Saturday, May 18, 2013

Three-Way Smackdown; Hillerman vs Deaver vs Grisham

A Three-Way Smackdown.

I borrowed three paperback thrillers recently. Part of learning involves checking out other writers, seeing what they got and how they do things. I also like to read just before I go to bed and I had run out of books.

It helps me sleep, and so when I saw them I grabbed them.

I read Tony Hillerman’s ‘Dark Wind’ first, then Jefferey Deaver’s ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and now I’m working on John Grisham’s ‘The Client.’

The Client is also a film starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones.

All three are best-selling authors, and the writing is professional grade. It’s interesting to analyze between them. Deaver’s book has a sharp emotional shock right off the bat. The pyromaniac arsonist Sonny has a woman bound and gagged and he’s about to torch her apartment. That one got me in the guts in a way that Hillerman didn’t, although in his book the first body is a man who has had the skin removed from the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. There’s Hopi and Navajo religion, some witchery involved maybe, and I don’t know, it was all right in its own way. It’s a boy who sees him first. But it somehow lacks emotional punch.

For one thing, we didn’t watch him die. The writer left his body lying in the desert to be found. Also, the idea of death by fire in 'Hell’s Kitchen' is horrifying to pretty much any reader. Deaver had the first victim, a lady, bound and gagged and watching the guy get ready to torch the place.

Grisham had some tough choices when dealing with child characters. I saved him for last, as I had read ‘The Painted House,’ and ‘The Street Lawyer,’ and now this one. In ‘The Painted House’ there is a scene where a guy is killed in a knife fight. Grisham can write horror or terror or call it what you want. He can write it. I know that much.

I’m sure we’ve all enjoyed ‘The Pelican Brief’ with Julia Roberts at her best.

All three authors tend to use about the same amount of description, and they all weave short descriptive passages through the narrative. In many ways they are all equally competent. I rated Hillerman four stars on Goodreads. Deaver got five stars for that emotional level. Now, how in the heck can I give Grisham six stars for what is a superior book in a dozen ways?

You can’t really do it, can you?

This is a concern when rating books. Everyone wants a five-star review, but the question of how many of us actually deserve one is perhaps a contentious one…

Grisham doesn’t have quite so much the emotional impact as Deaver’s book. The kid Mark witnesses a suicide and almost gets killed in the process. At that point the justice system kicks in as he is a material witness in a federal case…the mob is involved, etc.

Deaver has a kid in his story as well, although in ‘The Client’ Mark is the protagonist. In Deaver’s book the kid plays a secondary role.

But that whole idea of emotional level is an interesting one and it’s why I read other people’s fiction when I can. Trust me, I see plenty of areas in my own work where the horror or love or whatever seems a bit flat. I try to punch that up whenever I can. The highest compliment I can pay a book goes something like this: there was this book I read when I was a kid...I don't remember the title or the author. But I remember that story...something about that story has stuck with me for forty-something years.

All three authors took a different approach to the negative emotions aroused by human violence, mutilation of a body, death by fire, or the kid slated for death by the mob for what he sees. I also think that’s why Grisham’s book is a bit muted on the emotional shock. He had to decide just how exploitive or graphic he wanted to be when the protagonist is a kid. The reader, no matter what age, totally identifies with Mark, another interesting observation.

'The Client' is highly entertaining, and the characters are sympathetic except for the obligatory politician and his entourage. Even some of the criminals get a little sympathy. The news hounds not so much.

I can’t reveal the ending because I haven’t finished it yet. For whatever reason, six stars for John Grisham’s ‘The Client.’

If you’ve enjoyed any of these authors before, the odds you will enjoy the next one you pick up are very good indeed. When I saw them I grabbed them and that’s saying something.


Virtually every film or book released into the wild is a commercial venture. It’s designed to make money, and the fact that ninety percent fail to make money changes nothing. That’s where the love of the genre, or even just the game, comes in. But very few of us are prepared to pour our heart and our soul, our limited time and capital into a project without any hope at all of recompense.

Yet we are judged as artists by our success or failure in the commercial sense.

There are times when it is best to ignore such considerations and just to go ahead and make the book or film we want, and now it’s out there and can never be taken back.

Books like ‘Heaven Is Too Far Away,’ a fictional WW I memoir by Louis Bertrand Shalako, which can be found here.


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