The three most important elements of David Morrell’s work are his focus on thrillers, his early themes (before his son’s death), and his later themes (after). Morrell takes the role of thriller writer seriously. He never apologizes for writing to excite and entertain readers. Action is at the core of his work, but his books also examine specific ideas that Morrell finds interesting. Creepers introduced readers to urban exploration, where people venture into storm drains, abandoned subway lines, and derelict buildings in search of the past. Scavenger (2007) wove information about time capsules and virtual reality into the action scenes.
Because of the thriller’s pace, Morrell’s characters are typically sketched quickly and in broad terms. He is sometimes criticized for creating shallow characters. There are certainly commonalities among his characters. Frank Balenger was created for Creepers and Scavenger, two of Morrell’s later books, but is remarkably similar to Rambo, from his first novel. Both Balenger and Rambo were in the military special forces. Both experienced the trauma of war, and both suffered capture and torture by enemies. In fact, almost all of Morrell’s characters are either former members of special forces, spies, or assassins, and though Morrell was never in the military, his characters follow a military-style code that demands honor, loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice. After moving to Santa Fe in 1992, however, Morrell began introducing more mature male/female relationships into his work.
Before his son’s death in 1987, Morrell’s primary themes seemed to be fear, especially of war and violence; security and its loss; a son’s search for his father; religion; and personal identity. These themes were a natural result of his own childhood. He feared abandonment because his mother had already left him once. He feared war because the father he never knew died in one, and he feared violence because he saw it on the streets and experienced it through countless arguments between his mother and stepfather. He also desperately craved a father and was envious of friends who had fathers. His search for a father led him to strong men who significantly affected his life, including Silliphant, Young, and Klass. His Roman Catholic upbringing led him to create a significant number of Catholic characters, including Rambo, and his curiosity and confusion over his own history led to a crisis of personal identity that informs many of his works.
Many of Morrell’s early themes continued in the second half of his career, after his son’s death, but these themes were often altered slightly, and new themes were added. Fear and violence continued to play major roles in his work, perhaps best illustrated in The Protector (2003), which features a chemical that can literally frighten people to death. Morrell’s interest in the nature of personal identity also continued, in such books as Assumed Identity (1993), in which a retired intelligence agent is confused about his real identity after years of assuming the identities of others. Morrell’s interest in security followed him into the 1990’s and beyond, but the focus became less about personal security and more about family security. In First Blood, Rambo has to take care of only himself, and his personal security begins and ends with his individual skills. In contrast, in The Protector, the security agent hero depends on a...
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