Secrets lie at the heart of my new novel, Odd Child Out. Two families find their normal lives torn apart when a mysterious incident endangers their teenage sons, leaving Noah Sadler unable to talk about what happened and his friend Abdi Mahad refusing to. As Detective Jim Clemo investigates, Abdi’s decision to be tight-lipped about the traumatic events of that night seems to be only the first in a series of powerful secrets my characters are keeping. Clemo must dig deep to get to the truth, and lives may depend on it.
As I wrote the novel, I found it was an intricate task to construct a story in which layers of secrecy are peeled away one by one until the truth about my characters is revealed. It made my own pulse race at times! I also began to reflect on why secrets are so tantalizing for both thriller writers and readers.
I believe it is because we all keep them. We guard them fiercely and occasionally blurt them out when we shouldn’t. The secrets we keep can induce significant feelings in us: guilt, shame, pleasure, self-satisfaction, and those are just a few of the big ones. There are a whole host of emotions that hover around secrets like a persistent cloud of midges, and thriller writers can make very good use of them.
If we keep secrets ourselves, it follows that people close to us are probably keeping secrets, too. Sometimes, we know what their secrets are. We might be co-guardians of that secret, or perhaps we have kept it a secret that we know their secret. Knowing about a secret, our own or somebody else’s, gives us power. And what if our parents or grandparents, friends or partners are keeping secrets from us? A few white lies? Sure! They may have made our lives feel more comfortable or secure from time to time. But what if they are big lies? Ones which can rip the rug out from underneath us? Ones which would change everything? None of us want to contemplate that. We don’t want to because in families and relationships we have no choice but to place our trust in other people, and if one of those people is keeping a secret from you, isn’t that basically the same as lying? Even if it’s lying by omission? Or perhaps that person might claim they were being protective by not telling you something that could hurt you.
The scale of secrets is significant. Some are small: ‘I never liked the curtains you picked out for the living room.’ These we can probably live with even if we feel annoyed. They probably fall under the White Lie category. Other secrets could make you re-evaluate your entire life. Consider these: ‘You have a sibling I never told you about because I had to give them up for adoption.’ ‘I am not your natural parent.’ ‘I am in love with somebody else.’
Then there are secrets which don’t just damage lives, but risk them. That could be because of what you know: ‘I know who murdered Colonel Mustard and I know where and how!’ Or it could be because you might use your knowledge of a secret in a way somebody else might not want you to. Blackmail, anybody? Knowledge is power, after all. How do you trust somebody to keep a secret, anyway? Particularly if more than one person knows about it? As Benjamin Franklin said: “Three may keep a secret. If two of them are dead.”
In a thriller such as Odd Child Out, as in life, secrets carry the potential to create anything from nuanced ripples to a full emotional tsunami. There’s more than one way to look at a secret and that can cause conflict between characters. Tension over whether an important secret may or may not be revealed can carry a thriller plot a long way. Secrets possess the power to influence human behaviour causing tension, plot twists, dramatic changes of direction, red herrings and more. Is it any wonder they are an essential item in the thriller writer’s toolkit?