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

The poet of apprehension

Patricia Highsmith’s advice to budding writers was to begin a novel with events of everyday life that may spark off a story, and then capture the reader’s attention with invention.

Sounds simple, but it would coming from an author who turned the psychological thriller into a high art form.

At the age of 29 she wrote her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, a plot that captured the imagination of one generation after another. It was adapted as a film by Alfred Hitchcock a year later in 1951, and then re-used in several other adaptations in one form or another, including films, television, theatre as well as in other novels.

Highsmith’s book in my opinion was superior to Hitchcock’s version, which proved to be his comeback film after a couple of flops. Hitchcock chose the novel because it had the right type of material for him to work with. He was confident at the time that no other director would have spotted the book’s potential as a film. But converting the prose into a suspenseful script proved much harder than he imagined. Big names like Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck turned down the opportunity to work with him. He finally got Raymond Chandler to produce a script, which proved to be a disaster, and in the end Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, came to the rescue with the help of other scriptwriters.

The story begins with an everyday occurrence of two strangers sitting on a long train journey chatting. Then the tempo rises when Guy and Bruno discuss carrying out murders for each other to solve their problems. Such random acts would make it almost impossible for the police to connect them to the victims.

On reading Strangers on a Train it reminded me more of Crime and Punishment than a contemporary thriller of its day. The two men could be one man, conflicted with guilt. Good at odds with evil.

The guilt of Guy when Bruno suddenly murders Guy’s wife without his agreement is palpable. But if that is not enough Highsmith adds more tension when Bruno blackmails Guy into honouring his part of the bargain of murdering his father. And if that is not ratcheting it up enough, a private detective gets wind of their pact.

In her book to help young aspiring writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she explains she always likes to thicken the plot by bringing in new complications to freshen up the story. It certainly works well in the case of Strangers on a Train.

Her next book The Price of Salt, later retitled Carol, was also a big hit and was written under the pen name Claire Morgan. The story of a young shop girl falling in love with a married woman was recently adapted by Phyllis Nagy into a successful film in 2015.

Then in 1955, Highsmith created the wonderful psychopath anti-hero in The Talented Mr Ripley. She went on to write several more Ripley novels and then continued writing more novels exploring characters with a dark side.

My particular favourite The Cry of the Owl (1962) was a psychological thriller that she didn’t care much for. It was apparently based on her own experience of stalking a woman, the same one that inspired her to write The Price of Salt. There have been three film/television adaptions of the book, including one by the renowned French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who was of course a great admirer of Hitchcock.

Highsmith didn’t see herself as a crime writer and preferred to be called an entertainer. According to friends, she didn’t suffer fools but her troubled life tended to follow her wherever she went.

She moved to Europe from the US in the early 1960s and surprisingly enjoyed a higher recognition there than in her native country. She eventually settled in Switzerland in the 1980s where she remained until her death in 1995, aged 74.

The Times once named her number one in their list of the greatest ever crime writers, although her ranking elsewhere is inexplicably much lower.

She completed 22 novels and eight books of short stories, but she admitted rather candidly in her handbook on writing that the possibility of failure was always ever present for the author. It is difficult to believe that she had suffered failures of her own, but she viewed every failure as teaching her something.

Highsmith was an admirer of Graham Greene and he reciprocated by describing her as “the poet of apprehension.” He said that she “created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”

 

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