Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Something Really Good

When I was, oh, probably 16 or 17 years old, I was faced with the prospect of a very long bus ride. It occurred to me, in that era before portable music, that I might want something to read on a trip that, I'm pretty sure, must have taken more than a day, with middle-of-the-night stops in places like Tahlequah, Oklahoma; and not having the foresight of my later years, I spent a few hurried minutes browsing through the revolving wire paperback book rack in the Kansas City bus station. From the sparse offerings, I chose something called The Scarlatti Inheritance, by a writer I had never heard of named Robert Ludlum. I chose that book, I suspect, as much because of the bright red cover and the Italian reference, as for any other reason; to that point I had never read anything more adult that Fred Gipson's Savage Sam (a very good book, by the way, for 'tweener boys).

I was enough taken with Ludlum's book that, over the course of perhaps the next two years, I read everything he had written to that point. Then I found, almost by accident, that he wasn't the only person in the world who wrote exciting spy stories; and when I discovered Frederick Forsythe, I learned that Ludlum wasn't even the great writer of the genre. Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War had so much more texture than any good story from Ludlum that I developed a sort of snobbish disdain for Ludlum's mere works: diverting, perhaps, but nothing like literature.  And then I encountered Tom Clancy -- his early works, before he started taking on all kinds of generally less capable writing partners. (Everyone is less capable than Clancy.)

And then, suddenly, I ran out of exciting international spy stories to read. Oh, a few people wrote some good stuff: Ken Follette was okay sometimes, not so good other times; but his historical sagas are much better entertainment. Some of Clancy's more recent collaborations are entertaining and reasonably well written. But books by Vince Flynn and David Baldacci and Daniel Silva, popular though they may be, are relatively insipid and thin; they are to spy novels what Disco was to music. Every time I hear about a writer of books of this type, I check it out, snob though I am, because I love the ripping yarns. But I'm generally disappointed. Most of the books of this genre seem to have been written on a deadline, by people who can barely write for a newspaper. They are the reason God created public libraries, where you can avoid wasting money on books that utterly fail to live up to the blurbs.

The other day, I picked up a book at the library called Dead Eye, by a writer I'd never heard of called Mark Greaney. (He may be the only published writer without a Wikipedia entry. He is, even more surprisingly, one of those "generally less capable writing partners" of Tom Clancy.) This book has turned out to be a truly exciting, engrossing story, written with great texture and sufficient detail to really satisfy the lust for (presumed) authenticity. (If he could resist the urge -- his own, or more likely his editors' -- to state the obvious in melodromatic one-sentence paragraphs, he'd be close to excellence. In any case, he offends far less often than Flynn, Baldacci or Silva.) The character development is succinct and effective; the plots are convoluted but nicely drawn, no action or turn of plot requires some character to do something out of character, and there is no hoary reliance on deus ex machina. The story is coherent, the dialogue sounds real in your head, and the action is gripping.  Greaney is a new writer of spy thrillers that I can whole-heartedly recommend. I just hope his production can keep up with my appetite.

[His other books, to this point, are The Gray Man, On Target, and Ballistic. I expect to buy and read all of them pretty soon. I'll probably even consider the three books he co-wrote with Tom Clancy.]

1 comment:

  1. I've read Grey Man and Ballistic both. Ballistic has, for my tastes, a bit too much of a torn-from-the-headlines quality about it, but that notwithstanding, both are excellent reads.

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