When I was a lad, and throughout my life, I have devoured the greats of mystery/suspense/espionage: Ludlum, Clancy (of course), Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, Hammett, Chandler, many others. And more recently, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and Tami Hoag.
Back in the day, being a rambunctious kid, I wanted gunfire. I wanted fights. I wanted action. You know, the usual “Die Hard” stuff. In my twenties, I recall picking up a book by John le Carré—don’t recall now which one—and started reading. And stopped.
Too slow, I thought. No action, I judged. And so I put it back on the shelf.
While I knew Mr. le Carré would not miss my readership, it’s always troubled me that I put aside a book by an author as celebrated as he. My father—an avid fan of mystery/espionage—enjoyed le Carré, as well as many of the other writers I mentioned above, and perhaps it was his influence that charged me to investigate in the first place.
But, frankly, I found le Carré a snooze.
Fast forward more decades than I care to entertain, and I am in a Habitat for Humanity store, and lo, they have books! Musty, fusty, cigarette smoke-infused books. But cheap; and to my eyes, seeming lonely over there in the corner next to the abandoned office chairs and living room sofas.
I gather an armload, and one that I pull from the sagging particle-board shelves is “The Russia House”. Hmm, I thought. Dare I?
My twenty year old self would have moved past that thick tome. But the Six of 2016 gave pause. Having recently finished the Stieg Larsson “Milennium” trilogy—a monumental work that made me pissed Mr. Larsson had passed away—I stood and looked at “The Russia House”. It stared back.
“Dragon Tattoo”, “Fire”, and “Hornet’s Nest”—some called them boring, ponderous, too slow. I found them deliberate, intricate, and complete. I found them—through many late nights of sleep deprivation—to have reached deep inside that place where my words form, tickling the gag reflex of creativity, and pushing me to think about a work of literature as a way to define a period of one’s life. As a way to look at a massive collection of sentences and think, This is not ponderous. This is wondrous.
So I pulled “The Russia House” from the Habitat shelves and piled it atop volumes by Grisham, Leonard, and W. E. B. Griffin. Once home, and when I finished reading the Cornwell I had on the bedstand, I opened “House”.
Musty, fusty, stale cigarettes, and pages so yellow I feared they would crack when I turned them. But most likely gleaned from old-growth forests, the paper held. I read.
Deliberate. Intricate. Complete. That sounds familiar. While the formal British narrative and some of the slang slowed me down a bit from my usual two-page-per-minute read speed, I submerged myself into the back and forth vagaries of the British secret service, of Barley, of Ned, of Katya and Goethe. Emotions dwelled there, layered beneath the “ponderous” narrative that I had rejected in my youth. There were Great Changes in these character’s lives, looming against the backdrop of 1980’s Cold War power-jockeying. Certainly the Russian spy tale itself was a bit dated, but the book isn’t really about that; it merely serves as the dining table upon which the feast was laid.
Books that are challenging can make one a better writer, and I like to believe I am one of those ones. While I will certainly continue to devour the more conversational Hoag, Cornwell, Reichs, Coulter, Kellerman, and others, I will not hesitate to pluck from a groaning shelf in a used bookstore those works that may have eluded my young, impatient mind.
My next challenge: getting past the third page of “Gravity’s Rainbow”.