Cape Fear: Taking the Thriller to Another Level

Orion crime novelist Becky Masterman read Cape Fear as she thought about the novel she herself wanted to write. As well as a whole new experience of that darkest of emotions, she discovered in it a potentially life-enhancing message.

Before there were laws about stalking, there was John D. MacDonald’s Cape Fear. In it Max Cady, a psychopath imprisoned for a violent rape, is released and lurks around the family of the man who put him away. This kind of fear – not the sudden violence that’s dealt with in a moment, but the unrelenting threat of evil invading our home – is the worst. Watching Robert De Niro play the role of the psychopath was a nearly unbearable experience. Max Cady, the less-than-human creature with no conscience, would have been enough to influence my own work in Fear the Darkness.

But it wasn’t the main thing.

I ran across MacDonald later in life, when I was gobbling up mysteries in preparation for seeing if I could bring anything new to the genre. I was thrilled to find, sprinkled through his rousing stories, some gorgeous ideas. Whether or not you agree with the detective Travis McGee, you can’t fail to be gobsmacked by his comment, ‘Institutional religion is like marching in formation to view a sunset’.

In MacDonald’s stories, the protagonist not only conquers the villain, he questions his own moral compass. For example, in Cape Fear the hero hires a thug to beat up Max Cady before Cady can hurt his family. But unlike Cady, he has a conscience. He rationalises his decision and goes ahead with the plan, even though he cannot honestly accept his own rationalisation.

Man against man becomes the more complex problem of man against himself. We always say that detective mysteries appeal because they show the triumph of justice. MacDonald goes further by asking, What is justice? He demonstrated better than any writer that mysteries could reach the highest goal of literature. Mysteries could challenge my comfortable ways of thinking. They could change me.

I wish I could tell John D. MacDonald that he’s more than an influence for me. He’s my hero. He’s the guy I reach for, willing to fail in the attempt.


What book or film has got you reaching for the sofa cushions with fear? Tell us in the comments, below.

Becky Masterman spends her days working in a forensic science publishing house and her nights writing stylish, exhilarating thrillers. Her second novel, Fear the Darkness, is published in February, and her debut, Rage Against the Dying, is available now. Becky lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. To find out more, visit