. Yet in films these scenes go on and on, making it hard to believe.
Lee Child said the story has to be influenced by action, but admits that Hollywood sometimes gets it wrong. “We’re all swimming in the same river, tv, films, and books. We have to use visuals correctly in writing. When writing I have a rule: write slow stuff fast and fast stuff slow. It works well.” He felt Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher movie got the balance about right with the fights as they were not overly long.
He also revealed to delegates that the trademark Reacher scene, where he is confronted with five men about to attack him, came from an incident in his childhood. Reacher reasons that if he takes out the tough one first and two others, the remaining two would run away. This theory was based on empirical evidence, apparently. While walking home from school one day, the 10-year-old Lee Child was confronted by five kids in an alley. He decided to hit the leader hard. And guess what? The others ran away!
So the final verdict by the panel? Well it was always going to be brains before brawn.
Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.