Heroes and heroines in thrillers come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common is the enormous baggage they carry, courtesy of the author.
My favourite type of hero is the bad’un who becomes a good’un at the end. A character who repents will always receive high numbers on my scorecard. But then again, I love Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who is really a bad’un, through and through. He’s a wonderfully cultured and sophisticated chap, who also happens to be a psychopathic killer. The trouble is you can’t help caring about him.
But that’s the whole purpose of having a hero or anti-hero: it’s to put a reader in his shoes so that he or she can experience directly the dilemmas and anxieties facing the protagonist. Once that is achieved, then the writer can go to town on the hero, torturing him as well as the reader as much as possible right up to the end.
But the hero has to be real, usually likeable, and must have his own demons if he is to be accepted by readers.
So who are my fictional heroes? Here goes, and in no particular order:
Jo Nesbo’s loose cannon sleuth, Harry Hole, is a wonderful creation built on the alcoholic detective trope. Only this one is from Oslo, in nice Norway. Harry is a slob who courts disaster wherever he goes, but he always comes up trumps.
While Nesbo is best known for his Harry Hole series, I have to confess I have a soft spot for one of his few standalone books, Headhunters. The cynical protagonist, Roger Brown, is a recruitment specialist, headhunting executives for top jobs. He’s smart, wealthy and …er…short. He has a beautiful wife and a spectacular home. And, oh, he steals paintings on the side. Roger is too clever for his own good, and initially is not likeable. But as his circumstances change, so does the reader’s view about him. He’s not the typical hero readers would normally root for, but that’s part of the charm of the book.
Let’s stick with heroes that have Harry as their first name. Apart from Harry Bridger in Hider Seeker, I also like Harry Palmer in the Len Deighton’s series about the working class spy. Yes, I know, he doesn’t have a name in the book, and only receives one in the Michael Caine films (See article 15 Feb 2017), but the character is well established both in the written word and cinematically. The insubordinate working class hero was a reflection of the changing times in 1960s Britain, but the character is not a million miles from the wise-cracking Philip Marlowe.
When it comes to spies, I’m a sucker for John Le Carre’s British agent, Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was brilliantly played by Richard Burton in the 1963 film adaptation of the book, directed by Martin Ritt. There’s no happy ending in this bleak story set in the Cold War. Leamas, weary of his trade, chooses love over loyalty to his country.
However, the hero I liked the most from the Le Carre’s books I’ve read so far is the hapless interpreter, Salvo, in The Mission Song. Salvo, who is half Congolese but educated in England, discovers that a secretly organised British meeting with Congolese warlords is a total sham. But then the unthinkable happens to our naïve Salvo. He transforms from the role of the downtrodden husband to become a spy and lover of the beautiful Hannah. He proves to be a hero of sorts, but as with many of Le Carre’s novels it comes at an enormous cost. Filled with humour and cynicism, Le Carre delivers British treachery in his own inimitable style.
Milo Weaver is also a spy hero of mine who appears in Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 novel, The Tourist. Milo is a former “tourist” – a CIA operative that does the dirty work – and has been given a desk job after retiring from “tourism.” Need I spell out what happens next? Yes, he becomes a “tourist” once again to investigate allegations that a friend of his may have passed secrets to a foreign power. Milo is the reluctant hero who only wants to get back to his wife and kid, but first he needs to sort out some double-dealing by the state. A man with his heart in the right place.
Steinhauer, who cut his teeth on Cold War novels based in Eastern Europe, is often compared to Le Carre, Deighton and Graham Greene.
When it comes to police detectives, I can only say that I have one I really adore, the world-weary communist party member and Moscow policeman, Arkady Renko. Maybe it’s the location of Moscow or perhaps it is Renko’s disillusionment with city’s Prosecution Service, but I feel I want to be there working on his investigations. Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 bestseller Gorky Park, in which he introduced the detective to the world, was highly praised for the portrayal of Cold War Moscow even though the American author had never set foot in the Russian capital.
Surprisingly, Cruz Smith’s publishers turned down the idea of a Russian detective, but Gorky Park became an instant crime classic, and the author was soon being compared not only to John le Carre, but also to Dostoevsky.
And what about heroines? Well, who better than Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic 24-year-old with a history of delinquency and a genius on a computer keyboard? She’s cool, violent, and not really the sort of girl to be messed with. But nevertheless she gets on with righting wrongs in her own way.
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t an instant success in Britain, and I can remember receiving my free copy from an Evening Standard newsstand, a ploy used by the publisher to help push sales of the then unknown Swedish author. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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