Tough Guy Characterization

The Mickey Spillane hero, one who has few scruples and kills indiscriminately, is no longer terribly popular with the average reader. If a hero kills, he must have ample justification, must feel some remorse, or—as in the case of Parker, in Donald E. Westlake's novels—must kill only when his own life is threatened and with an unspoken but moodily evident distaste for the necessity. The tough guy is always making moral judgments and justifying his own murderous impulses through those judgments, as in the following little scene:

I shot him twice, in the chest. He looked surprised, tried to stop the stream of his own blood, then fell flat on his face. He was dead. Very dead. I turned away from him and holstered my gun. I didn't feel the least guilty for having killed him. He was a hood, a punk. He'd been asking for it all along.

The modern-day suspense hero makes no such judgments, but he does what is necessary and forgets the rationalization, knowing that he will pay emotionally and mentally for any pain or death he causes. In the first book of a suspense series I have just begun for Bobbs-Merrill—Blood Risk by Brian Coffey—I followed a violent scene, in which my hero shot a villain, with this:

Despite the high risk associated with his profession [thief], Tucker had only twice been pressed into a position where he had no choice but to kill a man: once, it had been a crooked cop who tried to force his point with a handgun; the second time, it was a man who'd been working with Tucker on a job and who'd decided there was really no sense in splitting the proceeds when one shot from his miniature, pearl-handled revolver would eliminate that economic unpleasantry and make him twice as rich. The cop was fat and slow. The partner with the pearl-handled revolver was as affected in every habit as he was in his choice of handguns. He didn't choose to shoot Tucker in the back, as would have been the smartest move, but wanted, instead, to explain to Tucker, in the course of a melodramatic scene, in very theatrical terms, what he intended to do. He wanted to see Tucker's face as death approached. He'd been very surprised when Tucker took the revolver away from him and even more surprised when, during the brief struggle, he was shot.

Both kills had been clean and quick, on the surface; both of them had left an ugly residue long after the bodies had been buried and begun to rot. For months after each murder, Tucker was bothered by hideous nightmares in which the dead men appeared to him in a wide variety of guises, sometimes in funeral shrouds, sometimes cloaked in the rot of the grave, sometimes as part animal—goat, bull, horse, vulture, always with a human head—sometimes as they looked when they were alive, sometimes as children with the heads of adults, sometimes as voluptuous women with the heads of men, and as balls of light and clouds of vapor and nameless things that he was nonetheless able to identify as the men he had killed. In the few months immediately following each kill, he woke nearly every night, a scream caught in the back of his throat, his hands full of damp sheets.

Elise was always there to comfort him.

He couldn't tell her what had caused the dreams, and he would pretend that he didn't understand them or, sometimes, that he didn't even remember what they had been.

She didn't believe him.

He was sure of her disbelief, though she never showed it in her manner or in her face and never probed with the traditional questions. She could not know and could hardly suspect the real cause of them, but she simply didn't care about that. All she was interested in was helping him get over them.

Some nights, when she cradled him against her breasts, he would take one of her nipples in his mouth as a child might, and he would be, in time, pacified in the manner of a child. He wasn't ashamed of this, only welcomed it as a source of relief, and he did not feel any less like a man for having clung to her in this manner. Often, when the fear had subsided, his lips would rove outward from the nipple, changing the form of comfort she offered, now offering her a comfort of his own.

He wondered how other people, who had killed, handled the aftermath, the residue of shame and guilt, the deep down sickness in the soul.

There, in less than 500 words of narrative flashback and character study, is a facet of the hero that makes him more human, more sympathetic and his violence against another person more moving and acceptable.

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