Showing posts with label Nelson DeMille. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nelson DeMille. Show all posts

23 October 2019


Some of you may know that the Brit writer Mark Billingham started out in comedy, and he once remarked there were a lot of similarities between doing stand-up and writing thrillers. Namely, setting up punchlines. E.g., "The pope, the Dalai Lama, and a stripper walk into a bar." I don't know where it's going, but it catches your attention. Jokes, of course, depend on the reversal of expectations, and setting a trap in writing is much the same. Sometimes the punchline gets left out, all the more effectively. The ending of Pet Sematary. You're not turning around.

The twist ending is a time-honored tradition. I got thinking, on the other hand, about twist openings. I just watched Night Train to Munich again, which is a terrific Carol Reed picture from 1940. The set-up is almost completely self-contained, a story all by itself, and Rex Harrison doesn't even show up until 20 minutes in. Not long after, the movie takes a sharp left-hand turn into the Twilight Zone. It's not what you were expecting.

I realized, watching it this time around, that Night Train to Munich puts me in mind of certain of John LeCarre's novels, The Little Drummer Girl in particular. The beginning, the set-up, "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name," is itself masterful, and then he seems to wander off the beam, into some other story entirely. You're like, Wait, What, Where Are We? He's actually got absolute control, he's simply gathering the reins. Little Drummer Girl is about a deception operation, and the book is an illustration of method, a metafiction.

Metafictions can be said to call attention to themselves. Sometimes it's sleight of hand, sometimes it's done in plain sight. There's a Dutch Leonard book called The Hunted - some years before La Brava made him a household name - and it starts out with a guy in Witness Protection, who's been relocated to Israel, but the mob tracks him down and puts a hit on him. So far, so good. Then maybe a third of the way in, the story goes off at a right angle and all of a sudden, it's not about that guy at all, it's about this other guy, somebody you thought was a supporting character. Well, okay, it's Elmore Leonard, but hello? 

For my money, The Charm School is still Nelson DeMille's best book, not least because he takes what I think is a false and discredited premise and sells it, utterly. Not just that I suspended my disbelief, but that he had me totally convinced. Whether or not the spell wears off is of no consequence; he owns it, and you sign on. Here's the thing. Nelson pulls the same damn trick Dutch does. He starts off in one direction, and puts the pedal to the floor. We got ignition. Then he takes a curve at speed, and snaps your head around. He's got this guy who's only a walk-on, so you think, and suddenly he's center stage.

I don't think this is all that common a narrative device. At least, I haven't run across it that often. David Copperfield begins, famously, with "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else - " but we don't imagine Dickens is going to give Steerforth the lead. Likewise with Scott, no stranger to conventional theatrics, the hero of Old Mortality is your usual generic ingenue, and Scott quite happily loses control of his story to the two contending heavies, Lord Claverhouse and the Covenanter assassin Burley, who basically walks off with the book, but in the end, convention wins out.

Then there's the thing where you shift gears without even meaning to, or because the story requires it. In the first of the bounty hunter stories, for instance, I started out in one direction and veered off unexpectedly in another. I never intended it to be the beginning of a series, the guy himself seemed accidental, I thought I was channeling The Wild Bunch, and it turned out to be Have Gun, Will Travel. Not that I'm complaining, mind, but it took me by surprise.

I think this is where I'm going with this. That we should anticipate the unexpected. In anybody's narrative, but particularly our own. You follow the scent, you follow the story where it leads you, convention be damned.

Oh, and the punchline? "Mustard, custard, and you, you big shit."

25 September 2013


by David Edgerley Gates

[Note: This post isn't supposed to be actively political, and I apologize ahead of time if it raises anybody's hackles. I mean no disrespect. R.T. and Dix, by all means chime in if you don't share my opinions.]

I personally think the Viet Nam POW-MIA issue is baloney, and I don't believe there were in fact any secret camps that held American GIs after the end of the war. Chuck Norris, who's admittedly all too easy a target, made a series of Missing in Action movies that flew in the face of reason, but the phenomenon is driven by a sense that we were humiliated in defeat, and Chuck Norris was in effect re-fighting the war, only this time we won. Basically, it amounts to denial.

This isn't to say that human remains aren't still being discovered and repatriated, and better forensics, including DNA analysis, have been used to identify formerly missing service members, which brings some small measure of comfort to their families, and helps redeem their sacrifice. There's also a certain amount of anecdotal evidence that a few Americans wound up in GRU or KGB custody, inside the Soviet Union, and you can't completely dismiss these stories, even if they feed into what some of us think is an irrational conspiracy theory.

What prompts these thoughts is not to argue, yet again, the unresolved issues of the war, or the fixation on Viet Nam in the American imagination, but something more tangential. Can a writer convincingly sell a story element, and will the reader buy it, if the central theme, taken out of context, seems preposterous? I'm not talking about alternate histories, say, or revisionism, but our own shared past. If the writer is Nelson DeMille, and the book in question is THE CHARM SCHOOL, then the answer is yes.

It's worth remarking that DeMille served in Viet Nam with the 1st Cav, in the late '60's, as a platoon leader, and his experience colors his work, not to mention that he might vigorously dispute my first paragraph, above. I intend him no insult.

You can't really explain THE CHARM SCHOOL without spoiling the story, so I won't. Trust me, though, DeMille takes a premise that I'm personally resistant to, and makes it absolutely compelling. You never stop and say to yourself, Wait a minute, this can't be true, because the guy never takes his foot off the gas. The narrative momentum snaps your head back against your seat. The trick, here, is obvious. Don't let the reader catch his breath. Easier said than done, but DeMille has complete control of a story on a collision course with Fate itself.

The question, then, isn't so much whether it's a tough sell, to a skeptic like me, but rather that it depends on execution, and of course on self-confidence. DeMille closes the sale because he doesn't entertain disbelief. In our waking moments, we might hesitate. In the dreamscape DeMille conjures up, everything is solid, and genuine, and all of a piece. You stub your toe on real things, and your doubts never enter the picture.