Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Frederick Forsyth, Modern Master

Nobody, and I mean nobody, weaves a plot like Frederick Forsyth. He's one of the reasons I think British thriller writers are better than American, and not because of his extreme, almost zealous, attention to details, but because he layers plot points like no other author I can think of, and, unlike his American counterparts, doesn't have to spice his narrative with shoot outs, car chases, or exposed girl parts, to keep a reader interested. He's plot and story, meat and potatoes, and if you want something on the side, you need to look elsewhere.

I'm late to the Forsyth party. I understand he's far past his heyday of the '70s and '80s, but he still turns out good work, and his classics are still very readable. In this example, I am talking about The Fourth Protocol, which was written in 1984. It was the first Forsyth book I read, around 1988, I think, when I was in 6th grade and had just discovered Ian Fleming. Since Forsyth seemed like the modern equivalent, I gave him a try, but my comprehension levels at that age were not what they are today, and I could barely keep up. I thought the movie was better, because it eschewed most of the intricate plotting in favor of car chases, shoot outs, and exposed girl parts. Today, it is the opposite. From Icon to Avenger to Protocol (those are the books I've read so far), Forsyth delivers the goods.

The plot of Protocol features a renegade KGB operation to detonate a small nuke in the UK in order to influence a coming election. That alone sounds like a nice 60,000 word paperback potboiler or 90-minute B-movie, but try doubling that length to get the scope of the story. Forsyth provides great details on the workings of MI5 and MI6, who are tasked with tracking down the KGB agent assigned to the mission. You get the feeling that if something like this actually happened, this is how the British would solve the problem. We get tangents that don't seem to have anything to do with the main plot, but are actually critical to the outcome, and I wish I could describe how Forsyth weaves it all together. With some of those tangents, their relation to the rest of the book isn't revealed until the very last page. And then it hits you like a sledgehammer--you never see the twist coming. It's like looking at a master's painting. You can see what was done, but you have no idea how to duplicate it or even explain to a bystander why it's as amazing as it is. Those of us who know, though, and recognize a true craftsman, can appreciate the end result and be envious of how the master created the piece. And, maybe, someday, we'll be that good too. He is worth not only reading for entertainment, but for how to get better as a writer.

Not that he doesn't have flaws. Most of Forsyth's characters are ciphers. We know very little about them, they have very little, even minor, characterization, yet somehow, despite that, he hooks you. The characters really don't matter, they could be anybody, but he gives them names so we can tell them somewhat apart. It's the story that grabs you, and how Forsyth connects all the dots, and the details of how spies work, that makes these books rise above. If he were writing straight potboilers, the effect would not be the same.

I don't think Forsyth could sell today, at least to the Big 5. There are 100 reasons his books shouldn't work, but they do work, and work well indeed. We can be glad he started when he did, and thankful that his long-established fan base keeps him in print and in business.

Anyway I'm enjoying his books a lot, and he's still alive and kicking, so maybe we'll get a few more. Up next is The Day of The Jackal, his first, and I'm sure it will deliver the goods too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard: Aw, hell....

Today we learned that Elmore Leonard passed away. When I read a few weeks ago that he had suffered a stroke, I figured today's news would reach us sooner rather than later. Strokes are nasty. Nobody ever really recovers from them.

I won't repeat in this space how terrific Leonard was as a writer; we already know that. I did not read his entire body of work, but I read enough to know that he was a major player and anybody who said otherwise was illiterate at best or stupid at worst.

If Elmore Leonard inspired me in any way, it was to stick to my guns at a time when other writer friends, and even family members, were telling me that my crime stories weren't  "in vogue" and I needed to write something "more commercial that would sell" and then I could "write what I want."

I gave in. I hated myself for it, but I gave in. And then I read Leonard's introduction to a reprint of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins.

I had never read Eddie Coyle or followed Higgins, but I knew he had died just prior to the release of the reprint (Leonard mentions his death in the intro), so I gave it a look. In the intro, Leonard wrote of how Higgins inspired him to stick to his own guns. He was writing about his criminals, you see, and publishers were telling him that he needed characters who were sympathetic and likable. He disagreed, and continued to face complications because of it. Higgins, he said, had the same problem, and was once dropped by an agent because of his stubbornness. Higgins, though, carried on, and became a success.

Leonard said: "Let this be an inspiration to beginning writers discouraged by one rejection after another. If you believe you know what you’re doing, you have to give publishers time to catch up and catch on."

When I read that, I bought the book. I absolutely had to have that book. Even if it wound up being a lousy book (it wasn't), I needed to have that introduction handy so I could go back to it time and time again. I knew what Leonard wrote would be important to have--sometimes you have to let them catch up and catch on. Best advice ever.

I don't write very much in the crime genre anymore, having found the series character--international adventurer Steve Dane--that I want to write about for the rest of my life, who is more in line with James Bond than Chili Palmer, but the advice still resonates, because some choices I make with my books aren't necessarily popular with everybody (adding humor, breaking the fourth wall, etc.).

I refuse to try and please anybody but myself. I learned that, more than anything else, from Elmore Leonard. And for that, I am grateful.