Hazel McHaffie

The Winner

Amazing talent

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festivals, I’m feeling overawed by the enormous breadth of talent I’ve been exposed to lately. So it seems appropriate to home in on another aspect of human endeavour currently impressing me greatly: the skill that goes into creating a well-crafted thriller. I could select any of the books I’ve just read but I’ll take the last one – which happens to be the meatiest!

The WinnerWhen I first selected The Winner by David Baldacci off my shelves I confess I was very inclined to return it rapidly. 565 pages … hmmm! And the layout is strangely off-putting. How glad I am that my conscience made me resist that temptation and give the book a fair crack of the whip. Almost 600 pages it might be but not one of them is surplus to requirement. Not for a second did I lose interest or skim a page. Coffees went cold, meals were late, bedtime extended way past a sensible hour. The pace, the tension, never slacken – totally gripping throughout. Why?

Dense textWell, let’s look at why.

  1. The protagonists are believable and well-rounded, their true characters emerging gradually as the story unravels. And they are multi-faceted, with strengths and weaknesses, attributes and flaws, appeal and unlikeable traits. So, LuAnn Tyler is a dirt-poor young woman shacked up in a down-at-heel trailer with an unskilled, unemployed drunk, Duane Harvey, who unbeknownst to her is dabbling in drugs. They have a baby daughter, Lisa, whom LuAnn adores and would give her life for. She’s a brilliant mother. She’s also very beautiful. Jackson on the other hand is a cunning manipulator with a brilliant mind, no scruples and no moral code. He is a master of disguise who has the power to infiltrate any world he chooses, and such is his reach that we start to suspect every new character and startle at every sudden appearance, fearing his malevolent influence.
  2. The motives of the main characters are mixed, complex and intriguing; nothing stereotypical here. So, for example, LuAnn’s conscience baulks at being involved in anything illegal but when she finds the father of her child dying and she herself has hit – probably fatally – Duane’s murderer, she realises she’s in a hopeless situation: if she does the right thing she’ll be clapped in jail and her baby girl will be taken away from her. For Lisa’s sake she must accept Jackson’s dubious offer. And even when she becomes enormously wealthy, her conscience dictates she must pay back to society in some way. But when the final challenge comes she’s not averse to capitalising on the proceeds of crime.
  3. We’re rightly wary of Jackson from the outset, but Baldacci ratchets up the tension by continually, incrementally, broadening the range of the man’s evil. We learn more and more about his modus operandi until we are fascinated by his ingenuity, fearfully anticipating his next devious move, and seeing him behind every shadow. Even though we actually learn his true identity on page 481, there is still no end to the depths to which he will sink to protect himself and his schemes, and we live in a state of high alert dreading what’s to come.
  4. On the other hand, the novel appeals to our better nature too. Flawed though LuAnn undoubtedly is, we want to see her win through in the end. She engenders sympathy and devotion in the people she meets: Charlie leaves behind his shady past and becomes her staunchest ally; Matthew Riggs forsakes his anonymity and quiet life to protect her. And LuAnn’s trust once gained becomes a precious commodity. We too care about her welfare.
  5. The plotting is so assured and clever that the improbable seems believable. The depiction of national security issues, the detail of each disguise, each manouevre, each scheme, each flight from retribution as the characters fight for supremacy or justice, keep the reader riveted and the pages simply fly by.
  6. The pace never flags. No saggy middle, no anticlimax, here.
  7. The story line is far-reaching and challenging, involving matters of international security, government shenanigans, personal crusades. Your imagination goes into over-drive wondering, what if …?

I could go on, but enough for now. Baldacci inhabits his characters brilliantly. He inspires a horrifying blend of reactions – unexpected empathy, dread, subtle identification, revulsion. And we have to ask ourselves, in LuAnn’s situation, what would I have done? Would I have her devotion, her courage, her determination? Would my priorities have been hers? Would I commit a crime for the greater good of those I love? Charlie and Matthew are convinced anyone would have done exactly what she did; now I know LuAnn, I have to ask again: Would I?

What I DO know is I’d love to be able to write with Baldacci’s assurance and cleverness. He totally deserves the lavish praise of the critics.

Praise for Baldacci

PS. I found one tiny flaw: a mistake in the name on p524! One of the hazards of using the same initial for two main characters I suspect. It surprised me though, given the stature of the author and its professional production and the number of eyes that must have checked this book.

 

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After the fireworks

Well, the 2016 Festivals certainly ended in fine style on Monday with a few thousand pounds worth of fireworks exploding spectacularly over Edinburgh Castle on a still dark night perfect for purpose.

Festival fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Festival fliersNow the millions of flyers and posters are being swept from the streets; the artistes have left the city’s hotels and guest houses; mysterious venues become their alter egos again; the buses return to running on time; the air in Princes Street is no longer riven with native American music; the good people of Edinburgh heave a collective sigh of relief.

As you know, I’ve enjoyed dipping into the huge diversity of amazing opportunities available in this magical city. But now it’s time to knuckle down to some serious work.

 

ThrillersBack to the masterclass in thriller-writing I spoke about last week. My attention has turned to analysing other new-to-me authors’ work: Heart Collector by Jacques Vandroux, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; The Winner by David Baldacci.

All helpful in reinforcing the essential elements I outlined last week, but also in highlighting things that don’t work for me:

Names which sound/look very similar; characteristics which are too similar. When you have a cast of many, it’s hard to hold them all in your head. Distinctive attributes help to keep them sharply defined.

Too many foreign place names.

Knowing too much too soon – reduces the tension too early.

Too many dates and flashbacks that require the reader to flick back and forth, calculating ages and years. A thriller’s meant to be tense, keeping you moving forward searching for answers.

Too many lies from an unreliable narrator; so many that they muddle the brain and the plotline.

But it’s also been comforting to see that the thriller author does not need a degree in jurisprudence! I’m hanging on to that thought at least. So many stories in this genre hinge around police procedures and court wrangles, but there are other ways to approach crimes.

Also I am newly aware that even in the staccato sentences and fast pace and intense action of thrillers, building up a detailed picture of each character over time adds to the reader’s engagement with them.

The more I read the more I’m impressed by the skill behind these books … and the more daunting my own task becomes. I’m forced back to the question: Could I do it? or maybe it’s: Could I do it? Jury’s still out on this one.

 

 

 

 

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