BOOK & BLOG
October 30, 2010
Books of the Week
Any time a new novel by Lee Child lands in my house, I drop everything to read it. And I’m guaranteed the experience will be worth it. Since Worth Dying For is Child’s tenth yes, tenth! Jack Reacher novel, and the books are still just as good, I think that’s really saying something. Jack gets pulled, once again, into events that are much bigger than one man can handle but he does. In fact, this is so remarkable that I’m blogging about it below. Child’s fans call themselves the Reacher Creatures, and they’re legion . . . and he deserves it. I’m always glad to see Lee when our paths cross, and we always seem to have good conversations.
I’d never read J.A. (Jack) Kerley, but the people at Murder by the Book in Houston highly recommended him. I decided to follow up the hard boiled Lee Child with another hard-boiled writer, and Kersey certainly fits the bill. I haven’t finished The Hundredth Man yet, but I can tell you that Kersey is quite a writer. His hero, police detective Carson Ryder, is an interesting guy with a very complex and dark past. Ryder’s friend and partner, Detective Nautilus, is one of the more fully-realized people I’ve read lately, and the frail alcoholic Ava, who performs autopsies in Mobile, Alabama, where the books are set, is both sad and touching. I’m looking forward to watching Kerley close in on the climax of the book, and I’m glad to see he has several other books to read in the same series.
When Protagonists are Bad
You may have already heard this story, but at a Bouchercon (world mystery convention) I didn’t attend, Jack Reacher was put on trial. I think that’s a great idea, and far off the beaten track of the usual panel titles. Here’s the thing; Reacher was found guilty, which after some thought I agree is appropriate. Is Jack Reacher a hero? Yes. Does he murder people? Yes. A lot. Would I pick him as the man I’d most want to be marooned on a desert island? Yes, because he’s the most resourceful man in modern fiction. Would I be worried on that desert island if, say, I broke my leg and he was starving? Yep, I would. Because Jack Reacher, though capable of empathy and sympathy (especially toward women), is also very practical.
Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.
But Reacher does not hesitate to kill people, not even for a second, because such hesitation means you might lose, and Reacher does not lose. This is both admirable and scary.
I have the same dual feelings about Stacia Kane’s protagonist, Chess. Chess, a proficient witch, is also a drug addict. She will do almost anything for drugs. She is therefore unreliable, unpredictable, and always, permanently, not in her right mind. She is always high. Her judgment is always impaired. Her personal life is barren and subject to the dictatorship of her addiction.
Yet does she do heroic things? Yes, she does. She’s conscientious about her job, she cares about other people and their problems, and she’s capable of love . . . as long as these things don’t keep her from her drug fix. She’s capable of great self-sacrifice (at least in part, because she feels she’s a worthless person). She can go to extremes to protect other people. And if her dependence is discovered by the Church (the ruling body in Chess’s world) she’ll be out of a job in a snap . . . but she can’t do without them.
What about Myron Bolitar, the hero of Harlan Coben’s wonderful novels? Myron is a real hero, but he has not one but two Achilles heels he has a best friend who’s a genuine sociopath, and he loves the horrible Jessica, who goes through his life with a weed whacker. At least Winthrop Horne Lockwood, Myron’s sidekick and best buddy, is handy in that he can do the murdering and maiming stuff without Myron getting the crisis of conscience (at least for the most part). Jessica is simply a fatal flaw in Myron’s emotional intelligence, like Robert W. Parker’s newscaster Jenn is for Chief Jesse Stone. Everyone can see that Myron is better off without Jessica, just as policeman Stone is without Jenn. (I often fantasized that Win could knock both women off and save us all a lot of misery.)
All the writers I’ve mentioned and I could go on and on with the list have protagonists with holes as big as semis in their characters. Some of these are, as we Episcopalians say, guilty of sins of commission (murder! Betrayal!) and some are guilty of sins of omission (basic common sense about the people they love). But we find ourselves entangled in their lives, rooting for them against all odds, and triumphant when they defeat evil. We don’t walk away in disgust. We ally ourselves with the protagonists and all their flaws.
Is this because we identify with those flaws, or because the books are so well written that we’ll excuse anything to share in the adventures they offer? I suspect it’s a combination of both. Is there a limit to how far you’ll stick with a protagonist? Can a writer hit a wall, a wall the reader can’t vault?
What do you think?
© 2010 Charlaine Harris