Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Thriller Literature (expanded)

From time to time (not too often nowadays), I am seized by a hankering for a whodunit, or (in a different mood) a thriller.   Such a yen is as elemental and sensuous as that for a milkshake or hamburger.  Yet while the latter are a snap to satisfy, the only check being a rather abstract concern about cholesterol and expanding waistlines,  it has become increasingly difficult even to half-satisfy the craving for thrillers or mysteries.  We must sadly conclude that the chefs and confectioners  have done their work better than have the authors.

Time was, in the 1950’s, myself a lad of eight and nine, such satisfaction could as readily be had as that of a hamburger -- both being limited only by my own exiguous financial resources, the principle income to which was provided by a weekly allowance, first of a nickle, later of ten cents.   This happy circumstance, which has proven unreproducible in later life, resulted from the perfect intersection between my uncomplicated ladly desires, and the workmanlike industry of the team of anonymous ghostscribblers at the Stratemeyer Bookbarn, who regularly churned out the Hardy Boys.

Eheu!  ubi sunt?

[Footnote:   Now even those simple pleasures, while of course subjectively unrecapturable,  cannot easily be objectively reviewed, since the whole series was bowdlerized, dumbed-down, and politically corrected, beginning just around the time I stopped reading them.]

Herewith, something in the forlorn spirit of A Guide to Fine Dining in Oshkosh, or The Antiquities Museums of Gary, Indiana,  our attempts to provide anyhow a bit of reflection and guidance.

Commercial Break
A private detective  confronts the uncanny;
an ecclesiastical mystery:
Murphy Calls In a Specialist

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 (available here).

Blogspot for detective fiction:

[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 …
-- No -- Cut;  life is too short;  not even worth dissecting to criticize.

At the point at which I bailed out,  the novel threatened to become a Tendenz-roman -- an anti-tort tract:

“That’s outrageous!”
No, Clay, that’s mass tort litigation at its finest.  That’s how the system works these days.”

Now, abuses of tort law are indeed worth fighting and even satirizing;  but fiction is not an especially effective vehicle, especially if you start out with a plot that seems to take place on Jupiter.


Relax with the Murphy brothers,
tough-talking, pistol-packing,
two-fisted private eyes:


I won’t have anything to say about the works of Tom Clancy, which are too well known to need notice, but merely advert to an apparent deep cleavage in his oeuvre, and an odd publishing decision by Putnam.   They put out a nice hardbound edition boasting “Two Complete Novels”, with font large enough for these aging eyes:  Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin.   Yet, offering these bound together is like confecting footwear out of an oxford for the left foot, paired with a wooden clog for the right.  For while The Cardinal of the Kremlin is quite in line with the other Jack Ryan thrillers, with a solid plot and a scattering of excellent lines, Red Storm Rising -- not one of  the Ryan series -- seems to be written for twelve-year-olds.   I flipped through the thing in increasing disbelief -- not a single good thing to say about it anywhere.  It read more like the script for a video game than a real novel:  and indeed, pursuing the thing into Wikipedia, I learned that such is exactly what it has become.
The decent thing to do in a case like that, is to use a separate pen-name for potboilers that are unlikely to appeal to readers of your main line.

[Update 18 July 2015]  I thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Finder’s 2014 thriller Suspicion.   The only other book of his I’ve read -- likewise excellent -- is his industrial-espionage thriller Paranoia (2004).    Only after-the-fact did I realize that the books share an identical premise to trigger the action.
In both cases, a likeable protagonist engages in a piece of legally sketchy behavior, not for selfish reasons, but to aid another.  And in both cases, another party, with a sinister agenda of their own, discovering his role, use that leverage to grab him by the short-hairs and force him into extremely delicate and dangerous behavior.
The fact that I didn’t realize until afterwards that, to that extent, I was reading the same book over again, simply illustrates the role of motifs in literature.  It is no crime to swipe them, to reuse them consciously or unconsciously.  In the Middle Ages, that was taken for granted.   And even today, in genre fiction, it is recognized to be no harm no foul if the book or movie employs such tried-and-true vignettes as the Spy Called Out of Retirement (the Cincinnatus motif), or car chases, or femmes fatales.

[Update 19 July 2015]  By an accident of meteorology, I found myself in the atrium of the local library, a lethal heat outside, and A/C like an ice-blanket within.  Seeking an excuse to remain amid the soothing cool, I browsed a bit, and stumbled upon another Joseph Finder -- Buried Secrets (2011).
Today, sheltering indoors, I curled up with the book.   This time, parallels to Suspicion  leap to the eye  immediately.

*  Both novels focus on a teen daughter, product of swank New England boarding schools, abducted by a sinister crime organization (in one case genuinely, in the other only initially-supposedly, a Latino drug cartel).
Now, I myself never had a daughter, and didn’t attend prep school:  but with the slightest tip of the die, I might well have done so.  Therefore these themes are of personal interest, as being might-have-beens, real in a closely adjoining alternate universe.  
So, I read and imagine.  Along the way, I meet the slang that has come into currency since the Beatles broke up.
*  The central target of elaborate blackmail is a very wealthy man who made his pile in high-finance, hedge-fund type activity.  In either case, he has an over-manicured tarty trophy bride, whom we see in her “soapstone-topped” sparkly kitchen.  In both cases, in addition to his criminal pursuers, the magnate is being closely monitored by Federal law enforcement (FBI bzw. DEA), who are wise to his game.
 About halfway through, though, Buried Secrets begins to unravel.  Oh well.


 Seeking a book suitable for a bedtime story, I picked up a "Grantchester" novel by James Runcie, specifically Sydney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (consciously echoing titles from the Harry Potter series).  It has two things going for it:  a not-quite-contemporary English setting; and an ecclesiastical detective protagonist (the cover calls him a "clergyman-sleuth", rather recalling the old designation of gentleman-cambrioleur).

Unfortunately, the plotting is weak, the style merely workmanlike, and the theological content -- which made the Father Brown stories so uniquely fine -- nonexistent.  (I tried my hand at one of those -- Father Brown meets Sherlock Holmes -- here:

http://worldofdrjustice.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-narrow-escape.html )

Only in the very last story does the author comes up with a nice ‘high-concept’ premise:  During a performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, when the actors all stab Caesar, apparently one of the knives was real, and the gentleman playing Caesar dies for real.  Only -- that plot isn’t really pursued, even along such elementary lines as autopsy.   Instead, Runcie goes in for a spate of virtue-signalling, loftily condemning those who, in 1953, failed to adhere to the politically-correct line on homosexuals prevailing 2012.   He makes the murderer be a homophobe; boo.


E. Phillips Oppenheim was once an extraordinarily popular author.  His The Spy Paramount (1935) was recently re-issued in a handsome paperback, in the series “British Library Spy Classics”, for a song -- or, remaindered at Daedalus, for a snatch.  The back-jacket copy accurately describes the book as a forerunner of Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” series -- a debonnair spy, of no particular politics, who zips from locale to locale as though in a movie.  Since the book was published shortly after the Machtergreifung, and is set in western Europe, I had high hopes, for a period feel at least.

The book is terrible.   Plot, dialogue, characterization, sense of period or place, all are throwaway.   Where Raymond Chandler’s advice to thriller author’s whose muse had fallen mum, was to “have someone come through the door with a gun” (after which, you’ll think of something), the earmark of this school is to have bigwig snarl or splutter something --

“That is all very well, General,” the Prime Minister declared impatiently.

The titular character is never shown actually doing or saying anything intelligent, nor as displaying genuine bravery as opposed to bravura, but he gets praised constantly:

“Fawley is the only man in Europe today who can save us from war.”

It’s like the fantasy of a nine-year-old.  From the psycho-developmental perspective, the book represents a case of arrested development, well below the level of, say, the Hardy Boys, who are modest, resourceful, brave but not foolhardy, respectful towards their detective father from whom they learn much.


John Grisham, The King of Torts (2003).  (Rescued from my wife’s throwaway-pile, retained to some period of cerebral insufficiency and rainy days.)

(1) The novel begins with a hapless Public Defender, who is stuck with the case of a typical pointless young black D.C. murderer.   Only, it turns out there’s a funny drug angle --  prescription drug that might have homicidal side-effects.
(2) Later, a Man of Mystery  enters the scene from nowhere, and (unaccountably) gives the P.D. inside dope, that leads him on towards fortune.
(3)  Later still, an old-hand superstar tort-lawyer takes our erstwhile P.D. into his confidence, proposing a partnership.

So far, nothing much of interest.  But I stuck with it, imagining developments that really would not have been than difficult to unroll:

(1’) Manchurian Candidate scenario.  International implications.  The random D.C. shooting was only an experiment.  Ultimate target:  The President.
(2’) M. of M. is working for …. (shadowy entity  too numinous to name).
(3’) A “Spanish Prisoner” scenario -- obviously the superstar is playing the P.D., maybe even working for the company P.D. is suing.

Only … None of that comes to pass.  Instead, it’s all just more of the same -- this lawsuit and that lawsuit, ultimately descending to the level of some mismixed bricks in Baltimore.  It is like reading the Baltimore police blotter for a year -- nothing is significant in itself, and nothing relates to anything else.

How could the author bother to write such drivel?  Why do people buy it and read it?

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