Friday, July 24, 2009

Some Suggested Reads

The Thriller Guy is heading off for a week down south where the Internet reception is a bit spotty, so rather than continuing our ongoing dialogue, here are a few suggestions to take to the beach, back porch, or wherever you settle in with a good book.

Mike Lawson continues his excellent Washington, DC-based series starring government investigator Joe DeMarco in House Secrets, Grove/Atlantic, $22. Joe is looking into the death of a Washington Post reporter who was investigating handsome, charismatic Senator Paul Morelli, the poster boy for all things politically liberal and good. Turns out there's more to the senator, especially after he has a couple of drinks, than his adoring followers ever suspected. There's a huge twist at the end and The Thriller Guy implores you to NOT EVEN GLANCE (yes, I know I'm shouting) at the last page of this book before arriving there in the normal course of the read. You will not be disappointed.

David Liss has a new entry in his Benjamin Weaver series (A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption) with Weaver, who is known as a thieftaker, a sort of early private investigator, caught up in a plot that centers around the British East India Company and a clever blackmailer who is threatening Weaver's friends and family with financial ruin. All of these historical mysteries are very good, steeped in the reeking, elegant, brutal and fascinating milieu of 18th century London. The Devil's Company, Random House, $25.

Robert Ferrigno finishes up his amazing Assassin Trilogy with the latest and last, Heart of the Assassin. The Thriller Guy will be featuring this series in an upcoming post, so dive in now so you'll be up to speed for the discussion. These books are best read in order so start with Prayers for the Assassin, and then Sins of the Assassin. Heart of the Assassin, Scribner, $25.95.

Anyone out there have anything to add to this list? What thrillers are you reading that the rest of us should know about?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Females In Peril: Part II: The Readers Speak

While still new in the Blogosphere, I have noticed that after around ten comments readers begin to stop reading an entry and start looking for a new topic. That being so, I'm putting the last several comments I received in answer to my recent Stone Barrington/Female in Peril question: Do women read these sorts of books? And if so how do they feel about the bloody treatment female victims receive at the hands of sadistic killers? Several readers answered this question. In particular, I had asked about a series I remembered but couldn't name where a female author had a serial killer who captured and tortured the male protagonist. Perceptive Poster Marlene came up with the answer.

Allen, I believe you are thinking of Chelsea Cain, author of several books about a sadistic mutilating female serial killer. One of them (the only one I read, I think) was called ``Heartsick.'' My recollection is that she really cuts up our detective hero and he is turned on by her....(I don't recall that he actually falls in love with her, but there definitely is some serious sexual tension between the two of them. On her part too, if I'm remembering this correctly.)

Allen asked about the taste of female readers. I'm one, and I go for the gruesome stuff, as long as it's not gruesome-for-gruesome's-sake. (Did that make sense?) For that matter, consider that women thriller writers (Val McDermid comes to mind) can be just as gruesome as the guys. McDermid can get pretty graphic against women in her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series of books (In the ``The Wire in the Blood,'' for example, the book, not the BBC TV series, a young woman police officer gets killed off in a most barbaric way) and other women writers have no qualms knocking off women. The most shocking murder in my recent memory was that of Helen Clyde Lynley, wife of Thomas Lynley (the hero of Elizabeth George's British detective series, in a totally random senseless shooting. Most of George's fans (me among them) were outraged and heartbroken!!! The writer, when asked about it, said (I am paraphrasing big time) that she just wanted to shake things up a bit! Indeed.

I forgot to add that Lady Helen was *pregnant* when she got shot, and she didn't die right away: Lynley had to decide to pull the plug. So George killed her -- and their unborn child -- in a most prolonged, agonizing way.

Yes, Chelsea Cain is the author, and the books are Heartsick and Sweetheart with a third entry, Evil At Heart coming in September. Excellent books. The serial killer is Gretchen Lowell and the detective is Archie Sheridan who was once tortured by Gretchen for ten hours, leaving him with a large heart-shaped incision on his chest.

Bridget is the next lady to answer my question...

You asked for a female readers comment, so here goes. I have read some books where the female character is easily cut down or killed, and I felt like it was a big let down, I could see it coming, and I knew what was going to happen and it didn't inspire me to enjoy the book. But I rarely read books like that, and as a female, I generally select books with strong female leads, and even if the female lead is weak, or a victim of injustice, rape, etc - her rise from the ashes, seeing her triumph over the horror, is very satisfying, to see her stand up for herself, gain strength, the victim becomes the heroine. I think that books like that give women hope if they are ever hurt or abused they can rise from the ashes like a phoenix. I remember reading a book about a woman who was horribly abused by her husband. But all the while she was abused, she was doing little things to plan her eventual escape, start a new life, and when she was strong, and by then the character had grown to be able to defend herself when he eventually caught up to her. (Not the movie Sleeping with the Enemy, can't remember the book title).

I would never enjoy or want to read a book where women are just categorically abused and maligned and treated as less than an animal. I doubt many women would read an author that would continue to render woman helpless and weak. Even many male readers have wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters - I can't see them getting much out of it either.

Is that what you were looking for?

And Mr. Appel, I appreciate your consideration in seeking a woman's viewpoint on the matter. Down with the Psycho Author's who enjoy hurting women. Like society needs any more encouragement!


Well, Bridget, I agree with you. There is a sub-genre of Females In Peril who don't wait for their boyfriends, husbands, detectives or woodcutters to rescue them from the wolf's den, but figure out a way to free themselves and vanquish their tormentors. I like this twist on the genre we have been discussing. An excellent example of the latter is John Sandford's, May release, Wicked Prey, in which Sandford's detective Lucas Davenport's teenage ward Letty takes on and defeats a criminal sub-human out to kill her. This is an example of another genre, The Kid In Peril, which was once big in thriller circles but has now ebbed and been relegated to mainstream fiction where it remains a staple. This Sandford thriller also re-establishes that his hero, who for the last several books has delivered an intelligent but rather boring performance, can still kick criminal ass.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Females in Peril: Part I

Being Stone Barrington's Girlfriend: The Most Dangerous Job in the World.

Over the years I've reviewed quite a few of Stuart Woods' novels, in particular the Stone Barrington series. I believe there are around 17 in the series, though I haven't counted them recently. Barrington is a cop-turned-lawyer who works for a high-class law firm doing investigative legal chores and handling the firm's rougher-edged, more troublesome clients. He has a fabulous house, spends his evenings dining and drinking (Knob Creek bourbon) at Elaine's, has terrific sex with fabulous women, (some of the best sex scenes in the business) hangs with his partner from the old days, Dino Bacchetti, jets around the world on assignment and vacations in exotic ports of call. It's a good life. Sometimes Woods turns in the direction of darker material, but, in general, the women are beautiful, the clients are interesting in a dangerous sort of way, and the banter is always amusing. Dino pretty much sums up the series when he says of his friend, “Wherever you go, people drop dead, and women take off their underwear.”

Unfortunately for Stone's girlfriends, they're the ones who often end up dead. But only after they've taken off their underwear.

Reviewing this series is pretty much the writing equivalent of a romp in the park. The books are around 300 pages and in this business you get paid the same as when you have to slog through a dense, 550 pager. All in all, it's an enjoyable process, and I give him good reviews. So why do I sometimes have this nagging sense of guilt when I hit the send button and the review is on its way? Here's why. And it's certainly not Stuart Woods' fault.

I'm getting really sick of Female in Peril plots. Serial killers who take fiendish delight in their young victims. Wives and girlfriends of spies and action adventure heroes who, and I know this as soon as I read how much in love they are, are doomed. Maybe they won't actually die, but they'll probably be shot, tortured, blown up, run off the road, maimed in some way and left to linger in a coma for the rest of the book while the hero races to avenge his love. Yes, sometimes, they're rescued in the nick of time, but not until blood has been shed and pain, oh, exquisite pain, has been inflicted. It's a terribly unoriginal scenario. And every once in awhile I'll be pleasantly surprised by a new twist on this tired theme.

But there's more. Here's when I really become disturbed. Sometimes, not very often, and I couldn't tell you what the cues and clues are, but sometimes I feel as if the author is having just a little too much fun writing these scenes of violence and degradation. That somehow, deep down in his dirty little soul, he's enjoying it.

Strangely, it's not even the most horrific novels that give me these particular creeps. While Thomas Harris can be among the most gruesome, I never get the feeling that Harris is that way. Woods is certainly never guilty of looking like he's enjoying the mayhem, but there are others who go too far, who dip into titillation, who just seem to enjoy the blood. And the pain.

I consider myself a scrupulously fair reviewer. I try to open every book without preconception. And yes, I understand, we're talking about fiction. But beware, you who would write such works, I do not let them pass unscathed. My pen, as well as yours, is just as capable of drawing blood.

So OK, Mr. Woods, lighten up on Stone's girlfriends. Let's not have every kiss be the kiss of death.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

More From Mr. Leonard

The gracious Elmore Leonard has replied to my question: Have you ever had one of your tough-guy character's cry? See his response in the comments section of the Weep No More My Hero entry.

And if you ever need a gift for a writer you can't beat the Elmore Leonard's book version of his rules for writing found on this blog. It's a classy book, heavy stock and illustrated, a real piece of art. Look for it on or your favorite bookstore.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Today's News

First, on a procedural note. I have found that some viewers don't realize that at the end of each essay they should click on the Comments link to either write me a note or see what others have said about the rant. Trust me, this is worth the effort because the folks who write these comments are all far more clever than I.


For those of you who aren't in the book business, here's the way it works in the rarefied, secretive and sometimes heartbreaking world of Big Time Book Reviewing. Four or five months before a book is due to be published, selected reviewers are sent Advance Reader Copies (hereafter known as ARCs) which are paperback copies of the (usually) hardback book. Occasionally you'll get an actual manuscript, though this is rare. There are different ways to get on these reviewers lists, which we'll cover in another blog. Along with the ARC is usually a sheet or two of promo material from the publisher. All self-respecting reviewers immediately toss that material in the trash. Wouldn't want to be influenced now, would we?

You then open the book and are often, far too often, met on the first page with a “letter” from the publisher.

I hate these letters.

Purportedly from a CEO, Editor-in-Chief or some other publisher nabob, the letter breathlessly informs the reviewer that the author of the book one is about to read is the new incarnation of Le Carre, Clancy, Dan Brown or some other mega-selling author. As if I, as a reviewer, would read that and say to myself, Wow! I guess I'm in for a treat! I'm really gonna love this book! Not bloody likely. My first thought is, I'll be the judge of that. But the thing that really galls me, because it is so foolish, is that these letters are “signed” with a facsimile of the person's signature. Again, as if I'm going to think Sonny Mehta arrived at work just the other day, typed out a personal note to me, glued it into the ARC and had his assistant put it into the mail. Please, spare me. It not only doesn't make me think I'm going to love the book, it seriously annoys me, and, listen up, publishers, annoying the reviewer just when he's about to turn to page one of your latest block-buster is not a good idea. So stop it. Stop with the fakey letters. Unless you're actually going to ask me out for a drink or lunch or something.

Hows next Friday look for you, Sonny?

And another thing, (there's always going to be an another thing from me) I don't like it when I'm informed in the letter that the book I'm about to read is “ripped from today's headlines.” Such a cliché.

And yet...

The top, front-page headline in Tuesday's Washington Post was “Scores Killed in Ethnic Riots in China.” These riots took place in the northwest province of Xinjang where Muslim Uighurs are demonstrating for independence. The curious thing is, on Monday I had just finished reading an excellent book, Typhoon, by Charles Cumming, who posits a secret plot by the CIA, code named Typhoon, to bring down the present Chinese government by inciting riots and unrest in Xinjang Province. Cue The Twilight Zone soundtrack. Of course, it's always wise for a thriller writer to be current, but given the amount of time it takes to write and publish a book I must say that Cumming was way ahead of the curve on this one. If you don't know his books (A Spy by Nature, The Spanish Game) and you like intelligent, character-rich spy novels, you should read him. Comparisons to le Carre are inevitable, but misguided. These days any spy novelist who writes intelligently and well is compared to le Carre. Cumming is very much his own man, working his own turf. He lives in England (natch) and the book comes out in this country in November. Look for it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Weep No More My Hero

Please, Thriller writers, no more heroes who shed tears. No more manly weeping.

Thrillers are about tough guys. Often, far too often, I'll be reading along and suddenly I can almost hear the writers' mind-gears begin to grind:

OK, I've had a bunch of action scenes, I've had my guy kill when he has to, he's shown he has the skills and the guts to get the job done. Hmm, what I need now is to prove that he's also got a soft side, that he cares, especially about the love interest, that he has depth. I've got to hook some women readers, everyone says they're the only ones buying books these days. I know! I'll have him cry! Women love it when a man cries!

Sorry. Actually, women hate it when a man cries. In real life and in books.

Men hate it as well.

In a thriller, it's just sooo obvious, such a cheap ploy to try and snag reader sympathy. Instead of figuring out an interesting, novel way for the hero to show emotion, the author takes the low road and sure enough, the hero's eyes begin to “well with tears.”

“He turned his head so she couldn't see the tear that trailed down his cheek.”

“He felt hot tears spring to his eyes.”


And I'm not talking about first novels or wannabes, Big Guys (you know who you are) do this over and over. I think it's always a mistake. Even though I may love the rest of the book, it's always tainted for me if the hero cries.

It makes the author look exploitive. It makes the character look foolish, and what is worse, weak.

Which is the kiss of death for a thriller character.

I think Lee Child's series character Reacher is pretty much the epitome of a thriller hero. He's beyond tough, but at the same time readers know he can be emotional, that he has feelings. I haven't read all the books in the series, but has Reacher ever wept? I'm asking the question of those of you who are aficionados of this series. Has he ever shed a tear? I'll bet not. Or let's just ask Lee Child. Are you out there? Has Reacher ever wept?

OK, here's a challenge to writers and to readers. Writers, if you've ever had your hero weep, tell us where and why you think it worked. Readers, if you disagree with me, send me an example of a thriller hero who weeps, cries, sheds a tear or two and who comes off looking the better for it.

I'm the most unreligious of men, but the only one that I can come up with that does work is in The King James Bible, the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, verse 35. In its entirety.

“Jesus wept.”