Friday, September 27, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: Interlude - THE FAILS (so far)

I've said it before, but one of the nice things about writing these particular posts is that it gives me a valid excuse to revisit some great old books from my past - some of which I haven't cracked open in twenty years or more. And therein lies the problem. Because it turns out that a few of those I once considered great reads are in fact just the opposite. Which is kind of understandable - after all, I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago. Nobody is. Added to which, I'm now in the fortunate position of being able to call myself a professional author, and as a result I know a little more about the craft of writing than I did back then. So occasionally I'm sitting down and rereading one of these books and find myself amazed by the bad writing decisions that jump out at me.

Of course, that doesn't mean I can't post about them - after all, we can't like everything we read - but on the other hand I did insert the word GREAT before 'FORGOTTEN' THRILLERS, which limits me somewhat. (And yes, I know many of the books I've reviewed fall short of greatness, but in my mind they've gotta be good, at least.) And to be perfectly honest, it's not a whole lot of fun writing a thousand words or so about a book I don't like. I know critics do it on a regular basis, but I've never claimed to be a critic. But by the same token, I don't want to totally ignore them either. So instead I thought it might be an idea to do an interim post to explain why certain books have failed to make the grade, and get all the badness out of the way in one go. (Don't worry, normal service will resume shortly - still plenty more books to go yet.)

So first, let's deal with the elephant in the room that is Ira Levin, who also happens to be one of my very favourite suspense authors. Now when I originally set out to do this series I knew Levin would be in there somewhere, and I was planning to focus on either THIS PERFECT DAY or SON OF ROSEMARY. In the end it wasn't much of a choice and I went for the former, mainly because it fulfills the criteria I put in place from the start. It's pretty damn great, it's an oft-neglected part of Levin's bibliography, and it's a thriller (kind of). So that's three for three right there.

And in direct contrast, we have SON OF ROSEMARY. Which isn't great - not by any stretch of the imagination. I can't really classify it as a thriller either, because there's not a whole lot of suspense in the book. And while it fits the 'Forgotten' criteria well enough, there's a fairly good reason for that. The story takes place 30 years after the original, and it turns out Rosemary has been in a coma for most of that time. She wakes to find her son, Andy, is a globally-revered prophet who's finally bringing peace to the world and who's planning to unite all of mankind in a special celebration on New Year's Eve, 2000. Or is he? Rosemary has her doubts...

It's quite remarkable how Levin gets everything wrong with this one, yet it's like watching a car crash - you can't take your eyes away. Where before, Levin always trod a fine line between satire and straight thrills with his novels, in this one he goes totally OTT and delivers what can only be described as a spoof of his earlier work. And you have to ask yourself why. What on earth possessed him? And then there's the ending, which I refuse to give away here, but let's just say Levin's conclusion breaks one of the absolute golden rules of writing. Admittedly, I never thought this book was all that fantastic to begin with, but I'd hoped it might not be as bad as I remembered. I was wrong. It's enjoyably bad, but still bad nonetheless.

Moving on, we have GOD IS AN EXECUTIONER, a revenge thriller by Tom Barling. Now I do love that title, I have to admit. It's great. And I also like the retro simplicity of the cover design. The black and red text. The simple image of dog tags and blood. I also recall enjoying this one a hell of a lot when I first picked it up half a lifetime ago, but upon rereading it recently I was at a loss as to why. It stars Matthew Pepper, a Vietnam veteran turned successful businessman, whose wife and son are kidnapped by a gang of terrorists. With the police thinking him guilty of their murder, Pepper resolves to get them back using any means necessary and soon discovers an old enemy from that war might be tying up loose ends...

Now this one started badly and just got progressively worse. For example, the first chapter begins with Pepper dreaming about an event from his Vietnam past. In great detail. With dialogue and everything. Because that's how people dream, isn't it? You never dream that the guy standing next to you has just turned into your sister and sprouted antlers, or that your foot's morphed into a bowl of trifle. No, dreams always make complete logical sense with a beginning, a middle and an end. Like this one. What's worse is this particular 'dream' lasts for most of the chapter - and it's a long chapter too.

In fact, every time Pepper closes his eyes for more than a few seconds we're treated to another unnecessary 'Nam flashback. All the way through the book. And Barling's writing style is very confusing too. There are a lot of action sequences in the story and I had to constantly reread most of them because I had no idea what was going on. And the various character motivations are also blurry. Characters walk in an out of the story without reason, and don't get me started on the hopeless dialogue. Also, the main villain of the piece - who's known as 'the man with two noses', yes really - is purposely left unnamed for the entirety of the book and I still can't figure out why. There are just too many things that don't make sense in this book and I was left scratching my head when I finished it. To be honest, I still am. This is a very very odd book, and not in a good way.

Man, what a waste of a good title.

What's next? THAI HORSE by William Diehl. Now I really like William Diehl. Back in the eighties and nineties he specialised in producing gritty intelligent thrillers, and I always made a habit of picking up his newest as soon as it came out and rarely came away disappointed. So when I came up with this blog series, I always knew I'd be focusing on one of his and for a long time I thought it was going to be THAI HORSE. Until I read it again. Oh, dear. I had a vague memory of this being a really gripping men-on-a-mission thriller with a conflicted hero in the leader role. Turns out I was only half right. Actually, less than half. Maybe a quarter.

The book centres on an ex-Vietnam vet (yes, another one) and ex-spy called Hatcher, who having been betrayed on a previous job, has spent a number of years in one of the most brutal prisons in South America. Upon his release, he's called back into action by his old CIA handler to find a man named Cody, a former friend of Hatcher's, who was supposedly killed in Vietnam. Word is he's still alive and his General father, who's dying of cancer, would like to see him one last time. And Hatcher is considered the only man capable of finding him. As he journeys to Hong Kong and Bangkok in search of his missing friend, Hatcher is forced to come to terms with parts of his violent past he'd thought were long buried...

Now this one's not too bad, but the reason it didn't make the grade was that it's simply nowhere near as good as I remember. The pacing's pretty skewed for a start, and there are too many unnecessary flashbacks for my liking. And far, far too many sub-plots. I can usually keep up with the most complex of plots, but this one got a little too convoluted for me. I came away thinking the book could have been so much better with a stronger editor. However, I was impressed with the first section of the novel, with Hatcher stuck in this hellhole of a prison where speech is verboten. It's a great character piece detailing Hatcher's slow descent into madness and I found it totally absorbing. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is kind of a letdown after such a strong start.

There's plenty of action and thrills, but it's kind of all over the place. And the final section, where the tension should really be ratcheted up to the next level, is brought to a grinding halt when the main characters go on a long hunt for a rogue tiger in a Bangkok suburb (don't ask), which has no connection to the plot at all. I was skipping page after page at this point, which is not good news when you're approaching the end of a novel. Nevertheless, I still rate William Diehl quite highly and will very shortly be posting about one of his books that didn't let me down.

Next up we've got THE FOX IS CRAZY TOO, a non-fiction account of little-known seventies skyjacker and bank robber, Garrett Trapnell, by Eliot Asinof. It's a really gripping read about a fascinating character who made a career out of robbing banks, conning people, getting caught and then getting away again. But the thing is, I'd already focused on a bio written in the thriller format with THE HUNTER by Christopher Keane, and both books had me asking myself the same questions. That is, how much of what I'm reading is true and how much is completely made up?

I mean, it's all fascinating stuff, to be sure. Trapnell was a guy with a high IQ and a bipolar disorder who got off on screwing The Man at every opportunity. Which basically meant robbing banks and financial institutions, often by just walking in the door with a slip of paper and walking out with a bag of money. After a spate of these, he'd settle down with a new woman (often marrying them whilst forgetting to divorce the previous ones), set up a new life for himself, then get bored and start robbing again. And each time he got caught he'd claim temporary insanity, get transferred to a mental institution where he'd usually be diagnosed as a schizophrenic, whereupon he'd either escape or get released and then proceed to go through the whole cycle again.

It's a great story which not only recounts an interesting, if tragic, life but also points a finger at a large loophole in the American legal system - the temporary insanity plea - while also questioning the validity of using psychiatric testimony in the courtroom. But the problem is that great sections of the book are written as though the author was actually there with Trapnell, which clearly wasn't the case. I'm sure the main events that he recounts actually took place, but the large chunks of dialogue contained in the book are also presented as fact, which I find very hard to believe - assuming the conversations took place at all. It's one of those odd 'in-between' books: works fine as a thriller, not so convincing as a biography. Added to which, it was all a little too similar to THE HUNTER for me to want to review it in detail. But that said, if you can find a cheap copy online I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

Okay, BALEFIRE by Kenneth Goddard is next. This one I remember reading in my late teens while I was on holiday somewhere along the English coast, possibly Bognor Regis. And I bought it for two reasons. 1) I loved that stark white cover with the two eyes looking out. And 2) the cover blurb compared it to THE DAY OF THE JACKAL - which was one of my favourites, even back then. And while it clearly didn't equal Frederick Forsyth's classic novel, it still produced the goods as far as I was concerned. At least, it did back then.

The novel concerns itself with a professional terrorist named Thanatos who's been hired by a group of bad guys to single-handedly wreak havoc on the small city of Huntingdon Beach on the California coast as a demonstration against the coming LA Olympics. This he does by taking on the police department in a well-orchestrated series of attacks that soon leaves the city reeling. Fortunately, a team of police investigators and crime-lab specialists eventually realize it's all the work of one man and work against a tight deadline in an attempt to bring him down before the opening ceremony begins...

Again, this isn't a bad novel at all. The author, who was actually a police forensic scientist himself, gets all the details right, which is a good start. But I found my eyes glazing over at various points in the narrative as the same thing kept happening over and over again. Thanatos would strike, kill a cop or two, make it look as though angry citizens were the culprits, then disappear, ready to do the same thing again. And you just know he's not going to get caught until the very end, mainly because he's the only villain and without him there's no book. He is a great villain, though. He kills, mutilates and rapes his way through the narrative to the point where the reader's desperate to see him get his comeuppance, hoping that he'll suffer in the same way his victims suffered. Yet when his end does come I was left thinking, 'Huh? That's it?' Believe me, 'anticlimactic' doesn't cover it adequately enough. Still, not a bad little novel - but once again, nowhere near as good as I remembered.

And finally we've got THE SUMMER SOLDIER by Nicholas Guild. And this is another bad one. So bad, in fact, that I gave up on it about three-quarters of the way through, which is very rare for me. But by that point I'd simply had enough and just didn't care anymore.

The plot, what there is of it, isn't too dissimilar to Barling's GOD IS AN EXECUTIONER either, which is fitting as it's just as awful in its own way. Ray Guinness, an academic at a local college, arrives home to find his wife dead from a house fire - although it soon becomes clear she was murdered beforehand. And it's not long before the police suspect Guinness of being the man behind it, despite his being happily married and having no motive whatsoever (but let's not worry about little details like that, eh?). It also turns out that Guinness is a 'man with a past,' and that he was once a ruthless hitman for Britain's MI6, now retired. And he already knows the murderer too: a guy named Vlasov, whose wife was killed accidentally by Guinness seven years before. And with Guinness's wife having met the same fate, the stage is now set for a duel to the death...

Oh dear, oh dear. This one just goes on forever. It's only 280 pages or so, but it feels double that because so little actually happens. In fact, there's just so much wrong with this one that I can't believe I ever thought it worth a second look. I'll give you an example. By the time the story opens Guinness's wife's body has already been taken away and we see Guinness inspecting the fire damage while a policeman waits to take him to a hotel. Fine. The second chapter has him sitting in a diner while he thinks about his wife. O-o-kay. Then in the third and fourth chapters he thinks back to how he got recruited by MI6 all those years ago and how he handled his first assignment for them. So at this point we're already on page 64 and nothing's happened. The plot's basically just stopped and we're stuck in deep flashback territory.

It's not until we reach the 100-page mark that another character comes along and gets the ball rolling again, by which time it's far too late. The damage has already been done. And the worst isn't even over yet, because there are more flashbacks to come. There's one instance when Guinness starts reminiscing about his first marriage to a lady called Kathleen, who upon finding out what her husband really did for a living quite wisely took their baby daughter and left him. But what could have easily been condensed into several pages lasts two or three chapters. And even that wouldn't be so bad if Kathleen were to make an appearance later in the story, but she doesn't. I checked. I flicked through the rest of the book looking for another mention of her name and there's nothing. So yet again we're given another flashback that has no effect on the plot whatsoever.

And that's not mentioning the endless introspection from Guinness all the way through the book. Dear God, it's like trudging though molasses. It really is. Page after page goes by with no dialogue at all, and what little dialogue there is doesn't flow because Guild inserts more internal monologue in between each snippet, in order to let you know what the character feels about what's just been said. Yeah, thanks for that, Nick. And then there's the problem of the Ray Guinness character himself. Now I like an anti-hero as much as the next reader, but Guinness essentially comes across as a psychopath in this book. In fact, it got to the point where I was starting to root for the villain as he had a pretty clear and sympathetic reason for wanting revenge on Guinness - and that's the point where I gave up on the novel. When you're rooting for the 'bad guy' to kill the lead character, then clearly the author's not doing his job properly and it's time to move on.

So that just about wraps it all up - six books from my past where my memory decided to play tricks on me. And I'm sure it'll continue to confound me, so don't be surprised if another post like this one appears in due course. Hopefully not for quite some time yet, though, as I much prefer blogging about the good books than I do the bad ones...

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