Monday, August 26, 2013

A Superior Thriller

[Well, at least, that was the title I started with, as I began reading Michael Connelly’s Chasing the Dime.  It flags midway;  towards the end, I just wanted it to wrap it up and get it over with -- the fewer arbitrary last-minute plot-twists  the better.]

The background to Connelly’s thriller is highly promising:  hi-tech industrial espionage, such as has been brilliantly depicted in the movie “Duplicity”, and the thriller Paranoia, by Joseph Finder, and (even better) Neil Stephenson’s unclassifiable Cryptonomicon.  And the immediate premise, the McGuffin as it were, is likewise delightful:  A sciency guy, trying to make a killing in business, having moved into a bare apartment after his divorce, and with (accordingly) a new landline, immediately gets a host of calls for a mysterious “Lilly”;  the callers never leave their names, but hang up.   Apparently he was assigned a discontinued number previously used by a high-priced call-girl.  Instead of simply asking the phone company for a new number stat, he is intrigued, and is drawn in deeper, and deeper, beyond his depth …

There are some excellent high-tech vignettes early on (I once worked in that milieu, and can testify), but they peter out.   The real disappointment, though, is that the author, instead of trusting his instincts (for some voice within  was surely calling to him here) and allowing his protagonist to pursue his ananke unfettered, trumps up some frigging dimestore-psychology miniseries sentimental backstory, “explaining” why the protagonist  reacted as he did.   He thus progressively abandons any engagement with the unconscious drives that impel us, with results that are ultimately banal.

To be fair … The prose is literate, intermittently humorous; and there is just one Chandleresque fragment:

She had  looped over her shoulder  a purse that looked big enough to hold a pack of cigarettes  but not the matches.


C.S. Lewis somewhere (in time, in retirement, I might recover the passage) surveys the spectrum of plot-outlines, and notes that that of Orpheus  retains its power to spellbind, even in a bare-bones form, whereas that of almost all worthy modern novels, become as dust  upon such summary.

We venture now  upon that territory  where words fail …  We have ourselves depicted the obsessive pursuit of das Ewig-Weibliche, in the story  “Lost and Found”, reprinted in the collection I Don’t Do Divorce Cases (free excerpt available here).

[For more hot detective stuff -- here:  ]


[Update, 29 October 2013]   People keep viewing this post, even though it doesn’t really say anything interesting.  So at least I’ll say something more along these lines, even though it won’t be especially interesting either.

Exhibit B:  The King of Torts, by John Grisham (2003).
The couple of times I’ve tried to read a Grisham book, the writing was so bad -- simply at the paragraph level -- that I had to toss it aside.   But this one begins really well.   Some tasty phrasing (“He stutter-stepped forward, [ankle-]chains rattling.”), and surprisingly likeable characters, with fine writerly observation of the family dynamics in the country-club scene.  The ostensible plot premise is ridiculous, but I figured it was just a ruse -- the first layer of the onion, which would be peeled, Spanish-Prisoner-fashion, until we reached the center and either found the key or (post-modern fashion) found it hollow.

The initial premise, which sets the action going, is perfectly adequate for genre fiction:  A company has been testing an experimental drug to treat addiction , which alas turns some of its users temporarily into homicidal maniacs.   Testing is discontinued and the drug is never marketed.   Fair enough so far.   Only now the novelist adds:  In addition to the usual sort of testing in faraway hapless third-world countries, some testing went on right in Washington , on hardcore addicts-- but in such secrecy that there could not be, without inside information and enormous investigative effort, any way of proving this.  And, the small handful of actual murderers having either died or recovered from their drug-induced homicidal mania, and the victims being all of them the usual lowlifes, the books have been closed on these cases, as being just the sort of thing that goes on all the time among the marginal population in D.C.  --  Okay, a bit of a stretch, but we are happy to pay out thus much rope to the author, and see where he will run with it.

But then, Grisham goes off on an absurd tangent:   A shady character contacts a burnt-out no-rep Public Defender, and offers him wealth beyond the dreams of avarice if he will simply … Well, not so simply, because it makes no sense, neither in Realityland nor in fiction.

The P.D. is supposed to go somehow snuffle-out the ‘families’, the ‘bereaved’, of the late lowlifes;  whom-all, given their life-styles, were not exactly close.
Next, he is supposed to REVEAL THE WHOLE DASTARDLY PLOT;  and offer to pay them off, with millions.
Now, by intra-novelistic hypothesis, the dark facts were a priori  unlikely to surface;  whereas this ‘strategy’ is playing with dynamite. 
OK so, we who have been schooled on David Mamet and other artisans of the scheme-within-a-scheme, will already have surmised …

[Updated here]

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