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.
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.