Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THE PRESIDENT'S GRASS IS MISSING by Patricia Breen-Bond

Now if anybody out there's ever read this neat little caper comedy/thriller from 1980, I will be mightily impressed. It sure ain't easy to find these days, but back when I picked it up they were practically giving the thing away. And by 'they,' I mean good old Woolworths. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, it seemed every UK Woolworths store you walked into would have a couple of bargain bins in the book department that were filled to the brim with remaindered, heavily-discounted paperbacks. And I do mean heavily discounted. If my memory serves me correctly they were usually around the 20-25p mark, which wasn't a whole lot even back then. Especially for a book.

But what made it even better was the fact that these were American paperbacks. Or at least most of them were. There were usually some British ones in there, too, but it was always the US ones I gravitated towards as they invariably had the more interesting covers. Wooly's must have had some kind of deal going with the overseas remainder houses or something, because they always seemed to be from second-rate publishers like Belmont-Tower or Leisure Books. You know the ones I mean. The ones with cheap pulpy paper and blue/green dye running along the sides of the pages.

Not that I cared, though. I was like a pig in clover, I really was. Anytime I had a few spare coins on me, I'd head over to my local Wooly's and just dive in and see what treasures would emerge. It was like a lottery. Most were crap, of course, and were probably overpriced at 20p. But every now and then you'd find a little gem, and this was one of them.

So let's take a look at the story itself, shall we?

The president of the title is Paul Eyman, a young, man-of-the-people type who was voted in by a landslide and who's one part charismatic bullshitter and one part eccentric maverick. Which means he often attends Oval Office meetings wearing colourful shirts, jeans and flip-flops, and in the summer usually works in only his swim trunks. Mainly because he's 'the Man' and he can do what he wants. More importantly, however, he also likes to partake in the occasional spliff or two when winding down of an evening. And he also happens to be in a position whereby he can get the best stuff available, courtesy of the Director of the CIA.

Except one morning the Secret Service discover a whole section of the White House lawn has been stolen. And wouldn't you know it - that's precisely where Eyman hid his marijuana. Within minutes, a phone call's put through to the President. The unidentified caller claims he now has the Prez's secret stash stilll wrapped in the original cellophane with the presidential seal on it (good thinking there, people), along with the president's fingerprints. And the price for its return is one billion dollars or it goes straight to the press.

What Eyman and the rest of his cabinet don't know, however, is that this whole scheme began in a corner bar in Upper Manhattan where a few regulars made a bet with a few other regulars about who could come up with the best prank. One group ordered 100 KFC buckets to be delivered to a rival Irish bar, so the other group booked an R&B group to play at the same bar. So far, so harmless. But over the course of a few months the pranks gradually escalate from the mildly irritating to the seriously felonious, such as pretending to be soldiers and stealing weapons from a federal armoury. Anxious for a new challenge, one of them goes as far as to suggest they steal a section of the White House lawn. Which, of course, they succeed in doing (in the prologue, no less), realizing only later that they've also got the main man's private drug supply as well. And naturally, rather than give the pot back, they decide to take things a step further by ransoming it off. The rest of the novel then follows various characters on both sides as they prepare for the handover of a billion dollars in cash. Or not, as the case may be.

So, as you can see, what we have here is the kind of comedy heist caper Donald Westlake perfected with his hilarious John Dortmunder series, as well as a whole host of other standalone novels. Breen-Bond even places the action in the New York area, the setting for most of Westlake's stories. But to be honest, the similarities really end there.

For one thing, the Dortmunder books were almost always played totally as farce (with the notable exception of 'Drowned Hopes'), whereas this one starts out that way but soon morphs into thriller territory as the moment of truth gets closer. Also, while Westlake always grounds his plots so they're at least relatively believable, Breen-Bond makes it fairly clear from the start that reality won't be getting much of a look in here. A pot-smoking president is one thing, but are we really to believe a bunch of blue-collar telephone engineers can train themselves up, prank by prank, to become the most successful criminal heisters in history? And then to blackmail the President himself out of a billion dollars of government funds? I mean, there’s a difference between suspension of disbelief and hanging it by the neck until it's dead, and Breen-Bond comes perilously close to the latter with this book.

But I think the best way to approach this story is to simply get on board and go with it, otherwise you simply miss out on all the fun. Because that's essentially what this book is. Fun. And I have to say that unlikely as it all is, at least the concept's a fairly original one. It also helps that Breen-Bond's able to extract the humour out of almost any given scene. For instance, only a few pages in we witness the cabinet getting together to discuss the problem at hand:

       The flustered, bulldogged-face FBI chief, Douglas Pomeroy, barked out first. 'Mr President, this condition is preposterous. I can assure you that the Bureau will get to the bottom of this at once. No one and I mean no one can get away with stealing the White House lawn.'
       'Thank you. By the way, are you gay?'
       The Secretary had to catch Pomeroy before he toppled the chair.
       'Don't take it so hard, Douglas. It was just a simple question.'
       'But, Mr President, as head of the... the... the...'
       'Bureau,' someone at the other end gently reminded him.
       'Bureau... surely...'
       'Come on, Douggie, a simple yes or no will do. Don't BS me.'
       'Certainly not, Mr President.'
       'Too bad. I was hoping to use it in my next campaign. - that I hire gays. Anybody here gay?'
       The room became quiet as a morgue.

And every few pages Breen-Bond introduces another walk-on character whose sole purpose is to make life that much more difficult for the main players - sometimes without advancing the plot at all. Which is exactly what you want in a caper such as this. The president's dog, for example, makes a notable nuisance of himself during the initial theft when he wants to play fetch. Or there's the bad-tempered rip-off artist who tries to make off with the van holding the stolen turf. Or there's the hostile telephone operator who refuses to give a certain CIA agent any information about the previous caller's location, and even refuses to give him her own name.

But I also like the healthy streak of cynicism that runs through the whole book, too. Corruption is rife throughout, and almost every character is on the make in one form or another. The President and his cabinet are very quick to suggest taking the ransom out of the defence budget, for example, which is about what you'd expect from a group of elected officials. And it goes without saying that almost every uniformed cop in the book is on the take. Then there's another character who needs to rent a car on short notice and has to bribe the rental guy to get what he wants. Or on reconnaissance duties in a deserted building, one of the thieves overhears a foreman and a contractor discussing how to cut corners on the fire sprinkler system so they can pocket the excess funds themselves.

These are just some of the reasons why I like this book, and why I wish Patricia Breen-Bond had written more. She certainly had the potential to become a name author in her field, but it seems she left the publishing world altogether after this one, which is a real shame. But on the upside, at least she left on a high.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: MAYDAY by Thomas H. Block

Now I know for a fact I was still in school when I first read this, because I remember picking it up from my local WHSmith or Woolworths (remember Woolworths?) not too long after it came out, and my best friend at school, Tony, who also shared my love of thriller novels and especially loved anything with planes, bought a copy too so we could read it at the same time. Usually while we were at school. Morning assembly was best. Man, those things were dull and they went on forever, but it was amazing how the minutes flew by when you had a good book to dip into when the teachers weren't looking. And we were both fast readers, too, so invariably one of us would tap the other on the shoulder and casually ask, 'Hey, have you got to page 145 where such and such happens? No? Oh, just you wait, it's so cool.' Oh yes, the art of one-upmanship is mastered at a very early age.

Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure I only read MAYDAY that one time. I don't know why exactly. If I had to guess, it would be because there were so many other books waiting to be read next. That's not to say I wasn't impressed with MAYDAY, however. On the contrary, I was totally gripped from the first page to the last. In fact, I thought that Daily Express blurb on the cover wasn't going far enough. As far as I was concerned this wasn't just the best disaster novel ever, but the best novel ever.

Blame it on the innocent enthusiasm of youth.

But in reading the book again in preparation for this post, I was pleased to discover my memory (which is spotty at the best of times) hadn't been playing tricks on me. Okay, okay, it's hardly the best book ever. It's not even close. In fact, it might not even be the best disaster book I've ever read. But all these years later  it still had me breathlessly turning the pages into the early hours, and that's really all I can ask of any thriller. And I notice it's still in print, too, so it would seem I'm not the only person who feels that way.

The plot, as with most disaster scenarios, is simplicity itself. In this case it begins 60,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean where a state-of-the-art supersonic passenger jet (think a cross between the Concorde and a 747), is heading for Tokyo with a full load of 300 passengers. Unfortunately, it turns out that the US Navy are testing an experimental smart-missile in that very area at the exact same time. What are the chances, eh? And naturally, the missile's internal computer chooses that moment to have a breakdown and decide that the jet would make a far better target than the drone it was originally programmed for.

So, of course, the missile proceeds to strike the new target dead centre, passing straight through the hull like a bullet through a frankfurter. The jet immediately loses cabin pressure and a good percentage of the passengers are swept out the two gaping holes and into subspace. Fortunately, the auto-pilot does its job and takes the jet down to 11,000 feet where the air's breathable. Unfortunately, it's all a little too late, as most of the remaining passengers are either dead or permanently brain-damaged as a result of the decompression and oxygen deprivation. The only exceptions are the five people who were in pressure-stabilized areas (ie. toilets) at the time and are thus still in possession of all their faculties.

And they must now find a way to somehow land the damaged plane while fending off not only hordes of braindead passengers, but the Navy - who want to cover up the accident for obvious reasons - and also the airline itself - who, along with the insurance company, would quickly go bankrupt from all the prospective injury claims if the plane were to actually land.

So, no pressure then.

It's like the author's thought to himself, 'Hmm, what's the worst thing that could possibly happen?' and then decided to ramp everything up to the power of ten. Which is exactly what a thriller writer should be doing in a story like this. Naturally, the pilots in the cockpit are taken out of the equation straight away, along with the radios, which are damaged beyond repair. Added to which, the plane's also rapidly running out of fuel. The Navy commander responsible for the screw-up also turns out to be a complete psychopath, willing to do whatever's necessary to cover up the whole mess, including blowing up the rest of the plane and sinking the evidence in the Pacific. And then we have the chairman of the airline back in San Francisco, who decides all his problems will immediately vanish if the plane never returns.

And as if that isn't enough, you've also got the mobs of brain-damaged passengers ('Zombies On A Plane'?) wandering around the compartments looking for trouble, and thus making life even more difficult for the five remaining 'normal' passengers (consisting of John Berry, a salesman and 'weekend' pilot, two stewardesses - Sharon Crandall and Barbara Yoshiro, a 12-year-old girl named Linda, and an editor, Howard Stein, whose wife and two daughters have just devolved into halfwits).

Now there are a lot of characters in the narrative, both on the ground and off, but Block does a pretty good job of juggling all the strands so the reader never gets lost at any time. Inevitably, some end up as little more than sketch drawings rather than fully fleshed-out people, but the two main survivors, Berry and Crandall, make an interesting pair and display honest (rather than 'Hollywood') emotions throughout the crisis so that the reader can really get behind them every step of the way. And then there's Lt. Peter Matos, the Navy pilot who made the error that caused all this trouble. A career soldier who suddenly realizes his commander is certifiable, on the one hand he's unable to completely break rank and do the right thing, but neither is he prepared to sell his soul to the devil. At least not completely. Despite being only a minor player in the story, his journey turns out to be one of the narrative's more engrossing sub-plots.

But let's hear it for the bad guys, who collectively make the book far more memorable than it might otherwise have been. They really are a gallery of mad bastards. Are they realistic? Well, not really. But are they entertaining to read? Oh, most definitely. First, you've got the Navy commander, Sloan, who just gets nuttier and nuttier as the book progresses. You do wonder if he's ever had to deal with an emergency situation before, because as soon as this one gets underway he just loses it entirely. Everything, and I mean everything, suddenly boils down to how he can save his career. And it doesn't matter how many people have to die - including his own men - in order for that to be achieved.

Then there are the two maniacs on the ground: Johnson, the chairman of the airline itself, and Metz, an insurance representative there to cover his firm's ass. They're just as bad as Sloan, maybe even worse, as they can't even use the old standby 'national security' as an excuse for their behaviour. All they care about are their profit margins. But they're also so over-the-top that it's hard not to rejoice in their evilness. I like to think Block knew full well he was pushing the bounds of reality in this one, so he just went for broke with these two. I mean, it can't be a coincidence that they happen to get some of the best lines in the book. For example:

       Metz slumped forward in his chair. 'Good God! Why didn't you tell me all this?'
       'Why? Because you have no real balls. You were all for this as long as you thought I could come up with a simple technical solution to the problem of putting the Straton in the ocean. If you knew all the problems involved, you would have run off to your group therapy or wherever it is that fucked-up insurance kids go.'
       Metz stood slowly. 'It's more than our careers now. If -"
       'Right. It's our lives against theirs. If they land we go up for twenty to life. That might affect our promotions.'

Or this, when Johnson creates a diversion to allow Metz to swipe some incriminating communications from a fax machine:

       Johnson stood and walked towards the door. 'Go on, Wayne. One quick motion from the machine to your pocket. Everybody is looking at me now.' He put his hand on the door knob. 'Go.'
       Metz ripped the messages off and stuffed them into his trousers pocket.
       Johnson pretended to change his mind and walked away from the door. He sat back down at the counter. 'Very good. In case of imminent capture, eat them.'
       Metz walked up to Johnson. 'I'm not sure I like your sense of humour any more.'
       Johnson shrugged. 'I'm not sure I like your lack of one. First sign of mental disease - lack of humour. Inability to see the funny side of things.'

But just in case you feel I'm passing over the actual thriller elements of the book, let me assure you that MAYDAY is a genuine rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Block is a fine storyteller and expertly crafts the book so that the reader is never more than five or six pages away from another cliffhanger. And he also proves to be a dab hand at describing intense action scenes, too. Which isn't as easy as it looks, believe me. A case in point is the initial collision caused by the stray missile, which takes up almost ten pages, and Block leaves little to the imagination as he describes the horror. The reader is given gruesome accounts of adults and children being pulverised or torn apart by debris, while others are simply swept screaming out into subspace to die of asphyxiation. Often still strapped to their seats.

And that's all within the first fifty pages, so you can imagine what the rest of the book's like.

But for those of you who wish to experience it for yourself, it's worth noting that the novel's had a few changes made to it since it's original publication. For a start, it's now listed as having been written by 'Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block,' which is a little confusing. Because I've read a few of DeMille's novels and it sure doesn't sound like his voice. Not only that, but in my original copy (pic above) it's copyrighted solely to Thomas H. Block, and after dedicating the book to his wife, Block also adds 'I wish to thank Nelson DeMille for his invaluable editorial assistance, Dr Jack Fallia for his invaluable help, and a gallery of other friends...'

But I also know that the book has been extensively updated since its original publication, so maybe DeMille had a lot more input into that part of it. I haven't read the newer version so I don't really know - although I'm sure commercial considerations had a part to play when deciding whose name went on the cover. Maybe those who've read the newer version can let me know what they think in the comments section. I'd be interested to know what changes were made.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THE RUNNING MAN by Richard Bachman

...And we all know 'Richard Bachman' is actually a pseudonym of Stephen King's, don't we? Why, of course we do. After all, we don't live under a rock.

So the question is, can any novel by arguably the world's most popular author - whether it be under his own name or not - actually be considered 'forgotten' in any shape or form? It's not like any of his books has ever gone out of print (with the exception of another Bachman novel, 'Rage', which was withdrawn at King's own request), so just where do I get off putting THE RUNNING MAN in this series of posts? I mean, they even made a financially successful movie of it, for Christ's sake.

Well, I include it here precisely because it was published under a pseudonym, which automatically classifies it a 'minor' King work. Along with the other three novels collected in 'The Bachman Books', THE RUNNING MAN was a tryout novel King wrote in his early years before he found his true voice with the classic 'Carrie.' According to King in his 'Why I Was Bachman' essay, he wrote it back in 1971 during a marathon seventy-two-hour session (although in 'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,' he states the novel actually took him a full week to write), and considers it the best of his Bachman novels because, 'it's nothing but story... and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side.' It's also, along with the similar 'Long Walk', one of the very few times King has attempted a sci-fi novel.

The plot is fairly simple. It's 2025 and the world's gone to hell. Pollution is killing people by the legions, unemployment is the norm, and the gap between rich and poor is about as wide as it can get. In the ultra-dystopian USA, there's a Free-Vee in every apartment and deadly life-or-death game shows rule the airwaves. The most popular game show of all is 'The Running Man,' where a contestant is chased by a team of network-employed 'Hunters' whose sole purpose is to track the contestant across the country and murder him. As if that isn't enough, citizens are also paid cash bonuses if they spot him and report his location to the Hunters. The contestant earns money for every hour he remains on the loose, and if he can survive for thirty days he wins a billion dollar bonus. No contestant has ever lasted longer than eight days.

Unemployed Ben Richards and his wife and 18-month-old child live in the grim Co-Op city (not the one in New York). Unable to afford life-saving medicine for his sick daughter, Richards is forced to try for one of the game shows in order to earn the money. After a long and gruelling series of mental and physical tests, he's finally accepted for the daddy of them all: 'The Running Man' itself. Once he's introduced to the jeering nationwide audience on live TV, he's given a twelve-hour head start and a few thousand dollars 'running' money, and then the hunt is on...

So, essentially, what we have is another variation on that classic and highly influential 'man-hunts-man' story, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (see also ROLLERBALL, THE HUNGER GAMES, BATTLE ROYALE, etc, etc). But here King takes the basic theme and makes it his own by introducing the fresh concept of Reality TV to the mix (well, it was fresh back in the seventies). He also makes his version of the future an almost totally hopeless one, as by 2025 the USA is practically a police state, with a government run almost entirely by big business interests whose sole intent seems to be to kill off the population by one means or another. Either by lethal game shows or by refusing to supply the people with nose filters that might help protect them from the pollution. That atmosphere of pessimism permeates the entire novel and King makes it clear from the start that there aren't going to be any happy endings in this one (which can also be applied to every other Bachman story).

The rigged rules themselves leave little room for doubt: Survive thirty days and you win the bonus. So that's a whole month with almost the entire population out for your blood. And if that's not enough, Richards is handed a recorder and a supply of micro video tapes that can each hold a two-minute recording, and warned he must send two tapes a day of himself to the network or he forfeits the money. So, any ideas Richards has of stocking up on supplies and hiding in a cellar for the duration is thrown right out the window. He has to keep moving and keep mailing new tapes or it's all for nothing. Of course, the Network claims the packages' postmarks are kept from the Hunters, but Richards sees through that bullshit straight away. He knows he's a dead man walking. Or running. In the end, knowing he's earning money for as long as he breathes, the best Richards can hope for is to last as long as possible and hope he'll be able to take as many of them down with him when he goes.

Without beating around the bush, it has to be said that this is a very fast-moving thriller. It's like a shark - if it stops, it dies. I've reread it a number of times over the years and it rarely takes me longer than three hours to get through. In fact, when you consider how early this was in his career, it's quite remarkable how King keeps the story's pace at such a consistently high level. The 'countdown' structure of the book helps, too, of course. There are 101 short chapters, with the first listed as '...Minus 100 and COUNTING ...' while the last is simply '000.'

Added to which, the first quarter of the book, which focuses on the candidates undergoing the vetting process for the Games, is mostly made up of dialogue as Richards is forced to take one test after another. And page after page of dialogue really helps make the narrative fly by. It's also during this section that King allows us to get a good look at Richards' character as we see what sets him apart from his contemporaries. Such as when a vapid, barely-dressed female Network employee finishes explaining to him the simple rules of a written general knowledge test he has to complete:

     'Then please turn to page one and begin. When I say stop, please put the pencil down. You may begin.'
     He didn't begin. He eyed her body slowly, insolently.
     After a moment, she flushed. 'Your hour has begun, Ben. You had better -"
     'Why,' he asked, 'does everybody assume that when they are dealing with someone from south of the canal that they are dealing with a horny mental incompetent?'
     She was completely flustered now. 'I... I never...'
     'No, you never.' He smiled and picked up the pencil. 'My Christ, you people are dumb.'
     He bent to the test while she was trying to find an answer or even a reason for his attack; she probably really didn't understand.

So it's clear from the start that Richards is that classic archetype: The Last of the Independents. The man alone. That one individual who lives within the system, but is apart from it. As King makes obvious in the very first chapter when Richards is arguing with his wife:

'He turned on her, grim and humorless, clutching something that set him apart, an invisible something for which the Network had ruthlessly calculated. He was a dinosaur in his time. Not a big one, but still a throwback, an embarrassment. Perhaps a danger. Big clouds condense around small particles.'

Admittedly, not the most subtle writing King's ever done - he's telling rather than showing - but it paints a clear enough picture of the main protagonist. And I like that last sentence, too, even though it doesn't really sound like the kind of thing his wife would be thinking (the chapter is the only one in the book from her POV). But it's some nice foreshadowing and helps the reader to picture a storm brewing, hinting that some major shit's gonna go down in the very near future and that Richards will be right in the heart of it.

It's also an extremely prescient tale in many ways. I won't talk about the climax too much as I don't want to spoil it, but once you've read it you'll know what I'm talking about. And mirroring the book's central theme, there's the increasing popularity of reality TV in our society, which is disquieting to say the least. And while it's highly unlikely that legalized murder will ever make into our reality's programming schedules, the book's game show ideas are still a little too close to reality for comfort. In fact, the film they eventually made, which bears almost no relation to the book (and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger no less), is actually guilty of being the very thing the novel is raging against.

Yet on a relatively smaller scale, King also does an impressive job of predicting modern in-flight entertainment, as at one point Richards finds himself on a commercial flight and sees Free-Vee screens built into the back of every seat with touch-screen channel selectors. Which is almost exactly the kind of thing air passengers find on most international airlines today. And remember, this was written back in 1971, where the most you could hope for on a flight was that they'd pull down an old projection screen at the front of the cabin and let you watch an out-of-sync movie that you'd already seen.

So, not bad going there, Steve. Not bad at all.

But although I love this book, I can't totally ignore the few problem areas dotted around. Especially as they're kind of hard to miss. For a start, King sometimes makes the segregation between rich and poor a little too literal. At one point, Richards is driving down a main street in public view, and King actually has the poor people lining the sidewalk on the left-hand side and the rich people on the right, while Richards passes between them. Now I like a good metaphor as much as anybody, but come on. Seriously?

Then there's the 'Running Man' game itself. Which doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it. And I'm not talking about the actual concept of the show, which follows a certain kind of logic as a 'run for your life' scenario taken to its absolute extremes. No, I mean what does the viewer actually see on the Free-Vee screen when he or she tunes in to the show? Because the only time they'd actually see the contestant is during the two-minute video snippets sent in to the network - and Richards naturally makes sure to show as little as possible when taping himself. And logic also dictates the Network can't show what the Hunters are up to either, as Richards would only need to tune in to know how close or far away they are to catching him. So it seems the most popular show on TV is one where all you see is a heavily made-up MC riling up the crowd with hyperbole for hours on end. Now I don't know about anyone else, but to me that sounds like the dullest show imaginable.

And then there's the characterization. Or, rather, lack of it. Which is not something you normally associate with King, who's always taken great care to make even the lowliest of characters come alive on the page. Unfortunately, most of the supporting cast in this one are just line drawings waiting to be coloured in. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, etc. Richards is the exception, of course, as we see the journey through his eyes and experience his thoughts and hopes. But even he's kept an enigma for the most part. Which isn't actually a criticism - there's certainly nothing wrong with a little mystery in the main character. To be honest, now that I think about, it's more likely that King simply made a conscious choice from the start to forsake characterization so as not to derail the pace. His previous book, the very similar "Long Walk,' is the exact opposite. In that one the characters are rich, but the pace suffers a little as a result. Plus, they're walking, which doesn't help.

But, to paraphrase Alan Partridge, 'I'm nitpicking.' The positives far outweigh the negatives in this one. As far as I'm concerned, THE RUNNING MAN remains a great thriller that I can read again and again without ever tiring of it. I like the main character. I like the dialogue. I like the concept. I like the themes. And I especially like the pace. King once again demonstrates, even at this early stage, that he's a master at grabbing a reader from the first page and not letting go until the last line.