What’s the Sweet Spot for the Number of Deaths in a Spy Action Thriller?

Death. It’s the great mystery, right? Lots of ideas out there about what happens, what it’s like, whether it’s permanent, whether it’s just another phase, etc. Those are all broad metaphysical questions that humans have been pondering since just about forever, I suppose. My inquiry on the subject of death is narrow by comparison. How many dead bodies are needed for a self-respecting spy action thriller? How do you tell when you don’t have enough, or when you have too many? For instance, I’m writing my first murder mystery right now, and it will have exactly three deaths in it. It could have just one, and still be a murder mystery, right? But my take on an “action” novel is that it needs more. How much more, is the question.

A statue of a Red Army soldier stands guard over the mass grave of 5,000 of his fellow soldiers in Berlin
A Red Army soldier stands guard over 5,000 dead in Berlin

My first Nick Temple File, Switchback, is a blood bath, at least for the first ten chapters. The killings were central to the plot. They were what the book was about. Why were the killings happening? Who was doing them? What were the consequences? I still had to decide when enough was enough to get the story off the ground. And once that happened, any death had to fit into the plot rather than drive the plot, if that makes sense.

The Heraklion Gambit stands out from the other Nick Temple Files in that it is the only one in which military units are engaged in a gun battle. So, other than the obligatory stabbing in a dark alley, or silent death at the wrong end of a silencer, one scene has too many to count. The dead just show up at times too without the details of the moment of death making it into the book. A dead man floating in a small boat, a victim of a retribution found hanging from a lamp post. You know, the usual. The Heraklion Gambit also has the most unusual death scene I’ve penned: an annoying pseudo-revolutionary is accidentally killed by his girlfriend who tosses a spit of lamb his way. It doesn’t go well for the annoying one.

Silent Vector, Nick Temple File no. 3, is premised on the threat of mass death via biological warfare. You’ll have to read it to find out if that eventuality pans out. And The Flemish Coil, to be honest, is sprinkled with violent, gruesome killings, so if that’s not your cup of tea, it might be best to stay away from that one. My latest effort, Nick Temple File no. 5, The Shadow Chamber, has 10 deaths in it that are a direct part of the story, and three that are crucial to the backstory. One of the killings may seem gratuitous, but it is key to establishing the nature of a central character, and to making his later actions credible.

So, what’s the conclusion? At least as far as the “action” stories I’ve written, no threshold number exists; there’s no over/under dividing line above which a book is a legitimate action novel, and below which it’s merely a weak pretender. If I start throwing in large numbers of armed characters, the result is likely going to be larger body counts. If the confrontations are for the most part typical spy world one-on-one contests, then you’re going to see a smaller body count.

One final note: in each of the five Nick Temple Files, someone buys it who doesn’t deserve it, so to speak. In other words, a character the reader is probably rooting for doesn’t make it. I realize that’s a common device, but much about the espionage novel revolves around common devices, if we’re being honest.

I though you’d want to know. Or, as has been making the rounds lately, “It is what it is.”