Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Faithless Elector's Enduring Themes

"Every nation gets the government it deserves," Joseph de Maistre observed in 1811. Do we also get the literature we deserve?
In the most recent review of the book, in the Plattsburgh Press Republican, the reviewer, Lauren Kiefer, begins by talking about her state of mind as she approached reading this thriller:
"I have to confess that the phrase 'political thriller' tends to make me brace myself for a combination of the predictable and the cringe-worthy: action-heroes and women in jeopardy in steamy romances; predictable plots with implausible twists; and in the worst cases, a not-so-hidden political agenda on the part of the author."
I know what she means.

I have stopped reading a great many such books myself.  In fact, I briefly considered not calling the novel a thriller because of the negative associations.  Fortunately, Prof. Kiefer goes on to say that not only does Faithless Elector not fall into those sloppy cliches, it is compellingly well written while delivering the goods:
"The pleasure of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector lies not just in its smooth yet evocative prose but in its professorial hero and its equally intelligent FBI-agent heroine; in their relative and believable sexual restraint while both their lives and our nation’s democracy are being threatened; and in the author’s justified confidence that good writing can make chases through recognizable locales (freeway, building, city streets) sufficiently exciting without a Navy SEAL or a terrorist plot."
So why is there so much dreck out there?

One of my mentors at the University of Washington, Charles Johnson (Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, Dreamer) used to exhort his students to write the kinds of books we would like to read ourselves.  And he, as did others, imparted what is essentially a contract the writer has with the reader:
  • Write what you yourself would like to read
  • Remember, you're telling a story; get on with it
  • Don't talk down to the reader
  • Don't dumb-down your ideas
  • Don't cheat--i.e. don't for the sake of suspense withhold information vital to the story, or introduce a character right at the end who sews everything up
There are many more commandments, but certainly as one begins writing all alone in a room it is helpful--and comforting--to construe a reader and to keep the above basics foremost in the mind.  It is equally helpful to conceive of the story one tells as an organic entity, with wants, dislikes, and to be in service to those needs.

I love thrillers.  I love politics.  I wrote a political thriller.

Some of my favorites growing up (and still!) are LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Graham Greene's The Quiet American; Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth; Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy; Laidlaw, by William McIlvanney.  They are varied titles and writers, but they are all thoughtful, thought-provoking, immersive, precise.  In the case of Greene and McIlvanney, these 'gateway' works led me on to others.  And others.

Each of the thrillers I love draws its energy from a character who is compelled to action because what is happening is wrong, and they are pitted against forces larger than themselves. Each has a moral center, a generosity of spirit--a belief in the face of the facts that things could and should be better (or at the very least, different). Graham Greene's main characters are generally cynics; but what I learned from reading his books is that a cynic isn't someone who doesn't care at all, but someone who cares too much.

Maybe there are so many poor examples of literature in general (and thrillers specifically) precisely because we permit them by accepting the substandard: works that cheat, that dumb-down, or are polemics masquerading as literature, even when something better exists. If, as in politics, we reward substandard candidates and refuse to scrutinize party platforms even at the level of verisimilitude, why would anything change?

While the immediate impetus that gave rise to Faithless Elector has passed, its themes still resonate--themes of vigilance, dedication to one's principles, courage.  In a post-2016 election world, it will be easy for some to wallow in cynicism. As Greene's characters would show us, cynicism has a kind of hypnotic attraction, an inward narcotic allure.  Cynicism is false, and it is a trap.  Good literature offers a hero caught up in fantastic forces, forced into action by circumstance.

I've been pleased by the reactions and overwhelmingly positive reviews for Faithless Elector. It's been quite a journey, and I am hopeful it is not near ending.

NOTE: Charles Johnson has recently published The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, that
Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

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