- It’s work, Jim, but not as we know it…
One of the great pleasures of running Thriller School is having to read crime fiction. Friends and family look at me sceptically when I settle down with the latest Michael Connolly or James Patterson and say, “It’s work, really…”
This week, in preparation for Charles Cumming being one of our guest speakers at the next Thriller School crime fiction writing weekend at the end of March, I have been indulging myself in reading all his novels in sequence, which has led me to muse on the character development of Alec Milius, the hero (if that’s the right word) of A Spy by Nature and The Spanish Game.
At the same time, because Sara Paretsky is coming to speak at Blackwell’s in Oxford on 17th March, I have been re-reading all the splendid V.I. Warshawski novels.
Two very different experiences, you’d think. But it struck me that there are some interesting similarities between the central figures in the two books, in that it is to some extent their flaws as human beings – Alec’s secretiveness, Vic’s anger – that provide the driving force behind the unfolding of events. At the same time, though, it is important that we like and trust the characters enough to wish to follow and support them through the difficulties they encounter.
This is perhaps one reason why I think The Spanish Game is a better book than A Spy by Nature. In A Spy by Nature, Alec is almost a classic anti-hero – unpleasant, ambitious, devious and manipulative. Although there is cursory nod in the direction of him acknowledging his status as a cad, it is not sustained or convincing enough to carry any moral or emotional weight. In The Spanish Game, however, Milius is allowed to care for people in a complicated, cack-handed sort of a way, and also to be lonely, confused and tired (as well as unpleasant, ambitious, devious etc). The result is an extremely interesting and complex network of allegiances and moral ambivalances through the reader must work their way towards some sort of ‘truth’.
V.I. Warshawski is less ambivalent – she is solidly on the side of the angels. Nonetheless, Paretsky presents her in such a way that the reader, as well as many of the characters, are inclined to want to cry out, ‘For goodness sake, just back off a minute…!’ as she leaps, feet first, into critical situations, propelled by her always-simmering rage.
In both cases, the flaws in the central characters help involve the reader in the unfolding plots, as they seek to understand their values and their motives, and, because of the unique insights offered by the authors’ narrative techniques, stand beside them as they struggle their way towards some sort of understanding of events, and of themselves.
I am looking forward very much to discussing the character of Alec Milius with Charles Cumming at Thriller School on the 19th March, as well, of course, as talking about his extraordinarily interesting The Sixth Man, which has just been published.