A gripping thriller that's also heart-breaking
Wow! Yesterday I finished Alex North's best-selling novel 'The Whisper Man', and loved it. Two of the scenes towards the end of the book brought tears to my eyes. Not many books manage to do that, but it's wonderful when they do.
I had my doubts when I first picked up 'The Whisper Man', however. We're introduced early in the novel to DI Pete Willis, a man with a troubled childhood, a divorce in his rear mirror and a drinking problem. Cliché number one. Then there's the plot. A boy has gone missing, in circumstances that mirror the crimes of Frank Carter, now in prison. Is a copycat killer at work? Cliché number two. Except that 'The Whisper Man' is so beautifully written, and Alex North provides such a fresh spin on an old tale, that I couldn't help but get drawn in. I'm glad I did. The book was rated the best crime novel of the decade by Steve Cavanagh, and he's someone who knows how to craft an excellent read! Here's a taster of the plot:
If you leave a door half-open, soon you'll hear the whispers spoken . . .
Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start.
But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys.
Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as 'The Whisper Man'.
Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home.
Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely.
He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .
A novel of loss, love and the relationship between father and son
Creepy stuff, huh? Yet underneath all the horror the book deals with themes of grief, loss and love. Alex North masterfully portrays a father, still mourning for his dead wife, who struggles to understand his young son. They love each other, yet don't communicate well; Tom feels he's failing as a parent, while Jake believes he disappoints his dad. Both are wrong, yet it takes tragedy to convince them otherwise.
I've already said that DI Pete Willis appears at first to be a cliché. Yet Alex North hasn't made him that way out of laziness; reasons exist why the plot needs this character to suffer a troubled childhood and why he descended into alcoholism in the past. It all forms part of a coherent whole, as does the fact there's a copycat killer.
Along the way Alex North delivers great plot twists - one, about halfway through, stunned yet delighted me! In the same way, he avoids taking the easy option towards the end; when he could have delivered a nice, comfy happy-ever-after, he choose something different, in the first of the two chapters that made me cry. Here the writing could, in the hands of a lesser author, have descended into cheesiness, but it didn't. Instead, it was beautiful. So, too, was a later scene, in which we discover Alex has misled us as to the identity of one of the minor characters. I won't say more, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the wrap-up is excellent, including the fate of the copycat killer, who gets what he deserves as well as what he craves.
If you enjoy great crime fiction, do yourself a favour and read this book. At times spine-chillingly tense and at others heart-breaking, this is one of the best crime novels I've read this year.
What about you? Have you read 'The Whisper Man'?
If so, what did you think? Liked it, loathed it? Leave a comment and let me know!
I'm a huge admirer of Stephen King. I love his work, but I'm also in awe of his prolific output. Many of his novels are over 700 pages in length and he's written so damn many of them - fifty-eight, to be exact! He's also penned over two hundred short stories and five non-fiction books. OK, so he embarked on his writing career decades ago, but even so the sheer volume of his output is impressive. In this week's blog post, I'll examine five other prolific authors.
1. Dame Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie was an English crime novelist, short story writer and playwright. She wrote sixty-nine novels and nineteen plays, published over a fifty-six year period, and she also authored romantic fiction under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Her murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, holds the record for being the world's longest-running theatre production; in 1971 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her enormous contribution to literature.
Besides being prolific, Dame Agatha is the most published novelist in history, and her estimated sales are in the region of three billion (!) books. I read all her detective stories during my teens, being swept away by the sleuthing skills of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, as well as Christie's fascinating plots. Her novels have been translated into over one hundred languages. 'And Then There Were None' is her best-selling title, having sold over 100 million copies to date, making it one of the most popular books of all time. Wow!
2. Dame Barbara Cartland
Another Dame of the British Empire! Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels, which have been translated into thirty-six languages, and she holds the world record for the most novels published in a single year - twenty-three. Twenty-three?! Did she ever sleep? Admittedly her books tend to be short, but even so...
She wrote romantic fiction primarily but also plays and music. Her book sales reportedly top 750 million copies, although some sources have put the figure at over two billion. Two billion?! Even if the first figure is more accurate, that's a lot of book sales - I can only aspire to such numbers!
Barbara Cartland's books are tame by today's standard, featuring virginal heroines and little, if any, sexual imagery. Her later novels were historical romances, which made it easier to cast virgins as the protagonists. During her later years, she became a self-proclaimed expert on romance although her views were considered hopelessly outdated by many. I well remember her many television appearances in which she'd expound her views on various issues, including gentlemanly conduct and how to keep the romance in relationships. She was a very memorable character, usually appearing bedecked in jewels, wearing flouncy pink dresses and clutching a fluffy white dog. They don't make them like that anymore!
3. Nora Roberts
The only one of my chosen novelists still alive, Nora Roberts also writes romance novels and to date has published two hundred and nine. She concentrates on one book at a time, which makes her prolific output even more remarkable. She writes for eight hours a day, every day, without fail, even when on holiday. (I'm starting to doubt whether the authors I've chosen are human!)
In the nineties, her publishers decided they couldn't keep pace with her output and asked her to consider adopting a pseudonym so they could publish more of her work each year. She decided to use her new pen name to switch tack and begin writing romantic suspense fiction, under the name of J D Robb. As J D Robb, Roberts has also published a series of science fiction novels set in the mid-twenty-first century, featuring a New York City detective. Whilst these novels are police procedural ones as well as science fiction, J D Robb has maintained the romantic element by focusing on the relationship between Detective Eve Dallas and her husband. Since 1999, every one of Nora Roberts's books has been a New York Times bestseller, and she was the first novelist to be admitted to the Romance Writers of America's Hall of Fame. An amazing woman!
4. John Creasey
John Creasey was an English crime and science fiction writer with six hundred novels to his credit, using twenty-eight pseudonyms. Six hundred?! I need to up my game, and quickly...
Many of his characters, such as The Honourable Richard Rollison (The Toff) and Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard, continued through a series. Besides crime and science fiction, he also wrote Western novels and romances, using his various pen names.
In 1962, Creasey won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for 'Gideon's Fire', written under his pseudonym J. J. Marric. In 1969 he received the MWA's greatest honour, the Grand Master Award. In the UK, Creasey founded The Crime Writers Association (CWA), which awards the New Blood Dagger each year for a first book by an unpublished writer. Another recipient of a UK honour, he was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his services during World War Two.
5. Isaac Asimov
The last of our prolific wordsmiths, Isaac Asimov, was a science fiction writer, although he also wrote scientific non-fiction, being a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He either wrote or edited over five hundred books as well as an estimated ninety thousand letters. Like the other authors I've mentioned, Asimov's works have been extensively translated into other languages.
Asimov received several awards for his writing, as well as fourteen honorary doctorate degrees. His short story 'Nightfall', written in 1941, was voted by The Science Fiction Writers of America as the best one ever written in its genre and he was made a Grand Master of the SFWA in 1987. His most interesting accolade may well be the fact that in 2009 a crater on Mars was named after him - I love that!
Unusual facts about Asimov? He claimed in the third volume of his autobiography to love small, enclosed spaces, citing his childhood desire to own a subway magazine stand, in which he'd ensconce himself and listen to the rumble of the trains as he read. Each to their own...
Phew! I feel exhausted...
I'm sure you're probably as dumbstruck as I am at the literary output of the authors I've mentioned! I feel tired just thinking about writing six hundred books - although, given my late start as a novelist, it's unlikely I'll achieve one hundred titles, let alone six times that number. Speaking of which, I'd better stop blogging and get back to writing - I'll catch up with you again in my next post. Until then...
The most popular question to ask novelists
Novelists get asked this question more than any other. It's as if people think there are certain, very specific, stimuli that give rise to ideas for novel plots, and others that don't. Not so! Inspiration can be found everywhere, if you know where to look. When I'm asked where I get my ideas, I say 'from the world around me.'
Writers tend to be great at observation, particularly people watching. Like many authors, I always have to hand a way of capturing ideas when they strike, whether it's via my phone or pen and paper. Right now, I have over fifty plot possibilities listed on my computer, and I'm betting that other authors may have double or triple that number.
Novelists are capable of weaving plot ideas from virtually any situation. Take a simple example. I'm in a cafe, staring out of the window, and I spot a woman crossing the road. She's hurrying, her expression clouded; a small girl is clutching her hand. Immediately, this sparks several plot possibilities. Where does she need to get to so fast, and why? Is she running from something or someone? If so, what or whom? Is the child her own, or has she snatched her? What's causing her to look so worried? One very ordinary scenario, but with so much potential!
Posing questions is a useful tactic
I'm not suggesting every idea is worthy of being turned into a full-length book. Many aren't. An idea needs to be capable of sustaining characters and plot, and some might be better suited to a short story or subplot. When the right idea strikes, though, it's an amazing moment, at least for me. I get a strong gut instinct, signalling 'this is IT!' Intense excitement follows; for hours afterwards, my brain won't stop buzzing with ways to develop the idea into a novel.
Television news and the press are useful for gathering ideas. Say, for example, I read about a hit-and-run accident. I immediately focus on the emotions involved, posing questions such as 'what if?' and 'how would that feel?' What mental turmoil must the driver be experiencing? Was he/she concerned about financial problems/their marriage/work issues, leading to careless driving? What will the consequences be? How is the victim's family coping? All rich sources of inspiration for the plot or subplot of a future novel!
Themes as a source of inspiration
Something else I find works well is to consider themes that appeal, ones evoking strong emotions. I turn a subject over in my brain, spinning out from a one-word premise, such as obsession, all the possibilities that arise. A mental mind map, if you like! For my sixth novel, 'Deception Wears Many Faces', I was drawn to the theme of betrayal. Duplicity elicits fierce emotions, from a desire for revenge to suicidal impulses. How did this idea originate? Television again. I watched a BBC documentary on the subject of con artists. As the sad stories unfolded, that familiar gut feeling hit me hard - YES! I knew I'd found the material for a future novel plot.
Other potential sources of inspiration? This doesn't work for me, but many writers report using daydreaming or dreams themselves to spark their creativity. One of my novelist friends told me the plot of her first book came to her as she slept. Others say meditation or creative visualisation helps.
Enter Plot Monkey!
For fun a while ago, I tried out a piece of software (no longer available) called Plot Monkey. It's a random idea generator, based on who, what, how, when and where. Using those criteria, or whichever ones you select, it generates plot ideas. The results are hilarious.
Take this gem it produced: two small boys wipe out an outlaw gang using a hammer to win fame during the civil war in Australia. Well, that's expanded my education! I was unaware Australia ever had a civil war...
Or this: A herpetologist tries to destroy an Army base by being unfaithful to hide the truth during the civil war alongside a boat. Looks like our resident monkey has a thing for civil conflict...
Here's my favourite, seeing as my fourth, 'The Second Captive', examines Stockholm syndrome: a person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome plays a deadly game with a hack saw to prove a point in the future in the desert. Nope, no hack saws or deserts in 'The Second Captive'! Sorry, Plot Monkey, I'll carry on getting ideas as and when they arise - you stick to finding your next banana!
How would it feel to discover you'd been abducted as a child?
To illustrate the diverse sources of novel ideas, let's look at how I got the inspiration for four of my own books, starting with 'His Kidnapper's Shoes'. In 2010, I was chatting with fellow travellers in Vietnam, discussing what happens when children disappear. I ventured the opinion that most, sadly, are killed by opportunistic predators.
One woman disagreed. 'I suspect sometimes they're stolen to order,' she said. 'For childless couples, who, for whatever reason, can't adopt.'
That got me thinking. What would it be like to discover you'd been abducted as a child? How would someone react on finding out the woman who raised them is a kidnapper? I love examining strong emotions, and such a situation would spark off intense feelings: anger, betrayal, and the desire to unearth the truth.
When obsessive love leads to murder
Let's examine my second novel, 'Sister, Psychopath'. Several years ago, I attended a writing course, during which the conversation turned to a real-life murder case. Our teacher told us about a woman who became obsessed with a man, believing herself in love. So much so that she decided to kill his wife and child in the hope of marrying him. She carried out her plan, but her daughter suspected what she'd done, leading to her mother's arrest and conviction.
When I heard this, I knew I had the basis for a novel. Lots of questions jumped out at me. How would it feel to be the daughter in this situation? Or the woman herself, obsessed to the point of murder? What about the subject of her infatuation, a man now bereft of his family?
In the end, I centred on the daughter's story by creating the character of Megan Copeland, and changed the events to attempted murder, with no child involved. The novel ended up taking a different route, concentrating instead on the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic half-sister, Chloe. Psychopathy always provides plenty of material for novelists!
Discovering someone you love has a secret past
I don't remember the exact source of inspiration for my third novel, 'Guilty Innocence'. I suspect I heard about some terrible crime via the television news, because I do recall the idea came from the premise: how would it feel to discover someone you love has a secret past?
That sparked a host of other questions. What could be so awful you'd need to keep it hidden? How might the truth be revealed? Serious crime seemed the best reason for such a cover-up, which begged the question: what, exactly?
The answer was child murder; no other crime incites such passions in the public mind. The twist is that Mark Slater is innocent of the killing of two-year-old Abby Morgan. This doesn't mean he's without his demons to slay; his wrongful conviction has always eaten away at him. In addition, he has his nemesis, the twisted and violent Adam Campbell, to confront...
Victims who become emotionally attached to their abusers
Finally, let's look at my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive'. The book examines the fascinating psychological condition known as Stockholm syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to their abusers. Fertile ground for novelists!
The inspiration for this book came from hearing about a young woman who returned home after an absence of several years, in a distressed state, but wouldn't say what had happened to her. I was instantly intrigued. Why was she refusing to talk? Where had she been, and with whom?
Stockholm syndrome came to mind as the answer. A vulnerable individual, held captive in an abusive situation, who's too ashamed after her escape to reveal the truth. And so the character of Beth Sutton was born, along with the disturbed and dangerous Dominic Perdue, her captor…
let's hear from you!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post, and that it's given you some insight into the creative process for fiction writers. Are there any questions you'd like to ask on the topic? If you're a writer, do you get your ideas from specific sources, such as meditation or visualisation? Leave a comment and let me know!
A novel of violence and suffering...
'The White Room' by Martyn Waites is one of the best, as well as one of the grittiest, novels I've read in a long time. In it, Waites fuses a fictional account of life in Newcastle with the real-life case of child-killer Mary Bell. Be warned – this novel is not for the fainthearted. From its first chapter, set in a slaughterhouse, the narrative examines child abuse, prostitution, brutal anal sex, gang violence and murder, with a few psychopaths thrown in for good measure. Throughout the bulk of the novel, the characters endure a relentless cycle of damage, often perpetuated from generation to generation, as in the case of Monica and Mae Blacklock. Furthermore, Martyn Waites avoids the fairy tale scenario of only making his bad characters – and there are plenty of those - suffer. In 'The White Room', nobody is exempt from the torment that Waites inflicts on them; the characters who are essentially decent people – Sharon, Jack, Bert, Joanne – also endure more than their fair share of death and sorrow.
But also one of redemption
The ending, therefore, impacts like a bolt out of the slaughterhouse stun gun from the first chapter. Initially, it seems a little unreal – the soft-focus emphasis on what the future holds for Mae Blacklock, the character based on Mary Bell. After so much suffering and violence, one way to end the novel would have been to abandon all idea of hope, as George Orwell did in ‘1984’. However, Martyn Waites doesn't take this approach. Instead, he offers us a more optimistic alternative. Hence the title of the novel - 'The White Room'. An echo from Mae Blacklock’s childhood, a white room complete with an image of Jesus on the cross, simultaneously portraying hope and suffering. One that offers the reader more optimistic possibilities after the raw brutality of the rest of the novel. After all, if a character as fundamentally damaged as Mae Blacklock can aspire to a better future, so can we all. Martyn Waites himself says ‘It's a dark book but, I think, not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise, what's the point?’
The White Room may shock you. It may horrify you. Or its implicit message may inspire you. Whatever your reaction, I'd be interested to hear your views. Post a comment for me!
More about the author
Martyn is also the author of 'The Woman in Black: Angel of Death' as well as the Joe Donovan and Stephen Larkin series of novels. You can find out more at www.martynwaites.com.
Anyone who knows me will testify how passionate I am about foreign travel. I've been fortunate enough to have done lots of globe-trotting in my life, with more trips planned; it makes sense, therefore, that a keen reader like me should enjoy novels based around travel. In this week's post, I examine as part of my 'Five' series some well-known books classed as travel fiction or memoirs. Commencing take-off....
1. The Beach - Alex Garland
Written in 1996 by British author Alex Garland, 'The Beach' tells the story of Richard, who, when the novel opens, is staying in the notorious Khao San Road area of Bangkok (I've spent many a happy hour exploring Khao San's peculiarities - I love the place!)
Richard becomes fascinated by what he hears about a remote beach situated in the Gulf of Thailand, described as stunningly beautiful and inaccessible to tourists. Daffy Duck, the Scotsman who tells him about this tropical Garden of Eden, leaves him a map disclosing its location before committing suicide. Intrigued, Richard hooks up with a French couple, Etienne and Francois, and the trio set off to find the beach. Once there, they discover a secretive community living alongside Thai cannabis growers. Events, of course, soon take a sinister turn - I won't say more as I don't wish to give plot spoilers, but at times 'The Beach' has distinct overtones of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. The body count grows amid the backdrop of the annual Tet Festival. Will Richard survive the experience?
2. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
Written in 1951 but not published until 1957, 'On The Road' is a novel by Jack Kerouac, based on his travels across America. The story epitomises the post-war Beat and counter-culture movements, being heavily based around spiritual quests and the rejection of materialism, and laced with copious amounts of jazz music, sex and psychedelic drugs. Kerouac emerges in the book as the narrator, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a road trip with his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, another major figure of the Beat movement.) Saddened by his recent divorce, Sal is eager to accompany the free-spirited Dean and discover what life on the road can offer him. They criss-cross the country from coast to coast, hitting San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Denver and Detroit. As someone who has long held an ambition to drive across the USA, this fascinates me!
A weird fact about 'On The Road' - the first draft was typed on a continuous 120-feet long scroll of tracing paper sheets, cut to size and taped together. The novel was transcribed from Kerouac's notebooks and typed without margins or paragraph breaks, taking him just three weeks (wow, that's fast!) to complete. I can only assume he couldn't afford proper paper on which to type! The scroll still exists and was bought by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts for $2.43 million in 2001.
3. Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
'Eat, Pray, Love' was written in 2006 by American author Elizabeth Gilbert and tells the story of her travels following her divorce and unsuccessful rebound relationship. The book is split into three sections, each corresponding with a different location in Gilbert's travels. First she spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life, which is the 'eat' section of the narrative. As a foodie and Italophile, I love this part! Next came three months in India, where Gilbert explores her spirituality ('pray'). Finally she travelled to Bali, where she fell in love with a Brazilian businessman ('love'), whom she subsequently married.
The book has attracted mixed reviews, with many being critical of Gilbert's alleged self-absorption. Others, like Oprah Winfrey, have loved the memoir (Oprah devoted two episodes of her show to it) and the 2010 film version has also proved very popular. Gilbert has also written another memoir ('Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage') as a sequel to 'Eat, Pray, Love', as well as short stories, essays and novels.
4. Around The World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne
Ah, the classic Jules Verne novel, beloved since its publication in 1873! The book tells the story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout as they attempt to win a £20,000 bet as to whether the pair can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. The traveller in me thrills at the challenge - perhaps I should give it a go sometime!
Fogg and Passepartout travel by rail and steamer, journeying first to Egypt, then to India, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA before crossing the Atlantic back to London. Despite what you see on the book cover, they never set foot in a balloon - the idea is brought up in one of the chapters but dismissed as being too risky. The image of a balloon has become synonymous with the book, however, thanks to the 1956 film adaptation.
Many people have since circumnavigated the world in eighty days or less, including British actor and fellow travel-holic Michael Palin, who made the trip in seventy-nine days as part of a very entertaining 1989 TV travel documentary.
5. Backpack - Emily Barr
This novel brings back memories! I came across it in a hostel in the beach resort of Mui Ne in southern Vietnam, and read it in one go whilst stretched out on a lounger next to the sea. Happy days! Here's the back blurb:
It's New Year's Day and the year isn't kicking off well for Tansy: her mother's dead, she's a cocaine addict and her boyfriend has just left her. A trip around the world seems like the only option except that she's not interested in seeing the world, just escaping from it, and the last people she wants to hang out with are backpackers. Like a lot of travellers on the Lonely-Planet-led Asian Grand Tour, Tansy is intensely irritating at first. Always on the look out for the "real" Vietnam--the one in which she can walk around "like a model, fanning myself gently, strolling into ancient temples and learning about inner peace"--she is opinionated, narrow-minded and remarkably naive (for a supposed media luvvy). Once she has shrugged off her addiction to lines of coke, skinny lattes and Nicole Fahri jumpers, she becomes more appealing. So by the time she's fallen for Max, a fellow traveller, she'll have won you over and you'll be just as worried as she is about the serial killer who appears to be on her trail...
Let's hear from you!
Wow, this post has made me want to pack my rucksack! Have you read any of the books I've mentioned? Any other travel-based books that you love? Leave a comment and let me know!
'I have to like the main character in a novel in order to enjoy reading it,' a friend once told me. 'If I can't like them, then I need to empathise with them, at the very least.'
A while back, I read Peter Høeg's novel 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow,' and it got me thinking about whether a protagonist should be likeable. You see, Smilla Jaspersen, the main character in Høeg's novel, isn't. Not to me, anyway. She describes herself as a bitter shrew; her personality's as cold as the Greenland ice on which she was raised. She professes to love her neighbour's son, six-year-old Isaiah, but she's not above hitting him. Her feelings for the man she refers to as 'the mechanic' rarely rise about the carnal, despite her alleged tenderness for him. And yet Smilla is a mesmerising character. She's possessed of an acerbic tongue, she's mistress of the quick riposte, and she'll fight dirty with screwdrivers or whatever implement comes to hand. I neither liked nor empathised with her, but she made a fascinating character to lead me through the book.
Let's look at other fictional nasties...
Unpleasant characters abound in novels, of course, but they're often cast as the antagonist, with a thorough comeuppance served up at the end. Let's look at some novels where the lead character, as opposed to the antagonist, is very definitely someone with a nasty streak. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley springs to mind. Charming, amoral and ruthless, surely he's far most interesting to the reader than the dull Dickie Greenleaf? Or what about Scarlett O'Hara? She's vain, she's selfish and yet isn't she compelling, especially when compared with the vapid Melanie Wilkes?
Moving to historical fiction, Mary Saunders from Emma Donoghue's novel 'Slammerkin' is shallow, self-serving and impulsive. She trades her virginity for a ribbon and uses the infatuated Daffy Cadwallader without compunction for her own ends. Tom, Scarlett, Mary; we may not like them but we can't ignore them, and all three fascinate and compel in equal measures.
The lure of the antagonist
Some books have the reader rooting for the villain simply because their counterparts aren't likable either. As a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' for school, I loathed Angel Clare with a passion. He's supposed to be a moral man, with Christian values, but his behaviour stinks. Sure, he's a product of Victorian England, but could he be any more hypocritical? Rejecting Tess for not being a virgin immediately after informing her he's not one either? Alec D'Urberville may be the villain of the book but at least he doesn't pretend to be the good guy. In that, if nothing else, he's far more honest than Angel Clare ever is. I know which one I prefer.
Why is it the bad guys are often more interesting? Take Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's 'Rebecca', as well as Rebecca herself. Don't these two women possess more fire, more spirit, than the second Mrs De Winter? What about 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'? Doesn't Hyde draw us in far deeper into Robert Louis Stevenson's novel than Jekyll ever does?
What's behind all this?
I believe many of us harbour a dark side. Most of us lead law-abiding lives and are decent enough people, but I suspect we like to examine life's grittier side occasionally. From a safe perspective, of course. Why else would crime and horror novels be so popular? We're like children, scared yet thrilled by tales of witches and warlocks; there's something compelling about the seamier side of life. For me, that explains why often it's the bad guys in novels who grab the limelight.
What about my friend, though, who prefers her characters to be the good guys? For me, fascination can replace empathy, but for her it's clearly different. I suspect the reason here is because many people choose to identify with the lead characters in a book, to walk in their shoes, experience life through their eyes. So it makes sense that we'd want to like them, because for the duration of the book, we become them.
What do you think?
What's your take on this? Do you root for the good guys or do you prefer your fictional characters more flawed? Leave a comment and let me know!
Following his excellent review of 'The Two Faces of January', I'm delighted to welcome back Michael Nutt as a guest blogger. Today's post will be a review by him of Elmore Leonard's 1987 novel 'Bandits'. The floor's all yours, Michael...
Snappy dialogue and interesting characters...
Written during a period when Elmore Leonard was turning out some of his very best crime fiction, 'Bandits' (1987) is written with the author's customary ease and economy, full of his snappy dialogue, a cast of interesting characters, and a plot that picks up pace along the way.
The story begins with a corpse, in a place where death is everyday business. We are in a mortuary in New Orleans and two men are working on a road traffic victim. The scene is set with some rapid fire dialogue between the two men as they work on the body. Or rather while one man works on it, while the other watches evasively. The evasive one is Jack Delaney, just turned forty, a one-time fashion model who ended up doing time in Angola penitentiary for burglary, and now working for his brother-in-law Leo Mullen who got him an early release through the rehabilitation programme by offering him a job as assistant in his funeral director's business.
It is clear from the start that Jack has not put his criminal past completely behind him. First there is the body that has appeared that day on the mortuary slab, and which Jack recognises as an acquaintance from his wild years. Then there is the revelation that he has been socialising with red-headed Helene, another character from his criminal past.
A scathing comment on US foreign policy
Soon Jack is on his way to the leper colony in Carville in the company of a nun, Sister Lucy, only the body they are going to collect in the hearse is not a dead one. And Sister Lucy, in her Calvin Klein jeans and heels, appears very well-attired for a woman of the cloth.
This is a slow-burner by Leonard's standards and the story takes a while to ignite. The plot has a conventional, linear structure - very different to the author's usual cross-cutting chapters that leap between characters and locations before bringing all the strands together. Written in the late 1980s, Leonard draws on the wars of Central America of the late 20th century - the conflicts in Nicaragua, Honduras - as a background to the contemporary story, introducing themes of responsibility and morality that have been lacking in Jack's life. There is more than a touch of bitterness in the way Leonard remarks on the USA's involvement in those dirty little wars in Central America. He does not spare his American readers the uncomfortable truths of US foreign policy and how it supported the most vicious and inhuman parties in those struggles. Leonard is angry, very angry, as he writes of the atrocities the US financed in Nicaragua in the name of anti-Communism.
An unlikely wild bunch
The bad guys are often the most interesting characters in Leonard's crime novels and he keeps us waiting to meet the villain of this story. Bertie - Colonel Dagoberto Godoy Diaz - is an officer who served the deposed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and he has a personal interest in the girl that Jack and Lucy have taken out of Carville. He is on their case, while visiting the States to raise funds for his army of contras still fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Lucy's father, a wealthy oil tycoon, could be just the man to help him. It is almost a third of the way into the story before we meet Colonel Diaz and we are left in no doubt about what Jack and Lucy are up against. The Colonel has the CIA and some smooth operators working on his side and Jack is going to need help from some people from his criminal past, so he calls on a couple of bandits: ex-cop Roy Hicks, whom Jack knew in Angola, and old lag Tom Cullen, recently released from a 27 year stretch into the care of a nursing home. This unlikely wild bunch have a chance of redemption, of using their criminal skills for the force of good against evil. But with their criminal backgrounds, will they stay as the good guys or succumb to the temptation of more than two million dollars?
Take a trip in Jack's hearse
I love this novel's New Orleans setting, the familiar street names and locales. I love the anecdotes that Leonard drops in to fill out the main characters' back-stories, each one a short story in itself. I love the way that Leonard will follow a plot thread and character for a while before leaving it and moving off in an entirely different direction. I love how this leaves the story open to so many possibilities, not just with the bandits' quest to steal the Colonel's funds but also in their relationships with each other. The story builds to its climax, with some twists and turns along the way, raising our anticipation like watching a car bomb primed to go off. It ends as it begins, with a live body being transported in a hearse. But we have come a long way in between, and so too have his characters. 'Bandits' is not up there with Leonard's best novels, but it is a thoroughly good read. Take a trip in Jack's hearse: it is a journey worth taking.
More about Elmore Leonard
Thank you, Michael, for another great book review!
A few facts about the novelist Elmore Leonard. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved to Detroit in 1934, where he spent much of his life. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns. He went on to pen several crime and thriller novels, the best known of which include 'Get Shorty' and 'Rum Punch'. Many of these, including 'Bandits', have been made into films and adapted for television.
During his lifetime, Leonard was awarded various prestigious literary prizes, including the Grand Master Edgar Award in 1992 from the Mystery Writers of America, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature in 2008. Elmore Leonard died in 2013, aged 87.
The second in a great series
Readers of my blog will remember that I interviewed bestselling novelist Robert Bidinotto a while ago. (Click here to read the interview). The post mentioned Robert's second novel in the Dylan Hunter thriller series; I enjoyed it so much I decided to post a review for this blog. First, let's have a taster of the plot. Read how Robert describes it on his website:
At his cabin in the Allegheny National Forest, Dylan Hunter and Annie Woods have taken a month off to heal the wounds—physical and emotional—from their ordeal at the hands of twisted psychopath Adrian Wulfe. Annie, in particular, has been struggling with the aftershocks of witnessing the man she loves nearly die at her feet. She is frightened by the prospect that Dylan seems to seek or attract violent confrontations wherever he goes. She can’t accept the prospect of such a life with him. So, to build a future together, Dylan promises Annie that he’ll abandon his violent ways. But ideological zealots and Washington’s political elites have conspired to terrorize and plunder the hard-working locals. These victims have no protector against the bad deeds of the powerful and privileged. Except for one man. A man as ruthless and violent as they. A man committed to absolute justice. Because Dylan Hunter cannot walk away—not even if it costs him the woman he loves . . .
A well-structured plot that avoids cliches
Powerful stuff! 'Bad Deeds' is a fast-paced action thriller, packed with more twists than a pretzel, and far juicier. It's a Formula One race to the end, with a break in the middle to deliver some back story about Dylan's father; this slows the pace down nicely, allowing the reader to draw breath.
The book is well-structured, with the prologue and epilogue seamlessly balancing and complementing each other. The latter, as is to be expected, teases the reader with a hint of the next book in the Dylan Hunter vigilante justice series. Throughout the action, Robert Bidinotto takes care to develop his characters further, via Dylan's efforts to incorporate the woman he loves into his life and Annie's struggles to deal with the psychological scars inflicted on her in 'Hunter'.
On now to the themes of the novel. I found the portrayal of the environmental extremists refreshing in that they weren't depicted as the good guys. It would have been so easy (and clichéd) to have written the environmentalists as saintly champions of America's green spaces and the fracking companies as ruthless pillagers of Mother Earth, but the author doesn't go down that route. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm reluctant to say too much, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the book is an interesting read for its perspective on green issues, although there's so much more to the story than that. Robert Bidinotto has conducted extensive research into this area, which is of keen interest to him; 'Bad Deeds' examines some of the complex ethical questions involved. The results may surprise you.
What about the romantic elements? Robert ensures they don't intrude on the action, but act instead as a counterpart to the fast pace of the rest of the book. I'm not a fan of romantic fiction, but Dylan and Annie's relationship is portrayed sensitively, without losing sight of the fact the novel is, first and foremost, an action thriller.
The bar has been raised to a great height...
As an animal lover, I was delighted that Robert delivered on his promise to me when I interviewed him! His gorgeous black and white cat, Luna, does indeed play a pivotal role in the plot - without her, events would have transpired very differently! I hope we'll read more about Dylan's feline sidekick in future Hunter novels...
Robert Bidinotto says on his blog how concerned he was to produce a sequel to 'Hunter' that would live up to his fans' expectations. I'd say he has more than delivered the goods; the number of 5-star reviews the novel is racking up on Amazon.com indicates other readers agree with me. With 'Bad Deeds', Robert Bidinotto has raised the bar even higher for himself and I don't doubt he'll rise to the challenge with the next Dylan Hunter novel. Not much pressure, hey, Robert?!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! To find out more about Robert and his novels, go to www.bidinotto.com. He's an interesting guy!
I'm delighted to welcome novelist Daryl Rothman to my blog! Daryl has written this guest post, The Ties That Bind: Five Traits Shared by Great Suspense Novels. Over to you, Daryl!
You just can't put it down...
Have you ever experienced that with a book? Most people have, if they’re lucky. Of course, I’ve lost myself so thoroughly in a great novel that I’ve run late for important engagements, snuck in reading time at work, and read entire days away. And it’s glorious. But have you ever stopped and considered what kinds of books most commonly ensnare you in this manner? Any great book can do so, but for many people, suspenseful, psychological thrillers comprise the most usual suspects. The brilliant, beautiful psychotherapist whom we learn will kill her husband; the murder of a 12-year-old girl which evokes haunting memories for an Irish detective; the fiendish plans and eventual execution of murder and attempts at moral justification in mid-19th-century Russia; a brilliant but profoundly troubled computer hacker who finds herself in the crosshairs of espionage and murder in high-society Sweden; a fledgling FBI agent tasked with culling secrets from an imprisoned murderer before another serial killer strikes again. What are the common traits that keep us on the edge of our seats (or upright in our beds, biting our nails as we compulsively, helplessly turn page after scintillating page)? Why can’t we put these books down?
I am a bit leery of authoritative, definitive lists—the greatest beauty of great books, after all, is that they belong to the reader, gifted by talented scribes, suffused with memorable characters and compelling details, plots and stories, but belonging to each reader nonetheless, to see, feel and absorb as only she can. So any list detailing traits of great books is inevitably incomplete. But after considering my own favorites and other perspectives, I have compiled here a list of 5 traits I believe many great suspense novels share, and offered examples for each.
1. Front-row seats
Great suspense novels confer upon readers the ultimate of vantage points. Often, though not always, this manifests via dramatic irony, wherein the reader is privy to something important that a main character(s) is not. In "The Silent Wife", we come to know—and are directly advised that the protagonist does not know—that she will commit murder. Top authors are not coy with their readers (despite the plot twists we’ll discuss a bit further down)—they display complete trust in us, bestowing ringside seats to the show. In Dostoevsky’s classic "Crime and Punishment", we again learn early of nefarious plans and so the suspense resides not in discovering Raskolnikov’s murderous contemplations, but in whether and when he shall indeed execute them, and what the ramifications will be. Foreshadowing, when properly presented, lurks in this dark realm as well, gilding our gaudy seats with golden touches of spine-tingling hints and anticipation.
2. Clockwork universe
In most good books, and most assuredly in great suspense novels, the clock is ticking. Sometimes literally: 24 hours until the bomb explodes… one week before the mob returns for their money… 60 minutes (naturally) before the sands pass through the hourglass in the witch’s castle. Even if it is not stated so explicitly, there is almost always a race against time in one way or another—some decision or action which must be made or taken within SOME limited time frame in order to achieve or avoid a pretty significant result. Many of the best thrillers have a trigger action, that act or decision which, whether intentional or otherwise, sets the gears of the story’s plot in motion.
Whilst not a novel, the recently concluded and highly-acclaimed drama "Breaking Bad" offered a perfect example of a trigger mechanism: when Walter White makes the decision to cook and sell meth, he triggers a series of dramatic, violent, often bizarre but in the end seemingly inevitable events. This article does a great job elaborating, and is a worthy primer on many of the principles of the clockwork universe in fiction. But back to the suspense novels, and the matter of ticking time: "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" both mine the murky depths of serial killers, and the reader gets and feels the urgency. The protagonists must find the killer before he claims his next victim. A literary clockwork universe also is tinged with notions of destiny and fate—tension is heightened as the reader is imbued with the realization that the protagonists are not only on a collision course with the antagonists, but that the odds seem somehow preordained against them.
3. Unbelievably (yet made believable) high stakes
We must not only care about the protagonists, but also about what they care about. A protagonist may be richly developed, beautifully-textured and wholly relatable… yet if all she cares about is whether the prolonged winter has adversely affected her spring garden, this is probably insufficient to compel the reader to keep turning pages. Ah, but if the prolonged winter has adversely affected her spring garden, in which she was growing a hybrid plant whose seeds contained the cure to a worldwide pandemic, suddenly the stakes have soared higher. In “Lambs” and “Dragon Tattoo” the stakes are pretty darn clear—stopping a serial killer is about as intense as it gets—but even taut tales of murder are often suffused with additional, more nuanced stakes.
"In the Woods" is the story of an Irish detective also on the trail of a killer, but the pursuit stirs embers of a long-repressed trauma directly connected to the crimes he’s investigating. Throw in an intense and ultimately ill-fated romance with his partner, and the stakes for Detective Ryan are not only high, but layered and complex: can he cope with the awakening memories which begin to plague him anew?... can he and Det. Maddox navigate the murky waters of their smoldering relationship while remaining focused enough to solve the deepening mystery? But it’s more than just really high stakes—the higher they are, the more intense or even fantastical—the greater the burden on the author to make them seem plausible. This is accomplished not merely by creating stakes which resonate with a reader’s notions of possibility—for so often we read to escape the constraints of reality and limited possibility—but by creating a world wherein it seems possible—even inevitable—for the characters.
4. Twists and yet more twists
A great thriller has twists—usually lots of them. But if we are to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary works of suspense, it again comes down to execution (sometimes literally). J But the great ones don’t steep their manuscript full of twists merely for the sake of it, or for (almost always) fleeting shock value alone. The best twists knock us on our backsides but we gladly bolt back up, smiling: thank you sir, may I have another? They knock our socks off and we revel in the surprise yet perhaps even gently chide ourselves for not seeing it coming but also loving that we didn’t. Fowles’ "The Magus" is replete with dizzying, imaginative twists, yet when taken in composite they thread together in the tapestry of the psychological playground (god games) the author has presented. I’ve had the privilege of guest posting for speculative fiction author and owner of the highly-acclaimed "Helping Writers Become Authors" website K M Weiland, who wrote a fantastic post on how to write killer plot twists. Note her exhortation early on: poorly executed twists are not only ineffective but can be counterproductive and even insulting. The great ones get it right.
5. When all's said and done, CHARACTER
This is so obvious as to become all-too-often-neglected. There is a tendency when pondering literary genres to become so fixated upon the various traits and devices that define each. To wit, this post. Here we are dissecting common threads which weave through great suspense novels. And this is good and well for a discussion of what we love to read and why, but a danger lurks for the scribe who loses herself in these considerations. An obsession with assuring one has included all requisite components and devices can result in a work that is gimmicky and trite. Look at me, I’m a suspense novel—did you see all those great twists? Eh? Eh? Meh. The great thrillers unveil these components seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly (I say seemingly because great writing is hard work) and takes us for the ride of a lifetime. But even for those which have nailed every other great element, if they fail to deliver memorable characters, the work will ultimately ring hollow, fall flat. Strong characterization is incumbent upon any great story, even more so, I’d argue, in great thrillers, for even though conventional wisdom may suggest successful orchestration of all other suspense elements perhaps minimizes the requirement of epic characters, the opposite is in fact true: terrific plotting, harrowing danger, cliffhanger twists all harbor the potential to outshine the characters themselves. But the best suspense novelists understand their work will be all the more riveting, resonate more enduringly, if all the components complement, rather than compete with one another, and strong characters are an essential ingredient. What do you think of first when I mention "Silence of the Lambs"? A haunting psychological expose on the twisted minds of serial killers and the inner-workings of the FBI? Maybe. But more likely you think of him, the wonderfully puerile Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Or her, the sublimely vulnerable but fiercely courageous Agent Starling. Characters. They are the living vessel through which all the other elements find voice.
Lists and resources
When these and the myriad additional traits of great suspense novels come together, it is something to behold. Symphonic. Scintillating. Evoking and provoking. More than anything, one hell of a read.
Here are some great lists of terrific suspense novels:
What do you think? What are some of your favorite suspense novels and what were the traits that grabbed you the most? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Thank you, Daryl!
I'd like to thank Daryl Rothman for this terrific blog post. Daryl is a father, author, early childhood leader and public speaker. He received his BA from the University of Illinois, MSW from Washington University and is a licensed clinical social worker. His website features his blog, short stories, publications, guest interviews, and news about his novels. He has guest-blogged for K M Weiland, CS Lakin, Joanna Penn, Firepole Marketing and published flash fiction for The Hoot and flash fiction for Kal Ba Publishing. Daryl may be found on Twitter, Linked In and Google+. From early in life he harbored three aspirations: become a father, become a writer, and become a ballplayer for his hometown Cardinals. He is blessed to have achieved the first, is happily continuing his journey regarding the second and he will neither confirm nor deny holding out hope for the third.
Overview of '11.22.63'
Stephen King is often referred to as "the master storyteller" and for me this is never been more evident than in his epic novel 11.22.63. An lengthy 734 pages long, the book examines the "butterfly effect” that results when one man tries to change the past. To quote from the back narrative: ‘In 2011, Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, sets out on an insane – and insanely possible – mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Leaving behind a world of computers and mobile phones, he goes back to a time of big American cars and diners, of Lindy Hopping, the sound of Elvis and the taste of root beer. In this haunting world, Jake falls in love with Sadie, a beautiful high school librarian. And, as the ominous date 11.22.63 approaches, he encounters a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.’
Into his portrait of the Kennedy era, King weaves the love story of Jake, now known as George, and Sadie, one that never becomes overly treacly but instead is detailed with humour and realism. In 11.22.63, Jake travels the classic hero’s journey, from a jaded high school teacher, bruised from his divorce from his alcoholic wife, to a man who discovers the love of his life and the courage to do what hurts in order to put right the problems he’s caused.
Rich details of 1950s and 1960s American Life
King is a master at evoking small-town America from the 50s and 60s. We are treated to a rich portrayal of a past life; from Jake's first taste of homemade root beer, through the music and dances of the era (Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, lindy hopping), to the cars (Jake's beloved Sunliner). In contrast to this nostalgic idyll, King also gives us the downside - prevalent domestic violence, racial prejudice, the fug of ever-present cigarette smoke. Idyll and anti-idyll are set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the bogeyman figure of Nikita Khrushchev. Besides the darkness, King provides plenty of lighter moments in the book – absurdly quaint slogans (Drink Cheer-Up Coffee!) and sidesteps such as the fun of George teaching Ritchie and Bevvie how to lindy hop. The humour is more evident in the first half of the novel, before the narrative takes a dark downward twist in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald's attack on Kennedy. The richness of detail is amazing, like tracing the path of a fractal. The blood and sweat of King’s depiction of the prize fight between Case and Tiger. The shat-HOOSH sound of the machines at Worumbo Mills and Weaving. The taste of the root beer and ribs. At times, the narrative is so evocative I felt I was deep inside the novel, embedded in the heart of 1960s America.
Remember the butterfly effect...
Ah, let's not forget we're not supposed to tinker with time. What about the butterfly effect? King provides plenty of hints about the impact George's presence in the past is having, and it's not always a beneficial one. Take what happens to Vince Knowles; the changing colour of the Yellow Card Man's card; the subtle differences in the conversations George has every time he returns to September 9, 1958. This is no Groundhog Day – instead of opportunities to improve his situation, King provides George with more and more chances to screw up the future by messing with the past. As Al Templeton tells him: "The past is obdurate. Doesn't want to be changed". It’s no coincidence that the entrance to the rabbit hole into 1950s Lisbon Falls is chained off, posing as a broken sewer pipe. A metaphor for George’s sullying of the world’s future by meddling with forces he doesn’t understand. A salutary lesson for all of us (not that any of us are likely to go time travelling any time soon!)
High tension, moving towards a perfect ending
Throughout the narrative, the foreboding figure of the Yellow Card Man, a foul-mouthed wino, stands guard over the mysterious portal from Jake’s present day life into 1950s America. It is late in the novel before the Yellow Card Man’s secret is revealed, along with his instrumental role in safeguarding the future of the world. The tension mounts as the past becomes ever more obdurate in its attempts to thwart George’s interference in the Kennedy assassination. Will he succeed or won’t he? As we discover the answer, King sweeps us along to the novel’s ending, which for me was perfect. Very moving.
Why genre fiction is overlooked when it comes to the major literary prizes, when it can produce novels of this calibre, is beyond me. I highly recommend this book.