Jon Land (author of The Tenth Circle) asks "What if?"

What if?

Those aren’t just the two most important words for any thriller writer, they also form the very foundation on which the contemporary thriller was founded.  Through a myriad of sub-genres and jumping off points, pretty much every great thriller written in the past half-century begins with an offshoot of what if?  Let’s explore the specifics.

1)  HISTORICAL SPECULATION:  Ah, the granddaddy of them all.  Let’s go back all the way to 1976 and the exceptionally influential Raise the Titanic, the Clive Cussler classic that helped define the contemporary action-adventure thriller.  It’s easy to forget that the book’s basis was that the Titanic was sunk because of something it was carrying in its hold, something with roots in a 19th century expedition undertaken in Russia. Cussler, by the way, has long been the master of this particular technique, always setting up his Dirk Pitt adventures with historical backdrops ranging from the circumstances of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance to Abraham Lincoln maybe not having been assassinated at all. Dan Brown brought this particular What if? to a whole new level, and similarly helped redefine it, in his mega-selling The Da Vinci Code which fueled the rise of Steve Berry, James Rollins, and Brad Meltzer, all who are expert at using parts of history to fuel speculation.

Prior to THE TENTH CIRCLE, my latest release, I had contemplated using either the inexplicable vanishing of the colonists from Roanoke Island or the seagoing mystery of the Mary Celeste as jumping off points any number of times.  But the time, and subject matter, was never right.  Now, normally I plan out a book months in advance but with THE TENTH CIRCLE it was mere weeks because the great success of the book’s prequel, PANDORA’S TEMPLE, led me to plunge into it because I had a window of a few months open to write and I wanted to get it out in time for this holiday season.  So I naturally gravitated not just to including one of those historical mysteries, but both, and committed myself to finding a historical connection between them.  No small feat, given the gap in time between Roanoke and the Mary Celeste.  But I had a blast fitting all the pieces together and offering the kind of answers in fiction that reality has never managed to provide.

2)  FUTURE THOUGHT:  What if there was a Third World War between Russia and the U.S. and you have Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising.  What if there was an attempted military overthrow of the United States government and you have Fletcher Knebble’s brilliant Seven Days in May.  What if a nuclear attack was accidentally launched on Russia and you have Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick’s pulse-pounding Fail-Safe. Before he conceived Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris envisioned a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, thirty years prior to 9/11 in the brilliant Black Sunday.  These concepts are far more grounded in reality than historical speculative thrillers.  They scare us and keep us reading because they indeed could happen.  We still have to suspend disbelief, but not nearly as much as we do with historical speculative thrillers which often confront us with redefined notions of reality, changing what was as opposed to what will be.

3)  CHASING THE MYTH:  Ah, the most classic of all structural what ifs because this category defines the modern-day quest story.  The classic example, of course, to digress into film is Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the intrepid Indiana Jones pursues the Arc of the Covenant containing the smashed pieces of the Ten Commandments.  Since then, and even before, pretty much every great mythological relic or tome has become fodder for thriller writers from the Holy Grail to the Great Crystal of Atlantis, the prophecies of Nostradamus, the lost gold of the Civil War—the list goes on and on and on.  I started PANDORA’S TEMPLE by posing the question what if Pandora’s box was real?  Well, the first thing I learned was that it wasn’t a box at all, but a jar.  That didn’t stop me from wondering if it did exist, what really was inside that bred the myth about the woes of mankind being unleashed once the box/jar was opened.  In THE TENTH CIRCLE, I tied the historical mysteries of the Roanoke Colony and Mary Celeste into a super weapon about to be employed by a madman today.  In PANDORA, I turned Pandora’s box (well, jar) similarly into a receptacle for a weapon so powerful, its release could lead to the destruction of the entire world.  You get the idea.

4)  SCIENCE FACTION:  No, that’s not a typo.  Some of the greatest what ifs ever posed led to the most influential thrillers ever written.  Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, for example, which raises the possibility of a hundred Hitler clones being unleashed on the world.  Or Michael Crichton either in The Andromeda Strain (an alien organism with the potential to wipe out life on the planet) or, of course, Jurassic Park (dinosaurs brought back to life).  Or Peter Benchley unleashing a 25-foot Great White shark to terrorize the entire island of Amity in Jaws.  The great Ian Fleming re-imagined outer space as means to create havoc back on Earth in his James Bond thrillers Dr. No and Moonraker.  The thing all these have in common is that they were ahead, way ahead, of the curve.  Few had even heard of cloning before the Ira Levin classic in 1976.  Or that similar technology could bring back the T-Rex prior to Jurassic Park being published in 1990.  And before James Bond, space launches were just something you applauded on television.  Science did and always does offer an endless treasure trove for any writer willing to explore its breadth.  And while history and mythology are there for the taking, science is there for the growing and changing.  History and mythology will be tomorrow exactly what they are today.  Not so with science where every day is different, offering new possibilities and fronts for the world and thriller writers alike.

I could on forever with these categories or more examples in the ones I’ve already provided.  But you get the idea, and here’s the thing:  The one thing all thrillers have in common, no matter what category they fit into, is that they awaken the child in all of us by fueling our imaginations and making us feel like a kid again.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather help someone experience.  That’s what I tried to accomplish in THE TENTH CIRCLE.  Give it a read and let me know how I did.


Jon Land is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of 36 books, including the bestselling Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series that includes Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance and, most recently, Strong Rain Falling. The Tenth Circle marks the second return engagement of his longtime series hero Blaine McCracken on the heels of last year’s Pandora’s Temple which was nominated for a Thriller Award and received the 2013 International Book Award for Best Adventure Thriller. Jon’s first nonfiction book, Betrayal, meanwhile, was named Best True Crime Book of 2012 by Suspense Magazine and won a 2012 International Book Award for Best True Crime Book. He is currently working on Strong Darkness, the next entry in the Caitlin Strong to be published in September of 2014. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Brown University, where he continues to maintain a strong volunteer presence, in 1979 and can be found on the Web at

Catch Up With the Author:


Genre: Thriller
Published by: Open Road Integrated Media
Publication Date: December 24, 2013
Number of Pages: 420
ISBN: 978-1480414792

1590: An entire colony of British settlers vanishes from their settlement on Roanoke Island, seemingly into thin air.

1872: The freighter Marie Celeste is found drifting at sea off Gibraltar, its entire crew and passengers gone missing without a trace.

But what if there’s a connection between two of the greatest historical mysteries ever? And what if the roots of that connection lie in a crazed plot to destroy the United States as we know it today?

Those are the questions confronting Blaine McCracken as he takes up the trail of small time preacher Jeremiah Rule whose hateful rhetoric has done big time damage by inflaming an entire people half a world away, resulting in a series of devastating terrorist attacks stateside. Rule, though, isn’t acting alone. A shadowy cabal is pulling his strings, unaware they are creating a monster soon to spin free of their control.

McCracken has just returned from pulling off the impossible in Iran, ridding the world of one terrible threat only to return home to face another. Isolated in a way he’s never been before and now hunted himself, he’ll have to rely on skills and allies both old and new to get to the heart of a plan aimed at unleashing no less than the Tenth Circle of Hell. This as he contends with a failed congressman intent on changing the country to fit his own vision and an Iranian assassin bent on revenge.

Blaine’s desperate path across country and continent takes him into the past where the answers he needs lie among the missing Roanoke colonists and the contents of the Marie Celeste’s cargo holds. Those secrets alone hold the means to stop the Tenth Circle from closing. And as the bodies tumble in his wake, as the clock ticks down to an unthinkable maelstrom, McCracken and Johnny Wareagle fight to save the United States from a war the country didn’t even know it was fighting, but might well lose.


  1. I used to read quite a few 'science faction' style thrillers, but haven't dug into the genre for quite a while. May have to dig through Land's catalog and see if any really catch my eye.

    1. I've only read one of Land's thrillers so far, but I quite enjoyed it. I definitely need to do some catching up.

  2. This is a terrific post about "what ifs" and how they relate to fiction, and more specifically thrillers. Not alternate history, but more speculative or maybe imaginative history. Thanks so much for sharing with us!


Post a Comment