Suspense and Fear

A.J. Finn
Harper Collins. 448 pages. £8.99 
ISBN 978 0 008 333 324

Fresh in from a bracing, snow-edged walk with my neighbour, I settled down with a book she had lent me. And, for the first time in months, I didn’t really stop reading until turning the last page as my head hit the pillow.

The mystery had been solved, the suspense had been ridden out and the killer had been caught.

Compelled not so much by excellent writing or complex characters but by the pure adrenalin of wanting to know who had committed the crime.

It’s not a stand-out novel, but it is a fair representation of the most popular fiction genre all over the world. We love to read thrillers. Best-seller lists are dominated by them, and we are quick to lose ourselves in the imagined yet scarily realistic worlds of killers, stalkers and the relief of the bad guys being caught by the good guys. My neighbour is no different, as the pile of books she has lent me demonstrates.

But why is the genre so popular? What are we wanting as we grab that page-turner?

In this occasional column I’ve been keen to analyse secular reading matter and consider it from a gospel perspective. As we engage with what we’re reading with our gospel glasses on, we get an insight into what the world is bothered about, and therefore what is engaging our unbelieving friends and family as they pick up a book. It can help us adjust our own perspective as we recognise where our Biblical worldview may have slipped as we side with a particular protagonist, or are surprised by a character’s sinful habits.

In a thriller there is undoubtedly a main character or characters who are either the victim of, or witness, a crime. The reader is swept up in the suspense and horror of the situation, and we work hard to fathom who is responsible, and wait for justice to be done. The Woman in the Window has a lonely agoraphobic lady at the centre of its plot. She spends her time watching her neighbours through a camera lens pressed to the window, and counselling traumatised people online using her psychologist skills. A casual glance into a neighbour’s window allows her to witness what seems to be a heinous crime, but a frantic call to the police and further investigation leads to nothing but the possibility that she has imagined it. The narrative is from her perspective, and we feel the suspense, fear and relief as the intricacies of the plot are gradually revealed.

There’s escapist delight in disappearing into a novel for a few hours. And thrillers offer something recognisable – maybe through a familiar scene or life – but also entirely different and dramatic. An ordinary life is made extraordinary as drama hits, and we watch with bated breath as someone ‘a bit like us’ deals with ordeal after ordeal, and more often than not comes out the other side.

Fiction and art are often an echo of reality. They capture a moment that grabs us, and we’re swept into a fictional world. But as Christians we know the more magnificent, more beautiful and more life-changing reality of the truth of the Bible. While the paperback in our hands conjures up drama that transports us momentarily into the extraordinary, we are already part of a bigger, better, more-real story. The creator of the universe has stepped into our world, into our lives even, and is taking us from death to life through the servant-like, upside-down heroics of His own Son. By His Spirit, He is at work in us and through us so that we live out that Jesus-shaped life amongst our friends and family. Our workplace becomes a place in which we can hold out life-giving truth; our street becomes the scene of self-sacrificial kindness as we seek to be like Jesus; and even the mundane everyday of parenting small children takes on a new dimension as we pray for an eternal work to be happening at the kitchen table.

As I put down the book I’ve just devoured, I’m challenged as to whether I’m as gripped by what our extraordinary God is doing in our world as I have been by the intricacies of the novel’s plot. I’m challenged to look up, look out and love to know God’s hand at work all around me. But I’m challenged as well to share that wonderful, true story of our compassionate, rescuing God stepping into our rotten, dark world. That story that is so much more compelling than anything that can be found in the pages of a novel.

Maybe that should be the conversation I have as I return the book to my friend, and seek to share the mightier story of which others are simply an echo.

Felicity Carswell

Felicity Carswell is an English teacher, married to a bookseller of Christian books, and currently a stay-at-home mum to two little boys. They live in Illinois, America with the purpose of getting gospel resources out on a big scale.