Comparing quality amongst the thrillers I’ve been reading lately, I have to say that Lee Child is probably the surprise winner. On paper, the semi-political adventures of an ex-military policeman didn’t sound like something that would appeal to me, but Jack Reacher, the 6’ 5” hard man with a soft side, completely won me over. I read Gone Tomorrow, which is a narrative written from the first person perspective – something I gather Child doesn’t do with all the books? – and the inside of Reacher’s head turns out to be a beguiling place to be. This story begins on the New York subway, late at night, when the woman sitting uncomfortably close to Reacher shows almost all the signs of being a suicide bomber. After a brief losing battle with his conscience, Reacher decides he has to intervene and that’s all the plot details I’m going to give you; much of the pleasure of this novel for me lay in the intricacy of the plotting, which was masterfully done. It’s not easy to unfurl a plot in a strictly linear direction whilst keeping the reader guessing continuously and yet supplied with all the information needed to prevent the least hint of confusion. Watching Child masterfully pull this off was like watching a gold medal winning Olympic hurdler; it seems impossible that the odd rhythm can be sustained so smoothly, that the figure sailing over the hurdles won’t clip one and tumble, and yet it all comes together with grace.
Reading Child reminded me why thrillers are such an engaging reading experience. It’s not just the pull of the plot, although that particular pleasure shouldn’t be underestimated. No, the power of the thriller lies in the lure of identification with the action hero. By the time most of us have reached the age where reading a thriller is either possible or tempting, we’ll have discovered that fearful situations bring out the worst in us. Few will find ready access to the resources of strength, courage, determination, and cunning strategic thought, instead we’ll mostly freeze, literally petrified by the mere thought of threat. Thrillers try to persuade us that however terrible the situation, some sort of fight or flight is always available to us. Jack Reacher is a masterclass in serenity, even in the toughest of troubles. Nothing fazes him, no bully or assassin arouses more than fairly jovial contempt. His intellectual faculties zip along and never interfere with him throwing a monster punch. The man is invincible, and it’s a chortling kind of delight to stowaway inside his perspective for the ride. For the most part, his fortitude is so plausible it’s invisible, but I couldn’t help but notice that I, myself, would not choose to down a whole pot of coffee accompanied by a bottle of mineral water, before setting off on a life-or-death mission of extreme nervous tension. You see what I’m saying.
The other curiously appealing element of Child’s creation is the fact that Reacher is homeless. In surprising defiance of orthodox existence, Reacher lives hand to mouth, with no fixed abode, even throwing away his previous shirt when he buys a new one. His life is a fantasy of perfect economy, which means inevitably he must always be mixed up with other people’s business because he has none of his own. He’s of necessity placed in the interstices of life, where crime happens, and his investigations involve some ingenious uses of the oddly half-public, half-private spaces that modern life has created – hotel rooms and lobbies, transport vehicles, anonymous cafés. The back of my book describes him as a ‘mythic avenger’ which is a lovely phrase and accurate – he emerges out of nothingness with only his sense of right and wrong, his desire to safeguard the innocent and annihilate the guilty, and that’s terribly romantic. For all this, though, be warned that the violence in this book is far more graphic. When the women from Afghanistan started getting the knives out in a video nasty they send to Reacher, I knew to skip the next few paragraphs. Mister Litlove, who borrowed the book and read it on holiday in one mammoth day-long session, did not have the same good sense, became quite hot and bothered, and had to be settled down with a cup of tea and encouraged to think of other things afterwards.
Lynda La Plante’s novel, Silent Scream, is quite a different kettle of fish. Although the quote on the cover describes La Plante as a thriller writer, this is actually a police procedural. The author will probably be best known to most people as writer of the Prime Suspect series, which memorably starred Helen Mirren, and echoes of that set-up abound in the narrative. The story concerns a young British film star, the exquisitely beautiful Amanda Delaney, who is found viciously stabbed to death in her luxury mews house. Although she appears to be the envy of all, on the cusp of international stardom, involved in a string of affairs with handsome actors and wildly rich, her death soon brings a more sordid reality to light. She turns out to be an anorexic drug addict, psychologically tormented and cruising towards her own annihilation. Investigating her death is DI Anna Travis, a young version of Helen Mirren, who is ambitious, hard-working, clean-living and talented. For all this, she’s a mere cipher in the narrative, never really cohering into a proper character. On the plus side, this is a narrative context designed to be instantly appealing – the film world is accurately depicted, there are numerous suspicious characters, and despite her two-dimensionality, we cheer Anna on, not least against her competitive and patronizing male colleagues. And again, this is a tightly plotted story that handles its multiple strands with enormous competence. I was never lost for a moment.
On the negative side, I’m not sure when I’ve read a book that was so poorly written by such a well known ‘name’. The characterization is perfunctory at best, leaving the reader to draw on stereotypical figures from the television screen (whence they evidently come), and the dialogue is often awful, designed to get the information across in the quickest time but entirely without finesse. The funny thing was, this didn’t seem to spoil my reading enjoyment at all. I scoffed a bit, but I continued to turn the pages as fast as they would go. It turns out that you can dispense with all that beautiful writing business so long as you have created a sufficiently taxing enigma, and you bombard the reader with tantalizing information. All I wanted was that information, and I agreed with Lynda La Plante: why should I bother to care about the protagonists? Why should I find their predicaments plausible? Why did I need to consider complex, layered moral situations? None of it mattered, compared to that hunger for the solution.
And so this was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of my thriller binge. Reading these books, I could feel myself transforming as a reader. I was happy to gobble them down, quite thoughtlessly, and it was relaxing in the moment. But once I’d finished them, I couldn’t help but notice how little of substance remained (certainly with the La Plante). There was nothing for me to mull over, nothing for me to take away. Not, you understand, that I wish to knock this experience. Far from it, as I enjoyed it immensely and I have no tedious guilt feelings that insist I read more worthy books in future. But I did find that the thriller regulates itself, in the literary digestive system. Afterwards, I craved a more subtle and nuanced reading experience, something that would make me think and feel. And I realized that thrillers are great mind cleansers – they take you, precisely, to a place where you don’t need to think or feel, which is paradoxical considering the subject matter. They put you in a safe bubble of threat and menace that other people are about to deal with. There is much that is restful and reassuring about that kind of reading experience.
I realize I am behind on answering comments at the moment – I’m so sorry! I LOVE my comments, never think they are not appreciated, and I’ll reply to them as soon as I can. You all know how tricky it is to keep up with all the blog housekeeping, I’m sure.