Friday, June 28, 2013

DAY SEVEN by Jack M. Bickham

TOR Hardcover Edition, 1988
Jack M. Bickham wrote several suspense novels for TOR, and its imprint Forge, over a ten year period between the mid- 1980s and 1990s.  The most commercially successful were his six novels featuring aging tennis player and part time spy Brad Smith.  While the Smith novels were the most popular, the other novels Mr Bickham wrote for TOR were also fine examples of the thriller, and very much worth seeking out.

The 1988 novel Day Seven is one of the better non Brad Smith novels published by TOR.  It seamlessly joins science fiction, suspense, and mystery into an entertaining yarn.  The year is 1994, and the United States and Soviet Union are in a race to Mars.  The goal is to reach Mars and find the source of a radio signal broadcasting from its surface.  The storyline is large, and it could have taken countless directions, but Mr Bickham chose to play small ball with it.  Instead of creating high level political and diplomatic hijinks he keeps the action close to the field, which allows the story to generate a much more personal and believable tension.
The majority of the action is in Houston, Texas, with several scenes set in space, and even a few in Dallas.  The protagonist is a successful psychologist who discovers the U. S. mission has been sabotaged, and the story plays out as a clock race, first attempting to convince NASA something is wrong and then doing the hard work of solving the case himself.  It is as much a mystery as anything, but the plot is very much dependent on the technological aspect of the space mission.
Day Seven is a template for plotting.  It is plotted and structured precisely as Mr Bickham teaches in his writing book Scene and Structure.  The action builds perfectly from one scene to the next; every action has a reaction, and the pacing of the story builds slowly and steadily.  It doesn’t scream out of the blocks with nowhere to go but back to the bookshelf.  It pulls the reader along from one scene to the next, the protagonist’s situation getting worse with each page until it seems everything is lost, which is exactly how a suspense novel should be. 

The characters’ motivations are perfectly revealed.  There is never a doubt why a character does one thing rather than another, and it is not just the main players whose motivations are explored.  An example is a character stealing computer code from NASA.  His role is not large (although it is essential to the climax), but his motivations are explained well, and fit Donald Cressey’s fraud triangle perfectly: pressure, opportunity, and rationalization:
“‘You don’t understand!  I had no choice!  Nothing I’ve copied is of any significance!  My wife—my financial situation—you don’t understand the pressure I’ve been under—please!’”

Day Seven is exactly what a suspense novel should be—exciting, tense, and interesting enough to keep the reader turning the pages. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

HIGH STAND by Hammond Innes

Fontana Paperback Edition
In my misspent youth—misspent because I could have read so much more—I enjoyed the British thriller writers of the 1960s and 1970s; specifically Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall, Jack Higgins, and Hammond Innes.  I still regularly read all of these authors with the exception of Innes, whose work has slipped into obscurity (at least regarding my reading list).  As for Innes, until a few weeks ago I didn’t have a single title on my bookshelves, which I remedied when I came across an old Detective Book Club edition of his 1985 novel High Stand.     

High Stand is a little different than Innes’s other work.  Not so much in theme, but in its execution.  It still has the regular guy in over his head protagonist, and it is very much a straight adventure novel, but it builds more slowly and deliberately than his earlier work.  At least as I remember Innes’s earlier novels.

Philip Redfern is a British solicitor specializing in wills and trusts.  A recent client—an old money playboy named Tom Halliday—disappears, and a visit from Mr Halliday’s much younger wife Miriam involves Redfern indirectly at first, and then as the novel develops, directly in the disappearance.  The action is primarily in British Columbia where Halliday owns a successful gold mine discovered by his grandfather, and a large tract of timber called High Stand.  Redfern follows Miriam to Canada where he, acting as Halliday’s solicitor, stumbles around trying to find the missing playboy, but mostly finds trouble instead.

High Stand is a pedestrian adventure novel.  It builds slowly without being boring, and includes a fair amount of financial talk and environmentalist narrative.  It also, as is expected from Mr Innes, includes some top notch action scenes.  The plot, at times, feels contrived.  As an example, the deed to the timberland includes a curse for any who dare cut a single tree.  It is a strange (and semi unbelievable) device, but a device used to account for much of the irrational behavior of the characters, and also acts as propellant to the story’s overall momentum. 
Once the action begins it feels like an old school Hammond Innes novel, and the prose has an easy fluidity without any artificial drama (i. e. Mr Innes doesn’t use prose gimmicks or tricks (which I usually like) to cause reader unease).  The prose is relaxed and smooth no matter the situation; whether describing violence, action, or the usefulness of trees to Earth’s ecosystem:

“He slapped me then.  Twice, with his open palm, each side of my face, so hard he almost knocked me off my feet.” 
High Stand is an easy novel to like.  Its easy going and somewhat loose plot is complimented well by Innes’s unemotional prose, and the characters are interesting (if not believable) in a simple and straightforward manner.  It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a solidly entertaining story, with just enough of the good stuff—adventure, action, exotic locations, mystery and uncertainty—to let the reader gladly forgive its shortcomings.