Thursday, September 4, 2014

Early On

The best detective and crime fiction has used the characteristics of its genre as a way of thinking about the world and the people in it. Sara Paretsky uses stories about investigator V. I. Warshawski to comment on women's issues, for example, by telling a top yarn about a case Warshawski is working. At several points in his career, Robert B. Parker used a Spenser story to talk a little bit about his philosophy of life, and in Early Autumn maybe a little bit about parenting, too.

Patty Giacomin hires Spenser to watch out for her son Paul, because her ex-husband Mel has tried to take him even though Patty has custody. A couple of thugs make things interesting, and Spenser winds up taking Paul with him to Maine in order to protect him from Mel. In the process he decides to try to educate Paul on how to shape himself as a person, something neither parent seems interested in. But when the situation changes and the parents agree to take Paul back, Spenser realizes he will have to intervene a little more forcefully. He's good at that, but the other players may push him past his boundaries and Paul might end up in the middle of the violent game.

Autumn was Parker's seventh Spenser novel and eighth overall, published in 1980. By then well-polished and still in top form, Parker makes it zip along and loads it with Spenser's quick wit and tough guy action. But the punching and shooting take a back seat to Spenser's intervention in Paul's life, and Parker probably writes more long passages of dialogue in Autumn than in any of his other books. The dismal teen wonders why Spenser makes him do things like learn to work out and build a house, and Spenser explains that he has to teach Paul something, and working out and carpentry are what he knows.

The talkiness and relatively sparse action make some Spenser fans downtick the novel, but for anyone who wants to get one of the clearer pictures of what Parker thinks and the way those thoughts fuel all of his protagonists, it's well worth the time. Admittedly, if he'd tried to write this story during his later doldrums, it would have been hard to bear (and probably called All Our Yesterdays), but this Autumn happens while its author is still in full creative bloom.
Tom Clancy owned an insurance agency and wrote in his spare time in the early 1980s. Among his output were articles for the non-profit United States Naval Institute journal Proceedings and eventually, a technically detailed spy thriller about a Russian submarine captain who wants to defect and the CIA analyst who helps shepherd him in, along with his submarine. When no publisher showed interest in the novel, a USNI Press editor suggested her company buy it, because it had the potential to be very big.

The company listened, the USNI Press published its first fiction work ever and so in 1984 The Hunt for Red October, the character Jack Ryan and Clancy all became famous. A thumbs-up from President Ronald Reagan, who regarded the Cold War tale as "the best yarn," didn't hurt.

It's easy to look at Clancy's later work, bloated by a lack of editing and weighed down by his comically inept handling of anything other than an action scene or technical description, and forget that one of the reasons he became a household name was because October really is a great story and pretty well told. As he unspools Marko Ramius' plot to defect and give the Americans the brand-new Red October submarine with its secret super-silent engine, Clancy maintains suspense across an ocean-wide stage and multiple scenes. Both Ramius and Ryan are well-developed and realistic characters, featuring a level of introspection about their work that Clancy allowed to ebb away over the course of the series.

Clancy also shows what an incident like this could mean in the real world of the Cold War -- as Soviet ships hunt the U.S.-bound Red October, they risk confrontations with American forces in a time where it wouldn't have taken too many mistakes for the two nations to begin direct conflict. And naturally there are the technical details of weapons systems and operations that reportedly earned Clancy attention from military officials worried that someone had compromised secret information. He does go overboard with some of these, and he probably has a few too many "brush with Armageddon" scenes -- the screenwriters for the 1990 movie adaptation slimmed the story down considerably but their movie shows how good it is at its base.

October is often cited as beginning a wave of "techno-thrillers," or highly detailed and accurately described spy and thriller novels. Techno-thrillers existed well before it, though (just ask Clive Cussler), and you could make a case that Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, which salts is narrative quite liberally with precise and detailed descriptions of 19th-century whaling techniques, was the real genesis of the format.

Of course, Clancy is no Melville, October is no Moby-Dick and subsequent Ryan thrillers went from tedious to omissable to unreadable. But if the latter is really one of the top candidates for "the Great American Novel" as it's often described, then October can lay a solid claim to being the Pretty Good American Novel in its own right.

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