Thursday, January 07, 2010

Thrillers and character

I may be back later with a more detailed post about Identity Theory by Peter Temple (also published as In the Evil Day.) For now, though, a question for thriller readers:

How unusual is it for a thriller to focus as much attention, if not more, on the personalities and problems of the protagonists as on the plot?

Here, an intelligence dealer, a mercenary, and an ambitious reporter become involved with a piece of film that could have worldwide repercussions, in the time-honored thriller manner, but we come to know the characters better than we do the politics of the piece. I haven't read many thrillers, but this struck me as novel.

As always with Peter Temple, the book is full of gorgeous prose, such as:
"Once Gastarbeiter from Anatolia, Anselm thought, now wealthy. Their teenage boy and girl followed, citizens of nowhere and everywhere. The pair were listening to music on headphones, moving their heads like sufferers from some exotic ailment."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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15 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Like you, Peter, I enjoyed the prose but I found the book disappointing overall

A writer can give a character too much back story as well as too little. Anselm is an operative in a shadowy intel company and a former hostage in Beruit and trying to unravel ancient family history. That's one thread too many for me and slows down the book

It would have been nice if he could have escaped those usual cliches of international thrillers like the bad guys who are incredibly powerful and very efficient killers except when they try to take out the good guys. Then they turn into bumbling incompetents straight out of a Bond movie. He also includes the hoariest cliche of thriller writers: the bad guy who has the drop on the good guy but then starts talking instead of shooting.

There's a line in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly where Eli Wallach says: 'When you want to kill someone, shoot, don't talk.' Thriller writers seem to turn this upside down every time.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

The pair were listening to music on headphones, moving their heads like sufferers from some exotic ailment.

This line is pure gold, in part because the image is so vivid. I mean, I've watched teenagers who listen to their music like this.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous Kelso said...

Pay attention to real life, Solo. Mossad, for example, are efficient killers except when they stuff up. Then they are bloody hopeless. As for the bad guy talking to the good guy, I thought the point here was that you don't know he's the bad guy until he starts talking. And then there's the history the men share. That requires a short exchange. This isn't a spaghetti Western.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

'And then there's the history the men share. That requires a short exchange.'

I think that's a good point Kelso. But in thrillers that short (or sometimes long) exchange ends, almost without exception, with the bad guy being killed.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I especially noticed the last of those: the bad guy who keeps talking.

I had previously read Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point and The Broken Shore, and each was better than this book. But this one does have that prose to enjoy. There was also Peter Temple's special interest in a damaged protagonist. I think he was more interested in his two damaged protagonists here than he was in plotting.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelso, I am inclined toward sympathy with Solo's position on this one. Yes, Mossad or any other deadly efficient intelligence service will screw up, but the talking-instead-of-killing is a convention against which aspiring thriller writers are warned in courses and workshops. Resort to it, and an author is too apt to make the reader roll roll his eyes -- or to pull him out of the story because he knows exactly what's coming

Look, this is Peter Temple; the man could not write a bad, boring book if he tried. But it's reasonable to guess that he might not in this book have figured out how to reconcile the demands of thriller plotting with those of creating full-blooded characters with compelling pasts.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter
I'm impressed that out Aussie friend Kelso would stick up for his own. From what I've read, not least on your blog, PT is a very good writer and as a betting man myself I'm particularly looking forward to reading his Jack Irish novels

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I think we all connect instantly with that image, or at least all of us who live in cities. And it's not just teenagers who go through those odd, silent jerking movements, either.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, Peter Temple is one of those names that comes up when, in idle moments, I think of who the world's best crime writers might be. I have endless respect for authors who seem to set challenges for themselves, as I think Temple did in this book.

Betting and horseracing figure prominently in the Jack Irish novels. They are no mere atmospheric affectations.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter
You don't have to sell PT to me. The first chapter of In The Evil Day, set in SA, was superbly written, as was much else in that book. The guy can write, as well as tell a story. That's more than most Krimi writers can do.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ja, it was my reading of a South African thriller, Roger Smith's "Wake Up Dead," the led me to "In the Evil Day." And I agree with you about that book's first chapter. Maintain tension like that for a couple of hundred pages, and he'd have one of the great thrillers ever.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Lauren said...

One reason I loved a recent read, "Ariel" by Harri Nykanen (it's a standalone, not one of his Raid series"), is that it turns conventional wisdom about Mossad on its head. Not a bad effort for a novel entirely set in Finland! (Alas, I don't think it's available in English.)

If you'll forgive a hasty translation (from a translation!)

"You're with Mossad?"

"Good salary, long holidays and you see the world."

---

I can see the stupidity (and Bond-movie-ness) of talking when you the bad guy could send the hero to kingdom come, but since there's not mountains of dead spies littering the exotic locations where such stories are usually set, and since it's something of an irritation to have main characters dropping like flies (cf the British television series Spooks - since the deep-fat fryer in series 1, no-one is safe!), I'm prepared to accept it as the price of fiction.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren: In what language did you read "Ariel"? I have read much about the raid books' humor. Apparently this carries over to Nykanen's other books.

I can imagine effective scenes in which the bad guy talks instead of administering the coup de grace. If it fits the would-be killer's character, he could talk because he's nervous. If he's a sadist, he could talk to prolong the would-be victim's agony. Make the talk serve some function other than hoary set-up to let the victim turn the tables. Do that, and I'll write a post honoring the author for making clever use of a genre convention.

January 10, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I think Lauren's point about cliches is a fair one. Maybe some cliches in thrillers are unavoidable.

Some writers are better than others at disguising when they resort to cliched situations and I think what I disliked was that he didn't use those cliches very skillfully

Perhaps, he's just not used to working with cliches!

BTW, Thanks for the Bill James recommendations

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is boy-meets-girl a cliche? How about hero overcomes obstacle? One reader's cliche is another's convention. I have from time to time paid tribute for authors who find clever ways to satisfy genre conventions without doing so in a cliched manner.

You're welcome on Bill James. For what it's worth, I have not seen references to Bill James as a writer's writer (that would be a cliche), but Peter Temple and Ken Bruen are fans of his.

January 10, 2010  

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