A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

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The Translator, by Ward Just

This 1991 work is not the novel I expected from this author. It is not about the Mid-West. And not about Washington, DC. Nor is it about the newspaper business. It is about being German, being a German after World War II. And it is excellent. It is a true literary work, as if Just sought not only to work outside his comfort zone but also to explore his subject matter to an even greater depth than previous, and also subsequent, work. As if there is a German heritage in the Just background.

This is the story of Sydney Van Damm. He is the translator. After a quick memory of growing up in northern Germany during the war and enduring the horror of Allied bombing raids, we learn he has rejected his homeland, even though his mother has warned that he would never escape his nationality. But he has fled to Paris, where he joins its expatriate world and soon meets and marries an American girl, Angie Dilion. He makes his living in Paris as a translator, working between English and German or French and German. He earns an excellent reputation, but he does struggle to earn the comfortable life that Angie is used to. He thus becomes open to renewing a friendship with Junko Poole, a former intelligence officer with an elusive reputation and no scruples, who is also living in Paris.

What makes this novel a literary work is that it is not driven by its plot, such as each new development in Sydney’s life. But it does engage the reader, by exploring the richness of each new experience. After Sydney marries Angie, their happiness is interrupted by tragedy, for they have a son, Max, who is brain-damaged, and they must adapt their lives to his. They live in an old Paris apartment house, where they also meet its various tenants, especially one German stewardess, Milda, and two others. These stewardesses enliven the setting through their adventures with Arab sheiks. He also meets for the first time a famous German author, Josef Kaus, whose work he has been translating. Indeed, to better understand the hero of Kaus’ current book, Sydney projects himself into the mind of Herr Hoerli, the German hero of that novel.

It is in Sydney’s memories of his mother, in his probing the mind of Herr Hoerli, and in heart-to-heart talks with both Milda and the novelist Kaus, that this expatriate translator engages in conversations that open up the exploration of the German character. How the war changed them, how they survived postwar poverty and then adapted to in the powerful economy that now flourishes around them in the late 1980s, whereupon how this has changed them, as well as how they have reacted to the freedom that now contrasts to the world of their German youth. Here is where Just truly explores the German character, the German psyche, each person seeing this new world differently but each one also revealing, despite the changes, how much they have in common.

Tying the novel together is the Van Damm family need for economic security, and the proposal of Junko Poole for a risky adventure that will resolve those economic needs. For me, it is the one artificial element of this novel, an element introduced by the author rather than by Junko himself. This is because the scheme is so nebulous. We know that material, or items, are to be shipped, without authorization, from one location to another, beginning in East Germany. But we do not know why they are being shipped, who has agreed to their being shipped, or even where it is being shipped from and where it is being shipped to. And this nebulousness is going to lead, for me, to a conclusion that is far from satisfying.

Despite this one caveat, I agree with the overall conclusion reached in the Detroit News and Free Press, that this novel “is a capricious and serious work—part love story, part political allegory….As the title indicates, it is a rumination on the nature of language, as well as that of national identity.”

Indeed, it is. It is an exploration of postwar Europe on one level and of the Parisian expatriate life on another. But it is also an exploration of the uses of language and of the different ways language is used by different cultures. And it is always focused on people, on their nationality, rather than on their politics, and on their struggle to survive more than on the economy they live in. And, of course, it is focused especially on individual Germans. On Sydney’s German mother who despises the Americanization of West Germany and flees to the comfort of her hometown in East Germany. As well as on the shady characters who arrive from the East. But it also compares, on the opposite shore, Angie’s father, who had inherited great wealth at home in Maine, but who has carelessly, incompetently, lost it, and who now wallows in self-pity.

And yet in the background is politics as well as people. Why does Sydney flee to Paris after the war, and turn to translation? Because he wants to escape the history of modern Germany. And he compares translation with his own move to a different culture; that is, “the moving of things from one condition to another; it was the same thing but changed utterly.” For that is what he wants, to escape from the German nationality, German politics, and especially his own history. And yet, inevitably, one cannot escape one’s past, one’s memories, nor, the author suggests, the tragedy that waits in the wings.

George Stade offers another summary of this novel in The New York Times. He says that Sydney and Angela “are also, after all, stand-ins for whatever in us is private, for that part of us that believes the matters of consequence in human life are family and work, for all in us that is threatened by the political waste that kills.” He also calls for an expression of hope, “though not because modern history warrants it.”

Yes, one wants to find more of Just’s work, more of these novels that immerse you in an interesting life in an interesting world. With the value of the work being in the interpretation of that life and that world, rather than in the events that these characters encounter, events that then sweep the reader along from one development to the next. (February, 2019)

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly

This 2015 novel is the work of a professional. The story has pace. The characters are interesting. There is a sequence of events that at first do not seem connected, but their development builds suspense as the events become more and more linked. One caveat: while the conclusion is dramatic and convincing, it does not reveal new emotional ground or a surprising character revelation.

The author brings together here the two heroes of his series of crime novels, Harry Bosch and Mickey Heller, who are half brothers. Bosch has been forced to retire from the police force for a trumped up minor offense, and is the major character of the novel. Heller is still the Lincoln lawyer, and has been hired by Bosch to prove the charges were unfair and to return his reputation. But as this novel begins, Heller has come to Bosch to seek his help in proving a client, a former gang member, is not guilty of a brutal murder.

Bosch is initially reluctant to help his brother, because it means going against police tradition. A cop does not help the defense when a crime is committed. But Heller teases Bosch into looking at the evidence, and this convinces the retired policeman that Heller’s client is truly innocent. And since Bosch believes a cop’s overall duty is to seek justice, that duty overrides the tradition of not helping the other side, the defense side. Especially since it’s being run by his half brother.

The Crossing of the title refers to decisions that people make that can change their lives. Thus, it can mean decisions that victims make that lead to their murder. But in this case it refers more to Bosch crossing to the other side, the darks side Bosch calls it, and helping Heller refute the convictions of his fellow policemen.

In this case, although semen from Heller’s client has been found on the murder victim, Bosch becomes convinced that the surrounding events do not add up. And the remainder of the novel consists of him pursuing the truth of what really happened. Meanwhile, the author also introduces the actions of two corrupt policemen who are behind the murder, and interweaves their actions with those of Bosch. It is a familiar technique geared to build suspense. And while it does do so, it does not make the corrupt cops so effective that the reader feels that they are a major threat to Bosch.

Bosch is intrigued by an expensive watch that the victim owned and which was sent out for repair. He becomes convinced that it is a key to finding the true killer of the woman, and he spends much shoe leather tracking down its various owners. Whereupon, additional murders follow, and he realizes his is on the right track.

The conclusion brings a dramatic confrontation between Bosch and the killers, and then is followed by a hearing before a judge that brings Heller back into the scene. Thus, we see both Bosch and Heller performing at their best, as cop and as lawyer, to reach the satisfying conclusion.

This is not a deep novel that probes the psyche of either the detective or the killer. But, as I said, it is a professional work that draws the reader into a tale of violence, police corruption, a provocative DNA, and mysterious clues. It also suggests a personal life for Bosch, who has an interesting relationship with both a daughter and a girl friend. But the emphasis is on solving the crime, and how the pursuit of a damaged watch can lead to hidden levels of Hollywood society and to unforeseen conclusions. (February, 2019)

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

This is a marvelous novel from 2017. It truly deserves the recognition it has received. From the moment that 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan joins her father Eddie on a winter visit to the Manhattan Beach house of Dexter Styles, a mysterious impresario in a world of gangsters, one is entranced by her early maturity and by their easy father-daughter relationship. And, indeed, we will shortly realize that this novel is about these three characters and their intertwined lives. Eddie needs money for the family. Anna will need to be the family breadwinner. And Styles yearns for social respect from the family he marries into. How and whether they will achieve these various goals drives both the novel’s story and their fates.

Initially, we are introduced to the home life of Anna, father Eddie, mother Agnes, and her crippled sister Lydia. Their life centers around finding support systems for Lydia, whose presence enriches this novel early on. But their life becomes difficult when Eddie loses his money in the Depression and can find work only as a bagman transporting bribes for a corrupt union boss. Desperate, he convinces Styles he can become his “eyes and ears” inside Styles’s nefarious businesses. But it is a mysterious life that he keeps secret from his family. His new income, however, finally enables the family to live a comfortable life and to care for Lydia, even though the family never learns what he does to earn that income.

And then, one day, their father never comes home. He disappears.

This historical novel then jumps ahead nearly a decade and we encounter life on our nation’s home front in the early years of World War II. The Kerrigans live in Brooklyn and we roam its nearby bars and rooming houses. Without a father, Anna knows the family’s survival depends on her. And so she finds a job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, finds a job once held by men. But she is bored working on an assembly line with older, married women, women with whom she has nothing in common. One day, however, she sees divers working nearby, and, entranced, decides that is what she wants to do. Even if she is a woman. She will help repair the ships that her country needs to fight its war.

The author truly creates that world of divers, the training, the problems of wearing a 200 pound suit, and the initial plunge under water— with Anna all the time fighting to be recognized as an equal in a world of men. This is a main section of this novel, and in her Acknowledgements, one realizes the many dozens of experts the author consulted to create both the Brooklyn of that era and the world of diving that comes across so naturally, especially as Anna must justify her presence to Lieutenant Axel, her trainer. We also realize why Anna’s training regimen is so real, when we learn that author Egan actually put on a 200-pound diving suit as part of her research.

But the world of diving is only the base on which this novel is built, and on which Anna’s character is built. For this is also a world of gangsters, sailors, bankers, and girl friends, all of whom enrich the world that Anna must deal with. And yet, more deeply, this is the intertwined stories of Anna and the two men. Which comes to a head when Anna, intent to find out from Mr. Styles what happened to her father, approaches him, fascinates him, and spends a torrid night with him. Except, when he learns her true reason for seeking him out, he spurns her and will have nothing to do with her.

The author often switches her viewpoint in mid-page among these three characters. And some of these switches are really impressive in literary terms. Perhaps the most brilliant is from Dexter to Eddie when both are at sea, but with each facing a different fate in a different time frame and on a different ocean.

Otherwise, we spend considerable time with Dexter and his activities in the underworld as he yearns for respect, as well as with Anna’s father when Eddie is marooned in an extensive, truly Conradian, scene at sea. In this way, author Egan gets us to identify with and have sympathy for both characters. Yes, even with this gangster, when he becomes the romantic, mysterious character that Anna sees, and when we also learn he has dreams of going legitimate. Plus, the author never confronts us with his evil deeds.

And, eventually, after we learn the presumed fates of Dexter and Eddie, we return to the story of Anna. She learns she is pregnant. From that torrid night. And does not know what to do. Have the baby or not? Keep the baby or not? It is an old-fashioned literary development, but it works. The rest of the novel presents her decision, and resolves the many relationships she has developed within her family and with her fellow workers.

This novel is further enriched by the working world the author creates, whether it is at the shipyard, in the businesslike world of the gangster dens, or as a crewman at sea. The prejudice against the women of that era is particularly real, as Anna invades a world that the male divers claim as their own. Lieutenant Axel, as her lead trainer, is particularly prejudiced, but when she proves herself worthy, he begins praising her work to shame the other men he is working with. It is a prejudice against women that will become even more blatant when Anna discovers she is about to bear an illegitimate child.

This has been called an old-fashioned novel, especially compared to Goon Squad, but that is precisely why I enjoyed it. It captures a family. It captures an historical time and the prejudices that women of that era faced. It captures the power of the sea, both the power that engulfs one below the surface and its seemingly endless power when one is nearly alone on its vast expanse. And it introduces three struggling people, separates them, then brings them back together and unites their fates—people, moreover, we can identify with, since all are striving for something positive in their lives.

Egan has said she has considered writing a sequel, which would take Anna into the 1960s, an era of revolution and protest that Egan wishes she herself had experienced. But one wonders if such a work could equal the intensity of this work. Particularly with Anna here struggling alone, depending only upon herself. (January, 2019)

Nanjing Requiem, by Ha Jin

This is the faithful recreation of what happened to the city of Nanking, China, from 1937 until 1940. It appears to be an act of commemoration by this Chinese author in behalf of that city which endured the early and horrendous Rape of Nanking, and whose citizens then had to survive the occupation by a Japanese army that violated its citizens for many more years.

This 2011 work is not a successful work of fiction, however. While the narrator is a Chinese woman, Anling, the hero of the work is Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who is the acting head of a school for girls, Ginling Women’s College. And the credits reveal that she was a real person who kept a diary of those years, and has also been the subject of numerous biographies.

Which is the problem of this novel. That Ha Jin followed his source material too closely in writing this work. With the result that the novel presents event after event without any connection between them. As an historical sequence, the events make sense, but there is no cause and effect, no event that prompts the next event, and no decisions by any characters that prompts succeeding events, such as revenge by or on the Japanese. The many characters do react to the events, but they are reacting to history, rather than to individual actions by others. Because as much as they complain, they are powerless to do anything.

One result is that the various characters, whether staff members at the school or a few of the students, have little depth and are often difficult to remember from previous events. Their lack of depth is particularly noticeable with the narrator. Anling has a family, but they barely appear with her in any scene. She talks about them, and is concerned about them, but it is difficult to feel her concern for characters who are barely present themselves. Which, in turn, lends a certain hollowness to her own character. She exists on these pages primarily as a vehicle to tell this story. Because, one suspects, the author felt more comfortable with using a Chinese character to tell this Chinese story than using the American Millie to tell the story.

As a side note, this Chinese author also does not seem comfortable with American slang. He is writing in English, but the colloquial speech used by both his Chinese and American characters often seemed awkward to me. One can see the casual jargon he is striving for, but it often does not ring true.

The finale of this work of fiction also seems contrived. It brings to an end the story of Millie, which the source material provides. But I do wonder about the actions of Mrs. Dennison, who serves as the villain of the novel. Did they come from the source material, or did they come from the author’s imagination? For while she is the one person in the novel whose actions do have an impact on another character, her decisions do seem arbitrary, as if the author created her to bring his work to its conclusion.

But if the novel brings an end to Millie’s story, it does not bring an end to the story of Nanking, the school, or most of the staff. There is a round-up chapter that extends the staff biographies, yes, but it doesn’t really offer a sense of fulfillment to their lives. There is also one anecdote about narrator Anling and her participation in postwar justice, but it is just another incident. It does not represent a real completion to either her life or to her Nanking experience. We learn nothing about how was she changed by it, or about how the others were changed.

The early chapters detail the horrors of the original surge of Japanese troops into Nanjing, and I remember thinking that I could not take a full novel describing horror after horror. But the real story this novel tells concerns what happened after the Japanese captured this city that was China’s capital until Chiang Kai-shek fled to Chunking. What happened is that the missionaries and other foreigners who remained in the city helped set up a Safety Zone to protect the city’s residents. There is the German Nazi businessman, John Rabe, who reportedly saved 200,000 Chinese refugees. There are the American missionary John Magee and the American professor Lewis Smythe, who also helped set up the Safety Zone.

Part of that zone included Jinling College, and Minnie Vautrin prepared its buildings to house 2,500 refugees created by the war. But, given its horrendous impact, with the original rape, pillage, arson and murder being committed by the Japanese invaders, she soon found the school housing 10,000 refugees, which both strained its capabilities and curtailed its educational purpose.

The one villainous staff member at the school is the elderly Mrs. Dennison. She is merely an advisor, but she holds considerable power because of her financial contacts back in the States. And her every act ignores the current refugee situation, and focuses instead of reviving, once the war ends, the school’s mission of being a women’s college for the Chinese. This frustrates Minnie, who is focused on the daily needs of the Chinese girls that the school is housing. For she sees that the school will not survive to become a woman’s college if it does not survive first the problems of the occupation.

While the fate of Minnie Vautrin is a tragic fate, this work itself is not a tragic novel. For we are kept at a distance from her. First, by having Anling, a Chinese woman, tell Minnie’s story. And, second, by basing the events on the historical record, rather than by projecting on Minnie and her colleagues a fictional version of their own internal decisions. Author Ha Jin’s heart was in the right place. The Nanking horror story needed to be told in a literary form that reaches a broad audience. But he should have put Minnie’s diary and the historic record aside, and then let his imagination run free. (January, 2019)

Defectors, by Joseph Kanon

Here is another marvelous work from Kanon. This author often focuses his thrillers on a specific location, and does so again here. In the past, it has been Los Alamos, Berlin, Hollywood, and Istanbul, among others. Here it is Moscow. And it is about two brothers, Simon Weeks, and his older brother Frank.

Following World War II, the brothers, who were close, worked in parallel espionage tracks for the Unite States, Frank in an active role for the CIA and Simon at a desk job in the State Department. Then, one day in 1949, Frank vanished, only to turn up in Moscow. He had betrayed his country for a new ideology. And Simon recalled how a friendly Frank had often in the past milked him for information, asking what was going on at State.

The novel opens in 1961, when Simon, now working for a book publisher, journeys to Moscow because his brother has written a memoir about his double life in the United States. Simon’s company has decided that the book is going to be a best seller, and has agreed to publish it. And who better to edit the manuscript than Frank’s brother on its staff?

In the memoir, Frank describes how his political thinking shifted course after volunteering in Spain in the 1930s, how he began passing on information to the Soviet Union, even betraying Latvian activists, and how he began plotting his escape. It is not clear why the Soviets are allowing him to publish this memoir abroad, but the assumption is that it is because his story shines a positive light on Soviet espionage operations.

The book opens with Simon’s arrival in Moscow, and the reader experiences not only the brothers’ reunion from Simon’s viewpoint, but also the mixed emotions Simon has about the meeting. For he both loved his brother and felt betrayed, remembering how Frank used to pump him for State Department information. Yet he also was looking forward to being with him again, and in Moscow he finds him still friendly and gregarious.

But gradually he begins to wonder if his brother has an ulterior motive for either publishing the manuscript abroad or for choosing Simon’s own company to do so. In any event, Simon is determined to do a professional edit of the manuscript, which means getting Frank to offer deeper explanations for his actions and also to fill in potential gaps.

In passing, we would note that Kanon does not include here any of those editing sessions, with their give and take, even though it might offer deeper insights into the brothers and help us understand their relationship, both past and present. One suspects Kanon does not do so because, a former editor himself, he deemed such conversations, especially in depth, not appropriate for a thriller—and would, in fact, bore the reader.

Instead, the novel focuses on Frank’s motive in bringing his brother to Moscow. In a surprise twist. Frank tells Simon that he wants to defect again, back to the United States. He is disillusioned by life in Moscow, as is his wife Joanna, and hates that the distrusting Soviets have assigned a man to watch him constantly. His demand is that in exchange for returning to the States and providing Soviet secrets to the Americans, he and his wife be given a new identity back home.

Kanon will follow this revelation with additional twists, one after another, often reversing the reader’s expectations but all typical of a superior espionage thriller.

The next twist occurs when Simon deduces that his brother does not really intend to defect but is planning to betray the Americans in order to enhance his own reputation in Moscow. And so he makes a plan to foil his brother. Except, in implementing his own plan Simon forgets certain details that put at risk his reversal of Frank’s plan. Whereupon, Frank steps in and helps him achieve his objective—and then does not. At the very end, in fact, the author introduces an ironic twist that seems simply one too much. And prompts me to wonder why authors so often fall in love with irony. Why do they think it offers an ideal punch line to end a story? Instead of trying to come up with an ending that becomes a final character revelation.

But the effectiveness of this novel depends on more than its twists. It also depends on the portrait of Moscow itself and on the characters these two brothers encounter there. The first is Joanna Weeks, Frank’s wife, who followed him to Moscow long ago. She is a former flame of Simon’s, and now Frank has used that relationship to intrigue his brother into helping his defection—by saying she, too, is unhappy in Moscow and this will enable her to leave. While Simon himself, filled with memories of that past relationship with Joanna, must tread carefully, because she does not yet know of any plan that will enable her to leave.

Another major character is Boris, a KGB man assigned to watch over Frank and protect Soviet interests. He is almost a comic figure, as he continually keeps his distance, but he is always there as a reminder that every movement, every conversation by Frank and those he meets is being carefully monitored. He is a constant reminder, Frank says, that he himself has no freedom in this country he has fled to. Boris will also play an important role in one of the novel’s final twists.

Significant roles are also played by Tom McPherson, a Look photographer and Hal Lehman, a UPI reporter. Tom serves to convey messages or information back and forth between the Weeks brothers and the American embassy, and Hal even participates in the eventual escape plan. They are able to do this because they are free to move about and talk to people on both sides of the ideological curtain. Of course, they also recall the suspicions of the press that were often expressed by the Russians even then. But, at the same time, they help to expand the horizon of this tale, reflecting not only the interest in this story back home but also the potential repercussions these characters will face once they arrive home.

In sum, I now eagerly await the next Kanon thriller. What city will he choose? What intrigues, what human relationships, what double dealings will he explore next? (January, 2019)

Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison

This is a hard-boiled thriller from 1996, but it is also literature. I’ve searched for Harrison novels for some time, but this is the first work of his I’ve found. And it has met my expectations. It is terrific.

The author grabs the reader in two ways on the novel’s very first pages. First, he establishes the tough, gritty Manhattan scene, its dark alleys, its scandals, its dangerous people and its dramatic nights. Then he establishes the cynical viewpoint of a newspaper columnist assigned to satisfy the public’s demand for both titillating scandal and the ironies of justice.

The columnist is Porter Wren. He is a confident man who has a high opinion of himself and of his skills as a journalist. At a party given by his obese Australian publisher, Hobbs, he is approached by a beautiful woman, Caroline Crowley, a femme fatale who is used to controlling men with her beauty and has an equally high opinion of herself. She tells Wren that she wants him to find out what happened to her husband, the famous movie director Simon Crowley, who vanished and whose body was unexpectedly discovered in a demolished building. But Wren is not convinced that that is her true purpose for approaching him; and the novel’s plot revolves around a kind of duel they have, each trying to use the other, control the other, and, as they become intimate, to understand what makes each other tick.

An initial complication is that Wren is happily married to a smart hand surgeon, Lisa, and has two children he loves. So he is continually troubled by what he sees as a betrayal of both his wife and his children. But Caroline fascinates him, tantalizes him physically, and appeals to his professional instincts. And the tales she tells of her husband and of their relationship seem to remind him of the many other human relationships he has encountered and that have prompted columns that helped make him famous. Indeed, as a cynical narrator, Wren early on declares that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.”

The dead husband was noted for short documentaries based on real events, and the initial story line revolves around the tape recording of an embarrassing meeting between Caroline and the obese publishing magnate Hobbs. Which the latter is determined to destroy at all costs. But Caroline’s husband has created other tapes as well, including one that shows how a policeman was killed and another incriminating one which shows a strictly personal murder.

The story grows more complicated as Wren speculates why these tapes are important and how he can use them, and then it becomes even more complicated as he discovers what each tape contains. However, these complications also serve to deepen our understanding of Wren, for they show how human this cynical columnist really is. For example, one tape forces him to change his opinion of Hobbs, the boss who has threatened his journalism career; while another tape, that of the murder, deepens the moral questions confronting Wren, who is already dealing with the moral issue of his extra-martial affair with Caroline.

Overall, this is a richly told story of lust and greed on one hand, and of vanity, power, and human folly on the other. It is also a tale in which violence lurks around every corner. For example, Wren himself is beaten and maced, while his house is invaded and his little boy shot. As a result, he himself exacts his own revenge, which produces a violent streak in him the reader does not anticipate. Indeed, reading about the violence dehumanizes him. And then Harrison takes the violence a step further as we witness on tape the actual carving up of a murder victim. It appears that Harrison wants the reader to feel the horrors and the risks that challenge these characters, but for me he overdoes it—just as for some he will have overdone the sex in order to make Wren’s fascination with Caroline convincing.

These people share stories of seduction, lying, self-doubt, and shame. And, as a result, the author probes the rich inner emotions of these characters, as well as the rationalizations and the psychology of strained human relationships. Wren confronts a fascinating woman he does not understand but craves, a woman he knows is using him but who is hiding answers to a puzzle that fascinates him. What is she hiding, he wonders. About her real motive in seducing him. About her husbands’s mysterious death. About her relationship with Hobbs. And how can he get her out of his system, and then back to his own life?

The duel between Wren and Caroline reaches its dramatic conclusion when Wren finally challenges her. “No, Caroline, no. You brought me into this. You thought you could just…lead me around. But you didn’t study me very carefully, Caroline, you didn’t figure out how a small-town boy like me with not one connection in New York City elbowed and hustled and hassled his way to be a newspaper columnist.”

As Jim Shepard wrote in The New York Times, “The novel’s protagonist is most memorable when that small-town boy, for all his bluster, articulates with real sadness his understanding of his own wrongdoing, and of the damage he’s done to those he loves.”

Indeed, our final glimpse of Wren takes us into his core, and into the rich contradictions that Harrison brings to his portrait of this troubled man. “I wished then, with a final sweet pain…that despite my betrayal of those whom I loved most, I might yet prove worthy of their affections. Better then, I thought, that our respective confessions go unheard, that they fall away into time. There would, I know, be other questions to worry about, other dark crises of heart and hope; sooner or later life brings to all of us some form of suffering. Would that we were equal to it always.”

These musings, these probings of internal doubt, are what raises this thriller for me to the level of literature. And what makes me want to seek out more of Harrison’s work. (December, 2018)

 

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