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.