thriller

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.

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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.

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.

Crossing Genres Successfully

As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.

There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth.  When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).

As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered.  Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.

But back to Follett.

His case is different from mine.  I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond.  Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.

Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom.  When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.

Did the historical books succeed despite of this?  Or because of this?

It’s a good question.  My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved.  Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels.  Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.

More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers.  Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels…  and I can kinda tell.

His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy.  They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.

Hornet Flight?  Not so much.  The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat.  Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.

Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills?  If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all.  Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.

I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege.  Everyone loves Siege. 

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.

 

Hitchcock’s Favorite Film

Shadow of a doubt poster

Normally, when we do a review of one of the films on the 1001 Movies list, we attempt to link them to broader social issues; a great case in point is the last one we did, about the Henry Fonda vehicle The Ox-Bow Incident.  Looking further back, it’s a thread that this series of reviews has embraced since even before it moved to Classically Educated.

But sometimes, a movie is so completely timeless that it forces you to take it on its own terms, without really looking into the broader social issues that engendered it.  This could be because the director deliberately strove to keep them out, because the plot was compelling enough to make the viewer ignore them, or because the theme is so timeless that the setting could change in time without affecting it.

Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1944 film Shadow of a Doubt is such a film, mainly for the second and third reasons established above.  This has often been cited as Hitchcock’s favorite film, and the reasons are clear to see – the tension is built brilliantly.

In most films, one of two situations arise: either the viewer is aware of things the characters aren’t, or both the viewers and the characters are equally in the dark, leading to a final reveal.  For this film, Hitchcock chose to twist things around a little, and combine the two.  The viewer has an inkling as to what’s going on, but isn’t quite sure – while the characters remain completely clueless… except for one, except at the very end.

Essentially, the plot revolves around a normal, happy family who gets a visit from a beloved uncle… who has a dark secret, or does he?  One really can’t be sure.

Shadow of a Doubt film still

Another notable thing about this film is that it really could only work effectively as a movie.  If one removes the brilliant withholding of information that the film does by showing some scenes and not others, it would simply be a lineal thriller – and it would be impossible to do this effectively with any kind of novel with a consistent point of view.  And that is what pulls it out of the ranks of the good films and puts it onto this particular list of greats.

It does help that the cast is a good one, with actors in the cast winning (for other projects, not this one) Oscars, Tonys and Emmies.  And Hitchcock’s eye for talent wasn’t bad either – he gave future Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Hume Cronyn his Hollywood debut.

We’re not convinced it’s the man’s best film, as we prefer the earlier British films – but it definitely deserves to be one of the 1001 films.

Edna May Wonacott

Another little tradition we have when watching films that are seventy years old is to give a shout out to the cast members who are still alive.  In this case, our regards go to Edna May Wonacott, who was 12 when she acted in this one!

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