Friday, June 7, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: NOTHING LASTS FOREVER by Roderick Thorp

Okay, so we're back for post #2 in what I hope will be a long-running series where I take a look at favourite thriller novels that have slipped under the radar for one reason or another. And I have to say this is kind of an odd one.

Odd how? Well, while I'm pretty sure most people will already be very familiar with the actual storyline of the novel, I'm not so sure people will be familiar with the book itself. And that's mainly down to two factors. First, I don't think it sold in great quantities on its initial publication and as a result it went out of print fairly rapidly. And two, the movie that ultimately got made of it has now became so ingrained in people's minds that the original source material has been all but forgotten. Which is a real shame, but also kind of understandable when you know the name of the movie:


That's right. 'Die Hard.' Only one of the most successful and influential action thrillers to come out of Hollywood in the last thirty years.

I still remember when it came out in the late eighties. I think I must have gone to see it at least three times. Possibly more. (This was back in the good old days when movies stayed in cinemas longer than a week.) And naturally, there was a tie-in paperback version of the original novel which I duly snapped up after spotting it in my local WH Smith. I mean, I was pretty certain it wouldn't live up to the adrenalin rush of the film, but I thought it was at least worth the gamble.

How right I was.

But before going any further, I think now might be a good time to give a basic outline of the story, just in case you're one of the seven or eight people on the planet who've never seen 'Die Hard'. It's really very simple and goes something like this:

It's Christmas Eve. Joe Leland, a fifty-something, widowed, ex-New York cop, arrives in LA to spend Christmas with his daughter, Stephanie Gennaro, a high-powered executive at Klaxon Oil, and her two children. He shows up at her place of work, a forty-story building in downtown LA, during the Christmas party. Unfortunately, twelve German terrorists also show up, quickly taking over the whole building and grabbing the 75 attendees as hostages. But they miss the 76th, Leland himself, who armed with only his service piece and knowing full well the kind of people he's dealing with, decides the only way to get his daughter and the others out safe is to do it himself. Thus begins a lethal game of cat and mouse as Leland runs around the skyscraper attempting to pick off the terrorists one by one before they can get to him.

I'm not sure how long it took me to read the book. Three hours, maybe four. At 232 pages it's only a short novel, and believe me, those pages really flew by that day. But once I'd finished, I came away with two major impressions: (1) the book was just as thrilling as the film, if not more so, and (2) that Roderick Thorp sure could write.

But what I also really like about the novel is that it's a lot more hard-boiled and a damn sight darker than the movie version, with far more serious themes running through it. Like loss, regret and redemption. The kinds of themes you don't expect to see in a blockbuster thriller (or at least, I didn't when I first read it). And Leland's not a superhero like the character Bruce Willis plays, but a real human being in his mid to late fifties who's scared shitless throughout much of the story, but who somehow just keeps on going anyway.

I also love the way Thorp chooses to tell his story. Although he writes it as a third person narrative it actually feels like it's being told in the first, and that's because Thorp never leaves Leland's head. Not once. The reader only ever sees what Leland sees, feels what Leland feels, experiences what Leland experiences, which really ups the tension tremendously.

Another surprising thing is that almost all of the major setpieces of the movie are already right there in the book. For instance, that part where Bruce Willis drops the chair full of C4 down the elevator shaft and blows up half the building? Present. Willis jumping off the roof with the aid of a fire hose while SWAT helicopters blow up all around him? Leland does it first in the book. And while Leland doesn't crack wise quite as often as Willis does in the film, he still gets a few good zingers in there every now and then.

For instance, my favourite's probably the moment when right after killing one terrorist, Leland then tells him, 'When you see what's coming, Skeezix, you're going to be glad you're dead,' before throwing him off the roof with a triumphant, 'Geronimo, motherfucker!' (Oddly enough, the film-makers left out the first part, but kept the second).

Or there's the occasionally witty repartee between Leland and Al Powell, his younger police counterpoint down on the ground:

     'Now how do you make the situation?'
     'The roof is easier to defend than to take. They're very heavily armed and - '
     'How about you?'
     Leland thought of the Browning and that Little Tony might be listening. 'I'm in business,' he said.
     'How do we recognize you?'
     Leland smiled. 'I'm black. I wasn't when I started, but I am now.'

And did you know that 'Nothing Lasts Forever' is actually a sequel to an earlier novel of Thorp's called 'The Detective'? That one was a hit in the late sixties and Hollywood also made a film of it, just like they did with this one. And guess who played the role of Leland. Give up? Frank Sinatra. That's right, Frank Sinatra. (So if you ever get a Trivial Pursuit question that asks you what connects Frank Sinatra and Bruce Willis, now you know.)

Although accounts vary, it seems Thorp started writing the novel after seeing 'The Towering Inferno' (or after reading 'The Glass Inferno') and when he went to sleep that night he began dreaming about a man being chased through a skyscraper by men with guns. 'Not a bad idea for a novel,' he thought (probably) and got to work. As you might expect, upon publication the movie rights were snapped up pretty quickly and a screenplay produced. First choice for Leland? Sinatra, of course. Despite the fact that he was in his mid-sixties and hadn't acted in a decade. Naturally, he turned it down. Next choice? Robert Mitchum. Who also turned it down with the quite reasonable comment that he sure wasn't going to start running around and jumping off buildings at his advanced age. But Robert Mitchum as Joe Leland. It's an enticing thought, isn't it?

To be honest, I could go on raving about this book for another fifteen paragraphs, but I think I've got my point across already. But just in case I haven't, I hereby declare 'Nothing Lasts Forever' AKA 'Die Hard' by Roderick Thorp to be a stone-cold classic which should be read by all serious thriller fans, post-haste.

And what's more, you don't even have to pay over the odds for it anymore. I recently found out it's been republished in paperback and it's also available on Kindle.

So what are you waiting for?

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