Cape Fear: Steve Cavanagh on the Original Suburban Thriller

Love Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay? Orion debut novelist Steve Cavanagh traces the ‘family man’ thriller to its dark, twisted roots.

First published in 1957 as The Executioners, this classic is one of many standalone novels from one of the greatest mystery writers that has ever lived.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher owes a lot to MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, and Lee has let it be known that he’s a huge fan of MacDonald. He is not alone in that – some of the world’s finest writers look to MacDonald with considerable admiration, writers such as Kingsley Amis, Stephen King and Dean Koontz.

In Cape Fear, MacDonald paved the way for one of the most popular thriller formats, one that still dominates the bestseller charts today: take an ordinary family man, put him in an extraordinary situation and watch what happens. This is the modern-day territory of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay.

Our hero in Cape Fear is Sam Bowden, ex-Navy Lieutenant, now a practising attorney in Smalltownsville, USA, where he enjoys a tranquil existence with his wife, Carol, and their three kids. Our story opens just as the cracks are beginning to show in that perfect life. The cracks are all down to one man – Max Cady.

During his military career, Sam caught Cady raping a young girl, and he saw to it that the animal he found that night in that alley got put away for fourteen years’ hard labour. During those long, back-breaking years, Cady fantasised about taking his revenge on the young Lieutenant. Now he has his chance.

You may have seen the Robert Mitchum film or, ahem, the other one . . .

This is the definitive tale, and one which is infinitely more terrifying, more nuanced and more fully formed than any cinematic treatment of the novel has achieved thus far.

Sam is a conflicted man; on the one hand he has taken an oath, as an attorney, to uphold the justice system. On the flip side, what do you do when a dangerous man, seemingly beyond the reach of the law, threatens your family? Sam’s wife, Carol, is a powerful driving force in this book, and not simply a damsel in distress. She is a strong woman, who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her children.

And Cady? Well, he just might be in a hall of fame somewhere alongside Hannibal Lecter as one of the finest villains in crime fiction. He is cunning, in a primal fashion. He stays out of the way of the law, and yet he is always a threat, a black, dangerous cloud that hangs over the family and slowly cranks up the terror. The best way to describe Cady is to say that he’s the shark in Jaws; in the beginning you don’t see him, but you know he’s there and every time a foot treads water you are biting your lip in anticipation. MacDonald achieves the same feeling of dread and apprehension with Max Cady, the unstoppable, sadistic villain of the piece.

So many crime thrillers today focus on visceral, grand guignol set pieces designed to disturb the reader. In MacDonald’s case, he relies much more on the reader’s imagination to satisfy the terror quotient. It is the literary equivalent of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho – the reader’s imagination and what they think they’ve seen is so much more powerful than anything the writer can create on the page or screen. This is suspense writing as its very best.

Although the book is now over sixty years old, the themes and the characters feel just as relevant today, which is surely the mark of a truly great novel. If you’re thinking of buying this book, don’t hesitate – there’s a reason Cape Fear has never been out of print. While the film adaptations are certainly part of its continuing appeal, I feel this book endures because of the profound emotional reaction it produces in readers. It comes highly recommended.

Get it today.

Just don’t read it on a boat.


Have you read a ‘suburban thriller’? Tell us about it in the Comments, below.

Steve Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast before leaving for Dublin at the age of eighteen to study law. He currently practises civil rights law, and in 2010 he represented a factory worker who suffered racial abuse in the workplace, and won the largest award of damages for race discrimination in Northern Ireland’s legal history. His first novel, The Defence, is published by Orion in March 2015. Find out more on Steve’s website.