by Tess Gerritsen
The group, composed of what is said to be fewer than 100 entertainment industry representatives volunteering for the job, was convened at the Army's request to help the military "think out of the box" about terrorism and how to respond.
The idea of tapping fiction writers to dream up the possible parameters of terrorism, a move that once might have seemed far-fetched, no longer sounds outlandish to many. Before Sept. 11, who would have imagined that hijackers would pilot commercial airliners in coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?"
— Chicago Tribune, Oct. 15, 2001
Tom Clancy certainly imagined it.
And that's a thriller writer's job, isn't it? To describe hair-raising events that are far-fetched but still seem as if they're possible. When we sit at our desks, we allow our imaginations free reign to wander the universe. But when it comes time to actually write the story, most of us feel compelled to maintain at least some semblance of plausibility. We want our readers to believe that our plots, no matter how outlandish, might actually happen.
Sometimes, our stories actually come closer to reality than we ever expect.
I've been thinking of Tom Clancy's prescient novel because of a phone call I recently received from a criminal investigator. This investigator was very interested in me, and seemed to know a great deal about my personal life — something which I found a little unnerving. The reason for the phone call was even more unnerving. The caller was part of a police team investigating a series of murders, and they wanted to know why I was so familiar with the inside details of these attacks. "We've read your novel," the caller said. "You seem to know an awful lot about this killer. How he thinks. The victims he chooses. You even know the details of his technique." The crimes had started before my book was published, so they knew the killer wasn't being inspired by me. But the details in my novel were so precise and specific that the investigator felt I must have been in contact with the killer at some time. The killer might even be someone I know well. Like my own husband.
Oh yes. They'd been looking into my husband, too.
Naturally, I freaked out a little, realizing that — however briefly — I'd been considered a possible suspect in a string of homicides. Then I really freaked out, wondering how I'd managed to describe murders that had actually happened. And describe them so accurately that the investigators themselves got chills reading my book. (Or so the caller told me.) Did I know the killer I described in my story?
The truth is: Yes, I do. I know him because I made him up. He's not someone I've ever met in the flesh; he's not someone I've spoken to (at least, I hope not.) But I know him more completely than I could ever possibly know a real human being, because I've been inside his head. I know how he thinks, what he desires, what he fantasizes about.
I explained to the investigator that when I created this killer, I actually crawled into his mind and lived there for a while. I looked at the world through his eyes, and saw what he saw. I'd walk through a mall and imagine people as prey. I looked at children and thought how easy that one would have been to snatch. I noticed which women already looked like victims, which ones weren't paying attention to their surroundings, and which ones looked like they'd never fight back. I understood this killer so well that I also knew how he'd hunt. And I knew exactly how he'd kill. It was sheer coincidence that I'd created a monster who was so similar to the real thing.
It probably makes me sound scary. But I'm not, really.
I'm just a novelist.
Sometimes it's storytellers who get the closest to truth. Sometimes we see it before anyone else does.
Years ago, I sold the feature film rights to my space thriller Gravity, about a killer microbe that gets aboard the International Space Station. I did a ton of research for the book, and figured out a way to plausibly have that microbe slipped aboard ISS via a security weakness in the Payloads directorate. New Line Cinema hired an astronaut from NASA to pick apart the story and tell them which parts were implausible. The astronaut said it'd be impossible for a hazardous microbe to be intentionally sent up to ISS without NASA knowing about it.
Then she consulted NASA's Payloads directorate. And she was surprised when Payloads told her that my scenario was indeed possible. It was a security weakness that they hadn't considered … until it was proposed in my book.
With my most recent novel, I came up with yet another bizarre premise that's almost as farfetched as microbes in space. In The Keepsake, a murderer has killed a woman and turned her into a mummy that looks just like an ancient Egyptian relic. I knew it could theoretically be done, but I worried that I might have gotten a little too creative with that premise. I worried that I'd get slammed by the critics for crossing over into implausibility.
Then I had a conversation with Egyptologist Bob Brier, who told me of a real case he'd encountered in his own research, of a modern murder victim who'd been mummified to look like an ancient Egyptian relic. Not only was my mummy premise plausible, it had actually been done.
The fictional world of crime is a pretty scary place. But I'm starting to think that it's nowhere near as frightening as reality.