Cape Fear: Mason Cross on the Perfect Tale of Terror

What would you do if your family were being threatened by a force greater and infinitely more ruthless than you, and the long arm of the law was proving too short? Mason Cross gazes deep into the dilemmas at the heart of Cape Fear.

John D. MacDonald’s classic novel of revenge and moral ambiguity was first published in 1957 under the title The Executioners. It would later become famous under a different name, when it was adapted for the screen twice as Cape Fear: J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 version starred Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, and it was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese, this time starring Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte. The change of name was a good idea for a couple of reasons: for one, Cape Fear is just a better title. For another, its original moniker is kind of a spoiler.

MacDonald’s plot is artfully simple: a driven psychopath by the name of Max Cady is released from a long prison stretch, hell-bent on getting revenge against family man Sam Bowden, the person whose testimony sent him down. As Bowden discovers that the law has its limits when it comes to a man like Cady, he realises he’ll have to take matters into his own hands to protect his family.

If you’re only familiar with Scorsese’s slightly over-the-top film version, you may be surprised by how lean and linear MacDonald’s original is. A product of an era when not every thriller had to challenge the phone book for page count, the novel tells a simple but compelling story in fewer than two hundred pages. Its brevity makes it all the more impressive, in that it does double duty both as a page-turning revenge thriller and a complex, thoroughly examined morality play.

Bowden, like many of MacDonald’s protagonists, is a thoughtful and reflective man given to bouts of introspection. This character type really comes into its own in Cape Fear, because the central conflict is as much an intellectual one as it is a physical one. In the book, Bowden is pitched not just against the single-minded brutality of Cady, but against his own morality and regard for the rule of law.

I first read Cape Fear in my early twenties. Reading it again now, it’s easy to see how it’s influenced my work, as well as that of so many other writers. The psychopathic but wily antagonist of The Killing Season definitely has some of Max Cady’s DNA, and I’d like to think that some of MacDonald’s characterisation of his flawed, conflicted hero has rubbed off on me too. It’s that element that seems to have interested Scorsese, who upped the ante in his film by having Bowden deliberately suppress evidence to have Cady put away in the first place.

Cape Fear is a compelling study of what happens when the laws and safeguards of civilised society are a hopelessly inadequate response to an existential threat. But much more importantly than that, it’s a brilliantly written, unputdownable thriller.


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Mason Cross was born in Glasgow in 1979. He studied English at the University of Stirling and currently works in the voluntary sector. His short story, ‘A Living’, was shortlisted for the Quick Reads Get Britain Reading Award. The Killing Season is his first novel. He lives in Glasgow with his wife and three children. To find out more, visit Mason Cross’ website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.