I was lucky enough to come across a Jack Reacher thriller from 2009 that I hadn’t read. Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow” has plenty of all the elements that have made this series so successful, including an intriguing plot, well-drawn characters, and especially, the almost stream of consciousness reports of Reacher’s observations of every detail of his surroundings, the habit that is one of the bases of his consistent victories over bad guys. The other important reason that he always come out on top is, of course, his great size combined with superior fighting skills.
In this book, Reacher notices that a fellow passenger on a late night New York subway train displays all of the characteristic signs of a suicide bomber, from the inappropriate bulky clothing to the apparently heavy bag and traumatized look. He becomes inextricably involved in the plot when he tries to intervene.
Another common element in Reacher’s adventures is the bad behavior of law enforcement agencies. Do police and various government agencies really run rough shod over the rights of citizens? Unfortunately, this premise is quite believable.
This is the only occasion I’ll have to voice my complaint about Hollywood’s version of Reacher, so here it is. Why did they have to chose Tom Cruise for the title role? Yes, he’s charismatic. Yes, he’s a good actor. But he’s a relatively small man who is completely wrong, physically, for the part. Aren’t there any bankable large male actors?
The Fire Child, published by S.K. Tremayne in 2016, is an odd book that I bought by mistake. A mistake, because it was billed as a thriller, but turned out to be more of a Gothic romance. Poor girl marries dark, handsome, and rich widower and moves into his crumbling and isolated ancestral mansion with his fragile young son and slightly dotty old mother. Unfortunately, the Bronte sisters and Daphne du Maurier did it first and better, and managed without the information overload about the couple’s sex life.
The new young wife waxes poetic about just about everything and at great length, in true Gothic style, but continually strikes a jarring note by the grammatical error of using “like” in place of “as if”. For example, “I am totally alone. It’s like no else exists.” Does she do this on purpose? Is it supposed to be a sign of the woman’s youth or of her low class background? But she’s supposed to be thirty, not thirteen and to have done well at school. Whatever the reason, it’s like, totally, out of keeping with the Gothic atmospherics.
The best part of the book is the setting on the coast of Cornwall. I probably had come across some facts about Cornwall, but I certainly didn’t remember, if I ever knew it, that it was so rich in minerals, especially tin and copper. I also didn’t know that there was a Cornish language, hints of which are given by the exotic and intriguing place names. A number of old photographs are included in the book. Maybe if they were larger they would do more justice to what must be spectacular scenery.
The Widow, published by Fiona Barton in 2016, is a successful psychological thriller presented in a novel way. The plot concerns the abduction of a toddler and the various characters involved in the crime, including the child’s mother, the detective obsessed with solving the crime, the reporter who covers the story, and the main suspect and his wife (the eponymous widow). Alternate chapters continue the story from the points of view of each of the characters except the suspect, whose thoughts are only presented as reported by his wife. This may be due to the basic problem of writing from the point of view of a psychopath – unless you are one, how can you know what they think?
Another difficulty is understanding the thinking of someone married to a psychopath, and what brought these two people together in the first place. Barton doesn’t explain this explicitly, but she provides enough background, told from the wife’s point of view, to give us an idea how it happened. Her husband chose her when she was very young. He was older, a clever man with a good job, and able to make a big impression on a rather timid and sheltered girl and her parents. The assumption is that her obedient and admiring attitude is what attracted him.
An interesting aspect of the plot is the premise that both the suspect and his wife change over the years. His psychological aberrations hadn’t yet manifested themselves at the time of his marriage, but gradually became more and more pronounced. And of course, impressionable young girls, no matter how insecure and self-effacing, grow up.
A Hero in France, Alan Furst’s latest historical espionage novel, was published in 2016. Set in World War II Paris, it’s as good as the cover blurbs claim:
Thorough research of the history, people, and places – Check.
Meticulous recreation of the atmosphere by inclusion of real details and anecdotes – Check.
Creation of a plausible protagonist who epitomizes the heroism of good and capable but relatively ordinary people under extreme circumstances – Check.
Furst also routinely includes a few sex scenes in his books, ranging from standard to slightly daring. Since not all of them seem to flow naturally from the narrative, I assume they are all part of his formula for success.
One of the cover blurbs compares him to John le Carré, which I don’t think is much of a compliment. Le Carré started out well, but spiraled downward into an obsession with the evils of America that poisoned his later books. Maybe, if you have to get all your hatred of the U.S. off your chest, it would be better to write some opinion pieces instead of letting it dominate your fiction. Just saying.
There are many good points about “The Third Gate”, published by Lincoln Child in 2012. Most important, of course, is that it’s a good read. It’s an interesting genre, a combination archeological/supernatural thriller, and I think Child has avoided the many possible pitfalls this involves. He apologizes for liberties taken with various facets of life in ancient Egypt in service of his plot ( the search for a pharaoh’s tomb), but speaking as someone who likes this kind of thing, I think he’s accurate enough for the amateur reader. He doesn’t apologize for one of the major characters whose near death experience produced amazingly enhanced psychic abilities. An apology is due because during this experience her brain was starved of oxygen for fourteen minutes. This would actually have given her the esp ability of a turnip.
Professor Jeremy Logan is a historian who has developed a sideline as an interpreter of the bizarre. Explaining the impossible is a rare talent, so of course he’s much in demand and is sent to some interesting places. I think this character is a great idea, providing Child with the opportunity to follow his obvious interest in various types of unexplained phenomena. It’s also an interest of mine. I’ve done my best to share what I have been able to find out about the subject of esp in The Wish to Kill .
You don’t have to understand Latin to enjoy “Different Class”, but it would certainly help. This book, published by Joanne Harris in 2016, has two voices and two time peiods. One voice is that of a teacher at a venerable grammar school in Yorkshire who peppers his conversation, and even his thoughts, with quotes from ancient Romans. The second is one of the school’s boys. The story shifts back and forth between 1981, when the boy was in Straitley’s Latin class, and 2005, when the boy is back in town and Straitley is contemplating retirement.
This boy has done some terrible things, but which boy is he? He makes entries in a dairy without ever mentioning his name, and refers to his schoolmates by nicknames, confusing the issue of who’s who. I admit that this ploy confused me even more than Harris probably intended, which brings me to a suggestion I would like to make to writers: Be careful how confusing you make your plot, keeping in mind that the average reader doesn’t read your book in one go, but picks it up and puts it down, doing and thinking of other things between sessions. It’s hard enough to keep a large cast of characters straight under the best of circumstances.
The book is a mystery story, the mystery being, who is this evil boy? The most enjoyable aspect of it was the fond depiction of the old fashioned school and gradually recognizing the fine qualities of the old teacher. The suspense comes from wanting to see if and how the good guy wins and evil is finally punished.
It’s a pleasure to read books by experienced, masterful story tellers. Here are two.
Daniel Silva published “The Black Widow” in 2016. It’s so up to date that he feels the need to explain that the linking of Islamic terrorists to the Brussels district of Molenbeek in the book was coincidental. The attacks in Paris and Brussels that were indeed carried out by residents of Molenbeek occurred after the book was written. It’s the type of coincidence that results from a thorough study of the relevant places and political situations and makes for a convincing plot.
The black widow of the title is a young woman who seeks revenge against the Western powers after her fiance is killed fighting in Syria. There are such young women, but in this case she’s an Arabic-speaking Israeli who is sent undercover to identify a terrorist mastermind known only as Saladin.
The Dying Detective, published by Leif G.W. Persson, also in 2016, shows that my decision to avoid Scandinavian authors was too hasty. As the title indicates, the story isn’t especially cheerful, but it isn’t permeated by gloom as are some other books I’ve read by Scandinavian writers. Perhaps because Persson is a criminologist, his plot is long on following trails of evidence and police work, and short on creating a depressing atmosphere. He has considerately set the action in the months June to September, so we aren’t forced to accompany the characters on interminable slogs through snow.
The eponymous Stockholm detective is a sixty-seven year old retiree who is given a clue to the solution of a cold case while in the hospital recovering from a mild stroke. Although the criminal raped and murdered a child, the case is subject to a statute of limitations that wasn’t modified in time for this murderer to be prosecuted, even if he’s identified. But since Johansson’s time is now his own, he can delve into whatever interests him, and his old friends and colleagues are willing and able to help him.
Johansson hails from the north, but instead of taking advantage of this connection to immerse the reader in the usual horrors of a northern climate, Persson merely reminds us that it’s important for Johansson to have full use of his right arm in time for elk hunting season.