Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Adventures Redux

Jack, one of the followers of this blog, asks if anything more has happened with the robbery that occurred at casa TG a few months ago. Well, Jack, not a hell of a lot. To refresh the story, (see several blogs earlier) TG had used the reverse phone book and found the address of the criminal, Juan, (the perp) who seems to reside not far from where TG lives. There are two Juans listed, which TG assumes are father and son. It's unclear if they are any kin to the lady, Ms Cash, who seems to be renting the townhouse where they all reside. For the first several weeks after the robbery, the local detective answered all of TG's phone calls, and after TG gave him the names and address of the perp, promised “to go by with a couple of uniforms and see what they have to say.” After a couple of weeks, TG called again and the detective said that he went by twice and the woman who rents the house said there was no Juan living there. Which is bullshit, because TG has been driving by the house most days of the week and the guy who must be the Juan the father is often outside standing around. But no sign of the younger Juan.

The detective tells TG that there's nothing more he can do at this point. That he can't get a warrant to get into the house, so he's going to leave it to TG to get a look at the young Juan, at which point the detective will bring some books over and if TG can ID the kid then the detective will have reason to go in and get him. Or something.

This all sounds pretty thin to TG. But he understands. TG lives in a county right outside Washington DC that is known for its crime. In the last month there have been four robberies and an assault at his local metro station alone, to say nothing of the almost daily murders and other assorted crimes. TG himself was attacked one night at the subway station when coming into the parking garage after a night out with his writer's group. TG fought his way out of that situation, (the transit cop said, when TG reported it, “That was really stupid, buddy, next time just throw them your wallet and get the hell out of there.” Goods words of advice which TG intends to follow. Next time. Well, probably not. TG's point is, he understands that the detective doesn't really have the time to investigate and pursue a $300.00 crime which very well may have been committed by TG's next door neighbor. So TG rides by the perp's house every day or two, but has never seen the kid. Someday he will. Then we'll see what happens. And TG is not going to throw his wallet at the kid and run.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dunn, continued

TG is taking some heat for giving Matthew Dunn's book, Spycatcher a good, if qualified, review. TG's wife (TGW) read it and took great pleasure in reading aloud the clunkier sections of dialogue while making noises of great disgust. Others have written to say that TG is an idiot. Oh well, it's not the first time.

Almost everyone (checkout the slams on http://Amazon.co.uk/) starts off by mentioning a scene right at the beginning of the novel where Dunn's hero, Will Chochrane, takes three slugs to the gut during a firefight in Central Park. A couple of days later and Will is on an airplane headed for London with barely a complaint about any medical difficulties. Readers are crying foul. Impossible! Ridiculous! Totally unrealistic! Yes, TG would agree wholeheartedly. When TG read that, he thought much the same thing, but where most readers found this a fatal flaw, TG just thought, “Oh, so that's the sort of book this is: a superhero spy who will do near superhero deeds.” Indeed, TG was looking for a scene late in the book where Will's extraordinary physical abilities are shown to be of biomedical or some other fantastical property. In other words, TG decided at that point to just strap in and go along for the ride where many (most) others decided that they weren't having any of it. These are both perfectly reasonable responses.

One of the dangers publishers face is over-touting an author's background and capabilities. Much was made in the business about Dunn's five years as an MI6 professional with 70 missions, which was announced on the back cover of the book. Right away, that seems to be an inflated number, averaging out to be more than one a month. Or perhaps some were just mini-missions? The reader certainly doesn't know. And then after a few pages into the book one reads of Will's serious wounding with little noticeable result. It's too much, too quickly for most folks, so they complained bitterly.

TG wonders, though, if readers are sometimes unfair this way. Most thriller readers, especially of the military/spy variety, are quite willing to read through innumerable scenes where the hero is able to dispatch legions of evildoers in the most fantastic ways. These readers not only don't question these supernormal abilities, but relish them. Incredible feats of strength, endurance, marksmanship, stealth and man-killing go by with nary a quibble. But a guy gets shot and these same readers expect the author to take his hero through three months of medical procedures and rehab before the story can get back on track? All in the sake of realism? So why, you might argue, have the hero shot at all? Because that's what happens to heroes, they get shot because they shoot a lot of people, and you figure at least every once in awhile one of them has got to get hit. After all, are you looking for realism or not?

TG thinks this disconnect may come because of the way readers think as real human beings. They know they have no abilities when it comes to man killing and performing feats of daring, but they know what it feels like to get hurt. You fall down and you hurt yourself, you get a damn paper cut and it hurts, you twist your back weeding the lawn, bang your head on the car door, all of these things hurt. So what must it be like to get shot? It's your everyday hurt multiplied a gazillian times. The point being, we can relate enough from a small hurt to imagine what we would feel like with a gigantic hurt and we know that if we have to lie down and rest after a hard day working on the lawn that we sure as hell aren't going to be on a plane three days after taking not one but three to the midsection. So it's OK for the hero to perform extraordinary feats of physical prowess except when it comes to physical damage? That's the point where the reader feels justified, and even smug in crying foul? Maybe, but it seems a little ingenuous to TG.

But TG is probably over-thinking this. Readers say they want realism in their fiction all the time. We conveniently overlook the fact that 99% of spying is sitting in cars, standing on street corners, drinking in bars and chatting up people at cocktail parties, to say nothing of listening to thousands of hours of phone recordings and untold hours of reading the Internet. Only the biggest blockhead would want to read that sort of realism.

So maybe TG cut Dunn too much slack. Is he a great writer? Not by a long shot. He gets the job done while using more than his fair share of cliches and awkward dialogue. So do a hell of a lot of other writers, many of them best sellers. His hero's romantic moments are sometimes silly, his background is needlessly tortured, the villains are absurdly villainous. All the same “sins” perpetrated by legions of the same bestseller writers. Trust TG, he reads more thrillers in a year than any reader of this blog, and he knows how bad this stuff can be. And yet many of the same books TG reads sell in the hundreds of thousands and millions of copies. So do thriller readers really care about realism, much less good writing? They seem to when it comes to details about the hero's medical maladies. But they're also able to swallow any number of other absurdities for the author's they love.

Here's the lesson, Matthew Dunn: you can make your hero able to leap tall buildings, but beware of having him bleed. At least excessively. TG may let you slide, but your Amazon reviewers are taking you to task.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Several months ago, the Washington Post reviewed Spycatcher, by Matthew Dunn. (Review here)
Thriller Guy also reviewed the book, favorably, and also interviewed Dunn. The author is a veteran of Britain's intelligence agency MI6, having led more than 70 missions around the world. He is now retired and living in London. Faithful readers of this blog will know TG's opinion of “insiders” who turn to thriller writing in their retirement: he doesn't like them, as a rule. They usually seem primarily motivated by the possibility of making vast sums of money off their expertise, and driven by the thinking, hey, what's so hard about writing a thriller anyway? The results are usually clunky at best, and generally show the authors have no working knowledge of the rules and regulations of writing a thriller. TG says to hell with these opportunists, and they usually get a bad review.

But Dunn is different. Spycatcher is a solid debut. TG has a question for you, gentle blog readers, but it will come at the end of this piece, so hang in with TG here.

Dunn's MI6 agent, Will Cochrane, code name Spartan, is in New York City on a mission involving an Iranian intelligence source. The mission goes bad, as these things are wont to do, and Will is shot a number of times. After a brief (very brief) stay in a secret hospital, he is assigned a new operation whose goal is to find the mastermind leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as Meggido, who is planning a massive terrorist attack. Will tracks down Lana Beseisu, a freelance journalist now living in Paris and rumored to be the one-time lover of the terrorist leader. Will and Lana form an alliance and an instant attraction, though Will knows he has to keep his hands off this beauty until the mission is successful. When Will learns that the Iranian terrorist was responsible for the death of his own father, revenge adds impetuous to the search. The stage is set for the inevitable clash between the super terrorist and the super agent.

It's not exactly a novel plot as these things go, but Dunn's book is redeemed by his knowledge of the spy world and the dark arts therein. The writing is good, the pace assured and the structure hews to the standard rules of the genre. The man seems to have done his homework and even to have read within the genre. This is good, honest craftsmanship and TG always enjoys seeing someone new whose first book promises more good things to come. If TG has a quibble with the book, and TG always has a quibble, Dunn struggles a bit with the romance between Will and Lana, making Will too susceptible to Lana's charms, too juvenile in general for a guy who is supposed to be this hard core. This is a common mistake in many thrillers and TG thinks this happens because the authors want to show that their heroes are “human.” Bullshit, heroes aren't supposed to be human and vulnerable. Here's TG's advice to all thriller writers: if you've simply got to have a romance, make it low key, or better yet, don't do it at all. It's a cliché the way most of you are handling it, at worst laughable and at best, usually only a bit less laughable.

But the Washington Post had another beef, which raises the question TG wishes to pose to his blog readers. Here's an excerpt from the Post review...

“But while building this compelling storyline, Dunn falls into some unnecessary exaggeration. Not just a special agent, Cochrane has to be a super agent — the sole member of a top-secret Spartan program. As one handler tells him: “You are the ultimate killer of killers, the man who terrifies his enemies and allies, the man who can start wars and end them, the man who is the West’s deadliest and most secret weapon.” Similarly hyperbolic, Megiddo’s plot promises “a huge massacre the likes of which the world has never seen before,” and Megiddo himself is cast as some dark overlord: “Not one major terror act against Western or Western-allied targets can take place without his implicit or explicit authorization. Even groups that are the sworn enemy of the regime of Iran find themselves working for him, usually without knowing they’re doing so.”
That unevenness — stark realism meets cartoonish excess, male fantasy mars persuasive credibility — undermines what otherwise stands as a stylish and assured debut.”

Hmmm, it seems that TG has blathered on and run out of space. Rather than continue the discussion now, TG will make this entry a two-parter and ask his question in the next issue. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to read Dunn's book, TG will send the first person who asks for it a crisp new hardback. Send your request as a comment.