Monday, May 24, 2010

linty barroom

It appears that you can count on the French (and especially Jean-Pierre Melville) to take a mystery thriller and lace it with tragedy and world weariness. The most recent example for me was Tell No One. In the hands of a genre hack, this film might well have been a flashy tank of cliché laced with anxious motifs and herrings. But director Guillame Canet makes judicious use of good performances, an understated use of action sequences and serves up an engaging drama embellished with a background score employing bass, dissonance and chords and bends on an electric guitar.

It turned out the film was based on a novel by an American writer named Harlan Coben. All this was not without precedent (Truffaut had adapted David Goodis; René ClĂ©ment had adapted Patricia Highsmith). There was just one problem: I had not heard of Harlan Coben. This was unfortunate, because he's quite famous and well-lauded. So I did the only thing I could: I ventured forth to the public library to mend my ways. I picked up Tell No One (still unread), Fade Away, Drop Shot and Promise Me.

The last three happened to be be part of the canon dedicated to his creation Myron Bolitar, a star college basketball player with a degree from Harvard Law School, who is now a sports agent, who ends up becoming a gumshoe while trying to protect or defend the interests of his clients. His closest friend and associate is, perhaps, the most curious character I have seen in detective fiction. Windsor "Win" Lock-Horne III is rich, smart, extremely loyal and coldly dispassionate; he could be trading trivia about the West/Ward Batman TV show or crisply sending a couple of no-good goons to their maker. Then there's Esperanza Diaz, Myron's associate at his company MBSportsReps; Esperanza used to be a professional wrestler bearing the moniker "Little Pocahontas." Then there's Coben penchant for loading the books with witticisms and word play. It's the kind of wisecracking that brought the 007 films to their knees in the days of Roger Moore, but it seems to work rather well here. Consider the following extract from Fade Away:

"[...] It took a while to get the ducks all in a row. It's a balance, you know. Got to keep the ducks on an even keel. Losing Greg really knocked the wind from our sails, but we finally got those ducks back up. Now you come along, see. Clip doesn't tell us why , but he insists we add you to the roster. Fine, Clip is the big chief, no question. But we worry about getting our ducks back sailing straight, you see?"
The mixing of metaphors was making Myron dizzy. "Sure, I don't want to cause any problems."
"I know that." He stood, put the chair back with a sweeping motion. "You're a good guy, Myron. Always were a straight arrow. We need that now. A team-comes-first kinda guy, am I right?"
Myron nodded. "A straight-sailing duck."

All the Bolitar novels pack in multiple twists at the end and, if you've been a good reader of thrillers with obligatory twists, you can probably figure out what's going to unfold. To Coben's credit, he doesn't write to set you up for a big payoff. He just writes matter that's straight and engaging with characters that are fun to follow. It's also a relief that Coben doesn't indulge in the bestseller fetish for dumping paragraphs of informative discourse as evidence of the writer having spent hours in the library and on the Internet. All three Bolitar novels have been "unputdownable" and I hope the rest are just as entertaining.

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