01 June 2010

Mature Mystery Writers: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Bird Loomis wrote from Lawrence, Kansas about the delightful results of forgetting to take a book he'd begun on a quick trip to DC.

By happenstance, over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading simultaneously two separate mysteries, by two of my favorite authors. I started Lee Child's Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow, but neglected to take it on a quick trip to D.C. Coming home, I browsed Hudson News for a good choice, and happened upon Thomas Perry's Silence, which I snarfed up and began to read on the trip home.

So there I was, smack in the middle of two page-turners (trust me). Now I often have two or three books going at any given time, but I can't think of a time that I had a pair of compelling mysteries. In the end, for no good reason, I finished Silence, then returned to Gone Tomorrow and zipped through it to its predictably violent conclusion. Social scientist that I am, I had the makings of a study: two books, each quite good, and yet very different. So how were they different in what they delivered?

The metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, made modern in a 1953 essay on Tolstoy by Isaiah Berlin, divides people into two sorts: the hedgehog, who knows one very big thing, and the fox, who knows many things. In politics, FDR was the classic fox, while George W. Bush looks like a major hedgehog to me. Reading Silence and Gone Tomorrow at the same time made me consider what makes writers - and especially mystery authors - so interesting that we come back to them, time and again.

Most obviously, Lee Child, through Jack Reacher, is a classic hedgehog. Child had created a protagonist who strains our sense of disbelief, with his stripped-down style of life, and unworldly skills. Time after time, Child places Reacher in a setting (often a small town, but New York City for Gone Tomorrow), creates a challenge that the stubborn ex-major cannot ignore, and allows us to observe him solve the puzzle with an admirable mix of brain and brawn. Jack Reacher, more than most series heroes, is an impossible character, and I, for one, continue to be drawn to him, as he works through a maze of difficulties, often coming to terms with a powerful background figure (the terrorist Lila Hoth in Tomorrow's Child). Child has written 17 Reacher novels, and they usually work well. It's a testimony to his writing and to the character he's created that his books have grown in popularity over time. Still, he's a one-trick pony with a great trick.

Thomas Perry, to mix my metaphors, is a different kettle of fish. Although he has created a popular series and protagonist (Jane Whitefield), he usually writes one-off thrillers. Perry is not the blockbuster author that Child has become, but he has had great critical success from the get go. His first two books, The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog won substantial acclaim. I happened on them, and have been a great fan, ever since, although I've missed a book here and there, in part because each new novel does not become an event (I was lucky to find Silence at the airport). Still, I always look forward to a Perry book, because I know I'm likely to be surprised, by characters, plot, motivations, and even locale. Perry writes hedgehog novels, where plot and personality intersect to take the reader on unsuspected journeys.

In Silence, we get Jack Till, a jaded ex-cop, but with a twist. He has a Down syndrome daughter, now grown, to whom he's devoted. He's not a drunk or a fool, but he's damaged goods, something of a first cousin to Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's complicated cop. Till turns out to be reasonably interesting and pretty damned competent, which is a good thing, in that he has to match wits with Paul and Sylvie Turner, a married team of hit artists, whose job it is to kill someone Till is protecting. The growing tensions between the highly intelligent, highly lethal Turners (which escalate up to the novel's final page) and between them and their employer combine to keep the reader thoroughly entertained. And that's without them directly dealing with Jack Till. Perry takes us on a great trip, actually a series of actual travels across California and Nevada. He also creates a terrific bad guy, the ultimate employer of the deadly Turners.

Lee Child places us on Jack Reacher's side - indeed, we often feel as if we are at his side - while he embarks upon his quest. Thomas Perry allows us to get close to Jack Gill and the Turners, and strangely, we're rooting for all of them, another fox-like move. Both Child and Perry provide real entertainment, yet it may be that neither is pure fox or pure hedgehog. For example, in the next Reacher book, it 's reported that he has a burgeoning relationship with a woman who aggressively questions his bizarre life style of traveling with nothing but a toothbrush. Maybe we'll get a little exploration of Reacher's psyche; in fact, the best Reacher novels do move in this direction.

On the other hand, Thomas Perry has created some memorable characters in Silence. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Turners return, or Jack Gill begin to work on a renewed relationship with the woman he has successfully protected. As he's demonstrated with Jane Whitefield previously, maybe this fox has more than a bit of hedgehog in his literary genes. I hope so. Paul and Sylvie Turner, dangerous to others and to each other, deserve another go-round.

Lee Child's web site

Kenneth Turan's review of Gone Tomorrow in the Los Angeles Times

Perry's publisher's web site

Eleanor Bukowsky's review of Silence at Mostly Fiction

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