thriller

A Bit of a Relief

After my bad experience with Agatha Christie’s mystery set in Ancient Egypt, it was quite a relief to get back to the English countryside, and doubly so to find that the next Christie book in my TBR pile had the typical Christie mix of entertainment and intrigue with just enough character development to give the reader the information they need to try to guess at the murderer.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (which, according to the cover is Miss Marple’s Last Case) was published in 1976, but somehow feels a coupe of decades earlier… in my opinion, a good thing.  And yes, Agatha Christie died a few months before its publication.

Had she lost a step?  I really didn’t think so while reading it–it felt very similar to the work she did in her heyday but–and this isn’t necessarily conclusive evidence–I was able to guess the murderer at a very early stage, and none of Christie’s handwaving made me change my mind.  That’s unusual in the extreme, and I don’t recall doing it all that often (I’d say I guess in maybe one of five caes).

Of course, many of Christie’s books flirt with the concept of fairness.  They’re not murder mysteries in which all the clues are presented objectively so the reader can work alongside the detective, but they are usually veiled and incomplete.  They are more mystery entertainment than actual play-along-with-me kind of mysteries.

Nevertheless, once you know a little about how Agatha Christie works, you can often predict where she’ll go, and in this case it was particularly easy.

Even taking this into account, and despite being a Marple mystery (I personally much prefer Poirot), it was a very enjoyable quick read.  I guess it takes a slipup like the Egyptian thing to make one realize just how consistently good Agatha Christie really was.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on the mystery / thriller genre is anything but cozy.  Timeless is a chilling transition from an intellectual literary mystery to a world of international criminals, violence and murder.  You can check it out here.

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A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  You can check it out here.

How do they do it?

Let me tell you a secret about spy and secret agent-thrillers… but don’t tell anyone.  They’re pretty much all the same, only separated by era.

So in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they were all about lone wolves foiling the Russians deep behind enemy lines.  In the eighties and nineties, about how technology could be exploited in the best way against pretty much the same people, plus china.  Nowadays, it’s all about teamwork and special forces guys (or ex-special forces guys) coming together to demolish drug dealers or terrorists.

What do you mean, everyone knows this already?

Drat.

All right… I’ll try to tell you something you didn’t know, then.  Even though they might all be built to a similar formula, books in that genre are massively entertaining, and keep people not only turning pages, but buying more books.

Case in point, Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive, actually written by Grant Blackwood (I assume that this is the case, even though Clancy was still alive when this one was published).

Tom Clancy Dead or Alive - Grant Blackwood

It follows the standard formula to the letter–a formula, I might add that Clancy had an important role in creating.  Ex-special forces guys and a clandestine government agency find out where the head honcho of a terrorist organization (a Bin Laden type) is, and move to take him down, racing against the clock because the man has set several terrorist attacks agains the US in motion.

You kinda know how it’s going to end, but you still don’t stop reading.

As a science fiction writer, this embarrasses me.  Why?  Because, even though science fiction has all of space and time to play with, too much of the modern stuff is boring, navel-gazing, literary tripe.  Characters take center stage to the point where they become whiny and neurotic (also, if a character doesn’t have at least five reasons for people to be prejudiced against them, it seems that they can’t play a starring role), pushing aside the setting and situation, which is what makes SF compelling in the first place.

It’s gotten to the point where I steer clear of a lot of new science fiction until I see reviews from people I trust that tell me what I need to know.  If the book is described as “uplifting”, “human”, or “beautiful”, all sorts of alarms start flashing.

Fortunately, even the most disposable and interchangeable of spy thrillers guarantees a fun read, so there’s always something on the shelf to take your mind off the anguish that is modern literature in other genres.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station: Death, and he guarantees that you won’t be bored by it.

The Chameleon of Spy Writers

A few years ago, I was bored, so I raided my father’s library for something to read.  Having already read through his collection of Ludlum books–my father likes his spy fiction–I chanced to find a book entitled No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth.

Unexpectedly, this one turned out to be a collection of short spy / secret agent / international terrorism tales.  Now setting aside the obvious question this poses (namely, could anything be more seventies than a collection of short spy stories?  Didn’t think so), I still vividly remember the plot and twist of the title story more than twenty-five years later.  That doesn’t happen to me very often (I read hundreds of short stories every year-only a handful stick with me).

So when I picked up a couple of Forsyth books published recently, I was expecting good things.

The Cobra - Frederick Forsyth

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how well Forsyth has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about modern espionage and international affairs.  Though his contemporaries (notably Ludlum) have died, I watched them fall a little behind; by their final few books the seventies espionage writers had mostly become dinosaurs reliving the cold war or trying to superimpose its values on more modern conflicts.  Still fun reads, but slightly off.

The Kill List Frederick Forsyth

Apparently Forsyth is immune.  The two books I read recently, The Cobra and The Kill List, treat modern issues with a modern approach.  Well, they are modern in the sense that the people and situations surrounding the main characters are described with an extraordinary sensitivity for how society at large feels about the issues.  Fortunately, however, the main characters are still Neanderthals for whom life and death are separated by a few bullets, which is a beautiful escape from a world which has become just a little too civilized.

The Cobra deals with a creative and final solution to America’s drug problem.  It’s stunning, brilliant, violent, accurate and though I won’t spoil the ending here, I just wanted to say that I was rooting for the Neanderthal to get away with it all through the book.

The Kill List deals with the other major scourge of the era, terrorism.  This one is a bit less imaginative, perhaps, but it does what it’s supposed to: entertain from start to finish and kill a hell of a lot of people in the process.

So yeah, I’d take Forsyth over any number of newer writers.  He still has that magic that can make a story read as a teen still resonate years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a science fiction tale that answers the question of what, exactly posthumanity might entail.  You can check it out here.

An Unexpected Classic

We’ve all heard the premise that, if you were to perfect a time machine, the first thing you’d be obligated to do with it would be to go back in time and kill Hitler before he gained power (as always, the XKCD take on this is likely the greatest ever).  But that’s what people think in the 21st century.

But what about in 1939?  We know that a lot of Americans saw Fascism as a great thing, but how about the rest of the world?

Rogue-Male-by-Geoffrey-Household

Well, at least one British novelist was pretty clear on the subject.  In 1939, Geoffrey Household wrote a slim volume entitled Rogue Male which deals with exactly this subject.  It’s the story of a British gentleman hunter who braves the wilds of Europe to attempt to get the most dangerous game of all into his crosshairs: the most well-defended dictator in Europe.

Though Hitler is never named (remember, 1939 was pretty much appeasement-era Britain, and Household probably preferred not to be shot for treason), not much is left to the imagination.  It can’t really be anyone else.

So we have the answer to our question, at least in one very specific case.

The book itself is probably more significant because of the audacious and unsubtle way it deals with the Hitler issue, but otherwise seemed unremarkable to this modern reader.  I suppose, though, that such an iconic stand more than justifies its status as a classic.  And, of course, the fact that it literally starts with a cliffhanger…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one for me was, that as someone who isn’t an expert on the history of the international thriller (except for The Thirty-Nine Steps), I actually stumbled onto this one.  On the same day that I grabbed The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, I picked up a seventies paperback (see image) with the most lurid pink lettering ever.  Were it not for the cover blurb, I would have been convinced that this one was one of those suburban wife-swapping tales from the decade that taste forgot (“Rogue Male” would have worked rather well as a title for one of those)…  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Recommended for students of the genre, for anyone interested in cultural expressions around WWII unsullied by modern revisionism or just fast-paced thrillers.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a tight thriller that deals with the coming issues of post-humanity.

Inscrutable Seventies Spies

The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin by Brian Freemantle

Brian Freemantle was not a name I was familiar with, but the book–an old paperback from the seventies–was sitting, unloved, in my parents’ library, so I grabbed it and tossed it into my TBR pile.  Eventually, The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin cycled through and I read it, not without some misgivings.

While I will be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly classic literature to rival The Great Gatsby for the title of the greatest book of the 20th century, I found it fun, fast-paced and refreshing.  A kind of James Bond story with an anti-hero in the place of the polished secret agent.

The trick seems to be that it’s only about a couple of hundred pages long, enough to give us the good elements of a spy novel: danger, death, sex and betrayal, without the bloat that seems prevalent in all of today’s fiction.  It’s unfortunate that the American public seems to enjoy buying its books by the pound–they’re missing out.

What it doesn’t have is beautiful, drawn out descriptions, fully fleshed out secondary characters aware that they are the hero of their own story or deep reflections of the condition of man.

It a whole heck of a lot better for it, and drives home the point that genre fiction seems to have lost its way over the past few decades.  Readers aren’t drawn to a thriller of this sort to explore the inherent diversity of the modern world.  Most people don’t consume science fiction to ponder the politics of the Western World (and that’s why, in an age when the highest grossing films are all mindless SF blowouts, the written SF genre is dying a slow death) and they don’t read murder mysteries to get an up-to-date moral treatise about the state of a post-truth world.

Unfortunately, critics don’t seem to understand any of the above, and attack novels who fail to pass their silly postmodern standards despite being perfectly good manifestations of their genre.

This is why I always try to pick up books–even ones I hadn’t heard of–from earlier eras.  They remind us of what we’ve lost in this useless obsession with making everything literary.  The humorless drones of postmodernism have managed to take all the fun out of… well out of everything.

Fortunately, despite attempts at revisionism, they are still far from succeeding in removing the old stuff from circulation, or sanitizing and applying revisionist theories to everything.

Here’s hoping they fail, and the old dinosaurs come back into vogue.  If you’ve already read James Bond, then Charlies Muffin is a good place to continue!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion is an action packed romp that should remind you of what science fiction used to be… and that’s a good thing.

Another Busy Dead Guy

The Janson Command - Paul Garrison

A couple of months ago, I discussed how Tom Clancy seems to be busier than ever now that he’s dead.  Well another highly productive dead guy is Robert Ludlum, whose The Janson Command I recently read (review: it is a fun book.  Not likely to be on college curricula in 500 years’ time), and which got me thinking.

Of course, Ludlum and Clancy share a target audience which I would assume is mostly male and mostly uninterested in the finer points of, for example, the works of the Brontë sisters.

I would also imagine that their audience is aging.  The importance of violent men who live in the shadows and hurt people who need it seems to be lost on the younger generation.  I’d say the core audience for these is probably people who remember the Cold War.

Then again, I might be wrong.  There’s a series of blockbusters about Jason Bourne which I assume are not being watched only by the graying crowd…

Who knows.

The truth is that I joined both of these men with their careers already in progress, in about 1990 if I remember correctly.  Even then, Ludlum was already considered a master of the spy genre, creating the template for the bestselling novels of that type that followed.  Clancy, of course, had recently become a trillionaire with The Hunt for Red October and had written what was by far his best book: Red Storm Rising (seriously – if you read only one Clancy in your life, make sure it’s this one).

Ironically, there was already a dynamic at work between the two men: the passing of a torch.  Clancy had conquered most of the older writer’s thunder, a good chunk of his audience, and younger readers who wanted to move on from the old LeCarré-meets-dynamic-writing style perfected by Ludlum.

I say ironic because, by keeping the two alive as brand names and forcing up-and-coming thriller writers to write in universes already created, the presence of the zombies on the bookshelves is keeping the next torch-pass from happening.  And no, Dan Brown isn’t the same.

I wonder how long it will take for a new name to come into its own the way they did.  No one has come close so far, but when they do, I think these zombies might crumble to dust.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and blogger who isn’t dead (or is he?  How can you be sure?).  His latest novel is a comic romp in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

Bluebeard the Great Dictator

Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin - 1947

Of the three great silent film comedians, Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton, I always ranked Charles a very, very distant third.  His melodrama and tortuously drawn out scenes of awkwardness never quite caused me to laugh in anything but a nervous way.  You know the type: he, he, when is this scene going to end, he, he.

So his postwar decision to abandon the style that made him famous for a slightly more dramatic form of film, while unpopular at the time, is a bit of a relief to me as I watch the 1001 films.  The Little Tramp is not a character I miss in the least.

Today’s subject, Monsier Verdoux (1947) is about a man who, after getting laid off from his long-held job at a bank, snaps and begins to make money by seducing and killing wealthy widows.  A bluebeard, as those men were called in the day.  Its based on an actual serial killer.

The film was badly received in the US when launched, and one can easily see why.  It’s a bit weird, in the same vein that European films were weird in 1947.  The story is compelling, but the execution and is strange and strays from hollywood norms in jarring ways.

It’s nothing too striking, but enough to make one wonder what just happened which, in a way, fits the tone and theme of the movie well enough.  There is one truly memorable scene in the film, one in which Chaplin’s character, pursued by the family of one of the women he’s killed buys himself just enough time to escape and say goodbye to a girl who was kind to him before, with every avenue open to escape, turning himself in.  It is both poignant and funny – what Chaplin always strove for.

BTW, the above isn’t a spoiler.  Anyone familiar with the lamentable Hays Code era will be aware that criminals need to be brought to justice in the end.

It’s not the strongest film on the list, and probably keeps its place only because it was Chaplin’s favorite of his movies.  Strangely, The Great Dictator is not included in the list I’m following.  Perhaps that’s for the best, as it is likely a very predictable offering.  We all know how to spoof a dictator, but the Marx Brothers were better at it.

My own pleasure came when researching this article.  The name Fritz Leiber jumped out at me from among the cast members.  Turns out that he is the father of the Fritz Leiber who wrote so much amazing Sword and Sorcery from the pulp era to the eighties.  A talented family, then.

Anyway, this one has some sordid interest, a strongly pacifist message at the end and pacing that makes it slightly off kilter.  If that sounds like fun, give it a go.  If not, look  for some Buster Keaton.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most off-kilter story is probably Branch, a novella, available for Kindle.

The Collaboration Effect

I recently read a thriller by Tom Clancy and Peter Telep entitled against all enemies, which got me thinking about collaborations between colossally famous writers and relative unknowns.

The book, entitled Against All Enemies is a good one.  It pits a classic Clancy-esque lone wolf hero against everyone from the Taliban to Mexican drug cartels.  How cool is that?  (Answer: it makes for a very entertaining book which is definitely better than this one).

Tom Clancy Peter Telep Against All Enemies

It’s a successful collaboration which, having read some of Clancy’s later solo efforts, makes one think that Telep did most of the writing.  It also makes one thankful.  Clancy had, either because no one dared to edit his work in his latter years or simply because his writing had deteriorated, become a bloated bore in books such as The Teeth of the Tiger.

But basically, these aren’t collaborations between two bright stars.  For a brilliant example of that, check out Good Omens.  No, these books are built this way for the simple purpose of bringing a steady revenue stream to a needy publisher.

Simply stated, before his death in 2013 Tom Clancy was (and if he’s anything like Robert Ludlum, he still is) a cash cow for his publisher.  But for whatever reason, Clancy couldn’t push out all the books the publisher wanted.  Enter the “created by Tom Clancy” and “Tom Clancy’s Op Center” or whatever.  A similar (albeit not identical) approach works really, really well for books sold under James Patterson’s name.

These books sell.  They adhere to the brand and they give customers what they want.  People know what they’re getting with these. So… are they a good thing or a bad thing?

The people who say “no” will argue that the time wasted with these is time that could be better spent reading the classics.  Or the newest truly deep modern novel which finally explains the human condition.

I beg to differ.

I ascribe to the  school of thought that says that anything that gets people to read is a good thing, even if these books are essentially brain-off beach reads.  That’s fine.  Reading is reading and it isn’t staring at a cel phone to see if anyone has posted something a little less stultifying on Facebook.

And, now that Clancy isn’t writing them, they seem to be reasonably decent books, too.

And besides, afer reading The Stranger, I was ready for something a bit more entertaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, which, if you like a good thriller, should be right up your alley.

Millennium and the Weirdness of Other Cultures – Especially Ones We Think We Know

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

A lot of people on the planet have read the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books so I won’t do a blow-by-blow report regarding my thoughts on the first two books in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Suffice to say that they both center around a young woman named Lisbeth Salander who has enjoyed a truly messed up childhood and emerged scarred and socially inept but brilliant from her trial by fire.  Despite being unable to trust anyone, she manages to team up with the editor of an activist magazine and make life miserable for any number of bad guys.  Her lack of compassion for people she hates makes everything all the more compelling.

The stories themselves are well-paced and good enough to stand on their own (as attested to by their sales numbers), but the truly fascinating stuff is on the fringes.

As I read, I found myself stopping at small, unimportant points in the narrative to shake my head and say “oh, those crazy Swedes.”  In everything from the way people view property, to the way the police act, to the sexual mores of some of the characters (what is considered perfectly normal vs. what causes outrage is interesting), you are reminded that this is not an Anglo-centric worldview, despite being from a Western country not so different from most other Western countries.

There are no truly exotic behaviors in this one, and that’s the fun of the whole thing: the sense that something is just slightly askew from one’s own everyday experience is much richer, in my opinion, than simply reading about the customs of the population of eighteenth century Shanghai (or anywhere else in the eighteenth century, come to think of it!).

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson Cover

We all know that Scandinavian socialism permeates every aspect of life, but perhaps we don’t understand just how deep it runs until you see someone thinking about buying a house or interacting with the police in a Larsson novel–at least I didn’t.

Another interesting thing is that the very center of the series, Millennium magazine, could only really be relevant in a place like Sweden.  Other countries have activist magazines… and they run exposés.  The hard truth of it, however, is that except for the editorial staff and the writers and perhaps their couple of dozen readers (all of whom earnestly believe that what they are doing is both important and relevant), no one cares.  An exposé like the ones Millennium is so good at would basically be shrugged at by the population at large.

It makes for a fun ride, even though, at times, one finds oneself saying “man, am I glad I don’t live in Sweden.”  But then, If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t want to live in most fictional worlds (especially Westeros.  That’s just plain unhealthy).

The kicker, though is that the translators seem to have toned down a bunch of things (as I can’t read Swedish, I can’t attest to that except by secondhand reporting). They definitely changed the titles (the title of the first book was Men Who Hate Women) and also made the dragon tattoo much smaller (in the original it covered Lisbeth’s entire back as opposed to a small item on a shoulder) in order to make it more palatable to Anglicized taste.  I wonder what other fascinating small things they also left out.

So I’d recommend this to Classically Educated readers.  Most of you won’t find yourselves able to generate the moral indignation that someone from Larsson’s background might over the central issues (one of the pillars on which Larsson builds his stories is that corporate greed is something that we should spend all our days in horror of, and that the men behind it are the true monsters of our age…  which seems an odd and trivial thing to get worked up about) but you will still be able to enjoy the stories generated in this world and enjoy the slight moments of “what?  Why?” that pop up out of the blue.

But unless someone can tell me otherwise, I’d recommend against the continuation books.  Those were probably written with the English-speaking population in mind (even though their author is a Swede with a similar background to Larsson), and probably have the quirks dialed back to nearly nothing… killing a good chunk of the fun.