The Killer

The Characters of Steel Fear, Part 4

John David Mann


This seven-part series takes a behind-the-scenes look at the cast of characters in the military thriller Steel Fear, co-authored by John David Mann and SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, and explores the process of conceiving them and bringing them to life on the page. You can find the first part of this series here.

Of all the characters I’ll touch on in this series, the killer is the only one that’s hard to say much about. Impossible, actually—because if I did, I’d be spilling major spoilers. There are plenty of characters on board the USS Abraham Lincoln who could be the killer and who actually might be the killer. But I can’t tell you who actually is the killer.

I can tell you a little bit about him, though. He is mostly unseen. There are glimpses, fleeting appearances and no more, not until the story’s climax when he is finally unveiled. In those brief sightings, he seems almost non-human. 

“The face was staring at her, peering into her eyes. Like it was watching her thoughts. It looked like an insect. Hungry. A shiver ran through her nerves, though her body was still as stone. The insect cocked its head. Drinking in her revulsion. Feasting on her fear. It reached out to touch her shoulder…”-Steel Fear

It behaves like an insect. After stabbing its victims with a paralytic agent, it stares at them through goggles and speaks only in rasped whispers. At one point, it giggles, though it does not smile. 

For great stretches of the book, the people charged with tracking down the killer struggle to work out his motive. The assaults don’t appear sexually driven. Hate crimes, maybe, targeting female, gay, and ethnic demographics? Revenge? Enlisted-to-officer resentments? Nothing quite gels. 

Eventually, they conclude that the perp’s purpose may be purely to create fear. The serial killer is, at heart, a terrorist.

Here’s how Lew Stevens, the ship’s psychologist, sums it up: 

“ ‘In my career, I’ve heard thousands of people spill their worst fears. Ninety-nine percent of those fears are basically insubstantial: echoes of traumas long past, baseless anxieties about imagined future calamities. Maybe one fear in a hundred concerns something real, something bad that could genuinely be about to happen. The hungry lion circling you in the jungle; the wildfire surrounding your house.’ 

‘That’s what we’ve got here. This place is on fire—on fire with fear. And not the hypothetical kind, not the typical anxieties of modern living. We’ve got six thousand people all terrified of the monster under the bed—but the monster is really there.’

‘My guess is, that’s the result our killer is after. Not the thrill of the kill: the thrill of the emotion his kill elicits. Yes, he’s started taking trophies, but in this case, the trophies aren’t for himself, they’re for us. For everyone on board. I don’t think he gets off on the killing per se. He gets off on the building terror.’ ”-Steel Fear


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Why Write a Killer?

While I can’t tell you much more than that about the killer, I can tell you this: he was the hardest of all the characters to write. When Brandon approached me way back in 2009 about writing a serial killer thriller, the idea was about as far from what I was doing as Pluto is from the Sun. I’d spent my adult life writing about nice, upstanding things like leadership, personal development, and excellence. Positive things. 

So why would I want to spend a year or two of my life plumbing the mind of an evil, sociopathic person who caused obscene amounts of pain and suffering? Why write stories about murder in the first place? The question gnawed at me for the better part of a decade.

There’s an easy answer, of course. “Everyone loves a good mystery.” There is something deeply satisfying about working out a good puzzle. Everyone loves a good mystery. Still, there are all sorts of puzzles you could write. Why murder? And why such grisly, awful murders?

Maybe because murder is the ultimate misfortune, the worst of all possible hardships. 

As the killer Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) says in David Webb Peoples’ masterpiece of a film, Unforgiven:

“It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away everything he’s got, everything he’s ever going to have.”

When you write about murder, I think you’re writing about more than the homicide at hand. You’re writing about everything and anything bad and painful that can ever happen to us, all the troubles, tragedies, and unfairness the world can throw at us. You’re writing about the whole freaking Book of Job.

Not all of us face actual murders in our lives. But we all suffer struggles and frustrations, disappointments and crushing defeats, betrayals and tragedies. The world is beautiful, but it can also be a hard f****** place. And that, I think, is why we love to write and read about terrible murders committed by terrible killers. 

Because it’s so damn satisfying when we catch them.

Photo; SOFREP file

Special Holiday Offer!

Purchase STEEL FEAR as a gift and John or Brandon will send a short personalized cameo-style video to your gift recipient if purchased before December 18th. Just send us a screenshot of your purchase on the SOFREP contact page here, include the gift recipient’s name, and a good email for us to send out your custom video. 

John David Mann is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at