thriller

The Pharaoh Key: Not a Good First Impression

As you probably know by now, I’m not exactly a prude when it comes to page-turning action books what the establishment turns its nose up at. I make no secret that I loved The Da Vinci Code, and still read Dan Brown’s books when they are released.

But, to my surprise, I found that I actually do have standards below which I get annoyed. Who’d a thunk it?

The Pharaoh Key was purchased at an airport for a couple of reasons. The first was purely research–I was interested to see what kind of books in the adventure (as opposed to international espionage) genre were selling in sufficient numbers to justify high-value real estate in a Hudson News outlet. The second was that the book looked really fun, and it could also serve as a gift for my father, who enjoys this kind of thing.

The first red light was when my dad, after reading it said he thought it was awful, but since he’s more into the spies than ancient treasure, I assumed that was where he was coming from.

It might actually have been where he was coming from (I didn’t ask him when he read it and haven’t discussed the book with him since), but my own dislike for this one comes from a completely different source: the writing makes Dan Brown look like Oscar Wilde, and the outrageous stuff that happens often throws you out of the plot.

I’m usually fine with that second one, so I dug into it a bit more. Just why did the outlandishness of the whole thing bug me so much?

Perhaps the first part is that, unlike Brown, the actions and descriptions of some of the exotic places didn’t ring true. The way the characters remove themselves from police custody at one point is utterly imbecilic, while the plot point of a lost tribe living in the Egyptian desert rang hollow; for all I know, it might be true, but it just seemed false, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m used to. Maybe that’s because I am an SFF reader. In science fiction and fantasy, authors are experts at making things the reader knows don’t exist seem real. Perhaps I’m spoiled, so when people who have the advantage of usually writing plausible things stretch credibility, I expect them to be better at it than Preston and Child were in this case.

The entire book is full of stuff like that, so my own review, had I left one on amazon, would have been 2 stars. It’s certainly not a one star book: it’s grammatically correct and the writing isn’t actually bad, just a little weak in some key areas.

But, going back to the reason I purchased this one in the first place, I’d like to remind everyone that that my review isn’t the one that matters. I checked Amazon, and readers seem to really like this book, and it’s currently sitting at 4-and-a-half stars. A lot of people have weighed in on it, so it’s not like a couple of the authors’ friends bumped it up.

Clearly, Preston and Child know exactly what their public wants, and write to that target with precision and skill, and while the style might not impress a fellow writer, the ability to find the style and deliver it every single time is extremely impressive. Popular fiction isn’t easy to write, and prose that is technically sound but still appeals to the majority of readers is a finely-honed skill. I probably would have loved this book when I was twelve, and many people still do. That is awesome, and no one should begrudge the authors an iota of their success for catering to their public.

So while I didn’t like this book, I respect it enormously. And now I know what is selling in the adventure thriller market, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, timeless seems to be the exact opposite of the Preston & Child book reviewed above. While theirs is simply written and almost completely asexual, Timeless is very well-written and sexually charged. The only similarity is that both are fast-paced page-turners. You can check out Timeless here.

Tense Start, Brilliant Finish

We’ve done Hitchcock here before (and here and here, and probably in other places I can’t remember off the top of my head).  He pops up with a certain regularity on the 1001 movies list, which is unsurprising.  In fact, the version of the book that I’m using has a still of Psycho on the cover.

Some of the films are extremely well known, and some aren’t.  In my opinion, the subject of today’s post should be much more famous than it is.

Strangers on a Train - Alfred Hitchcock.jpg

Strangers on a Train (1951) deserves to be a household name in motion pictures because of the way it both tangles and untangles the plot.  This is truly a tense film (and that’s not the first time we’ve used that word in the title of a post about a Hitchcock movie) which has the audiences dreading what might happen to the protagonist for most of it.

But the end is so spectacularly well done that it makes the suffering worthwhile.  It’s the best of the Hitchcock endings I’ve seen so far, and it brings the whole movie up as a result.

But it’s not the ending that makes this one a classic, but the setup.  The sheer perverse ideation of the crime in the film makes one admire Patricia Highsmith (of Ripley fame, who originally cooked it up) while, at the same time worrying about her mental state.  This one is really diabolical and worth the price of entry by itself.

A mild spoiler and a word about the murder victim: few times have I been so happy to see a non-antagonist character die in a film.  The little piece of slime who was killed is one of cinema’s truly unpleasant characters, extraordinarily well played by Laura Elliott.

Interesting notes here are that Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat (who is alive as of this writing) played a very convincing role as the love interest’s younger daughter, and there was an Argentinian actor in this, too: Barry Norton.  Always interesting to see my countrymen in American films.

In conclusion, watch this one.  The suspense truly is nail-biting, but it all comes together really well in the end.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina whose own thriller is entitled Timeless.  You can check the book out here.

The Sense of Agatha Christie

The Chalk Circle Man - Fred Vargas

When I started reading The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas, I expected something good–the reviewers can’t ALL be wrong–but I also expected something very French and perhaps a bit existential.

About ten pages into the book, I had a sudden thought: this is what Agatha Christie would be writing if she was alive today.

But that’s ridiculous.  Agatha Christie is the quintessential British writer and, what’s more, she was also a very feminine writer.  Fred Vargas is French and…

And Fred Vargas is also a woman.  Something I didn’t know when I first picked up the book.  That, at least, explains the sense of femininty.

But the other part, the English part? Well, maybe that isn’t there, but there’s definitely a sense of affection for the small town life of France which isn’t that dissimilar from Christie’s familiar milieu.  But, most of all, I realized that Vargas’ main character reminded me enormously of Poirot.

While specifically insisting that, far from being a genius, he is a man of less-than-normal intellect, Adamsberg, Vargas’ Chief Inspector, still gives off that same vibe of knowing what is happening long before anyone else does, and then being proved correct.  And that sense makes you think you’re in a Christie novel.

Morality in 21st century France is very different from that of mid-century England, of course, but the naturality with which sex and unfaithfulness are dealt with is similar to Christie’s deft handling of the same material.

I’m aware that Vargas probably doesn’t want to be compared with the Queen of Crime (and also that many critics would be aghast that I took their avant-garde darling and tried to pigeonhole her this way) but I mean it as the highest praise when I state that this is almost exactly what I’d expect from the Grand Dame if she was alive today.  Recommended, and a quick, engaging read.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless deals with his passion for books and the publishing industry, as well as his fascination for crime syndicates and the deadly game of international smuggling.  You can check it out here.

 

Literature was More Fun in the Seventies

Whenever possible, I try to go through my to-be-read pile in the order in which I acquired or borrowed the books.  Though this sounds incredibly obsessive, and probably is, I’ve found that it helps me to actually read all the stuff I lay my hands on.  Otherwise, I’d immediately read the shiny new stuff and some books would wallow in the pile forever.

But that method also means that stuff tends to come in thematic clumps.  If I happened to swing by a science fiction con, I will have a pile of SF books to read.  If I did an Amazon order, it’s likely that the books will all be from series I’m in the middle of.

This time, I’ve hit a patch of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  They are trashy both because of the quality of the printed object itself (acidic paper seemed to reach its peak in the 70s) as well as for the writing.  By looking at the covers, I’m guessing that there aren’t many literary pretentions in this lot.

But when I read the first, I was immediately delighted to have landed in this batch.

Toll for the Brave - Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is not a writer I was familiar with (although I later realized that he wrote the semi-classic The Eagle has Landed), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work after reading Toll for the Brave.

This was a classic-style seventies thriller where a guy survives against all odds, defeats communism and also beats his tortured (in this case rather literally) past.  Unlike modern takes on the theme, this is a slim volume at just under 200 pages, and yet seems to pack all the necessary action into the story.  The characters are also sufficiently well done that you start to wonder why any book should be thicker than this.

The enemy here are communists, and it’s a particularly nice to see them get their butts kicked by an individualist, filthy-rich product of capitalism.  The whole thing is cheesy and unbelievable, but fun as hell.  I’d felt the same way, quite recently, about The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, which probably ticked the same boxes for the same audience in the era.

I read and enjoy plenty of modern books, but whenever I dip into the seventies, I wonder if we’re not all making a huge mistake by focusing so much energy on avoiding stereotypes and being more character-driven and literary.  That has its place, of course, but there’s also a strong argument to be made for the fun factor.

Seen in a different way, stereotypes are also archetypes–figures that many people who share a cultural background will be able to identify.  They’re a shorthand way of putting the reader at ease, letting him know what’s happening around him without dumping four hundred pages of exposition.  Those little tools make a book more enjoyable for the person picking it up.

There’s a reason books like this one sold in the millions and that’s because they were actually better than watching TV.  They’re also better than watching TV today.

So what should have been a light read of an admittedly preposterous thriller has actually made me think, which is an unexpected bonus.

The first benefit, of course, was that I enjoyed the hell out of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose own preposterous thriller is called Ice Station: Death.  He thinks it’s even more farfetched than the Higgins above, but urges you to check it out for yourself.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

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.

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.