How do you like your hero…or heroine?

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.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Advertisements

Deighton returns to the silver screen

Len Deighton, who turned 88 this month, is enjoying a revival of interest in his work as filmmakers are turning to his books again for inspiration.

A five-part mini-series based on his 1978 novel SS-GB is about to be aired by the BBC, and there has been talk for some while of the nine Bernard Samson novels – Deighton’s magnum opus – being adapted for television as well.

SS-GB is a counter-factual history adventure set in 1941 Britain where the Nazis have taken occupation. Deighton, a highly respected writer on military history, penned the novel after carrying out painstaking research on Hitler’s occupation plans, speaking to German army generals and senior SS officers.

It provides an exciting backdrop for a murder investigation by Scotland Yard detective, Douglas Archer, who uncovers a terrible truth at the heart of the British puppet government under Nazi rule.

The world renowned author claims that he never wanted to be a writer,  but a chance introduction with the literary agent, Johnathan Clowes, turned jottings made while on holiday into The Ipcress File. This was 1962, the same year of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and a year before John le Carre published The Spy Who came in from the Cold.

The three British masters of the spy novel were about to start vying on the silver screen. But while Ian Fleming’s James Bond won hands down in general public appeal the world over, Deighton and le Carre’s anti-heroes proved the perfect antidote to those filmgoers who hated the glamorous fantasy world of 007.

Harry Saltzman, who made Dr.No, had the good sense to hedge his bets about what the paying public wanted from their British spy and produced The Ipcress File in 1965, offering  the sharp witted cockney Michael Caine as an alternative to the smooth talking Sean Connery.

The film helped to launch Deighton’s career as a major author, and more spy novels followed, including many books featuring the jaded middle-aged MI6 spy, Bernard Samson. In the 1970s he wrote Fighter, an account of the Battle of Britain, as well as deeply researched novels about the Second World War, including Bomber, and SS-GB.

His historical non-fiction has also been highly praised over the years, despite being criticised for interviewing German veterans at a time when the only point of view of the war was from that of the allies.

He also found time to become travel editor of Playboy while also writing and producing the film version of Oh! What a lovely War.

But his real passion in life was cooking, taught to him while growing up in London by his mother who was cook by profession. As a trained illustrator he also drew cartoon strips based on recipes for The Observer. Cooking books followed, including Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Basic French Cooking, and, ABC of French Food.

Before becoming an illustrator after studying at London’s top art schools, he spent 30 months in RAF intelligence during his National Service, followed by a stint as a railway clerk, a BOAC steward, and a press photographer.

In total he wrote 27 novels, 11 miscellaneous works including films and television scripts, and 16 non-fiction books. Several of his works have been adapted for screen, three starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, and a Granada Television mini-series starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson.

But the success in his early career was to some extent helped greatly by his good friend Michael Caine who personified the working class hero probably better than the author could have ever created in The Ipcress File. Deighton admits he had no idea why he made the unnamed hero, who narrates the story in the book, a northerner, and supposes that it may have been his way of disguising the fact that he was a Londoner who spoke with a cockney accent.

Caine restored the balance by making the spy a cockney, and by also giving him a name for the audience. He was looking for the most common sounding name possible, starting with Saltzman’s first name. Caine brought Deighton’s hero to life, capturing both the time and mood of the 1960s. Deighton’s book was seen at the time as fresh and different largely because of the way the hero was insubordinate to his often untrustworthy superiors. In truth, this was a return to the wisecracking Philip Marlowe only with a cockney accent. A hero with his own code of ethics.

The success of The Ipcress File caught Deighton by surprise as he instantly shot to global fame. But he was not the only one surprised by his immediate success; his publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, had restricted the print order to only 4,000 books and were sold out in just a couple of days.

He claims he never had any intense literary ambitions despite being a voracious reader since childhood thanks to the encouragement of his father who was a chauffeur and mechanic. But luckily for us he decided to swap his day job as an illustrator to become one of Britain’s finest writers in the spy genre.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk