Monday, April 20, 2009

Unheroic Heroes


I’ve been pondering the dynamics of heroes ever since I finished reading a recent mystery/thriller. The book had a lot going for it—after all, I finished it, and as most of you know by now, I have a tendency to put books down and never pick them up again. Not only did I finish this one, I even sat up into the wee hours of the night reading it, something I almost never do. But I’m not going to tell you the title because I have some unkind things to say about this book.

While not exactly lyrical, the writing was good. The book is set in winter in the Rockies, and the author does a wonderful job of hitting on all the subtle, telling details of the mountains in a way that took me right back to my youth in northern Idaho—I could feel the nip of the sub-zero temperatures, hear the squeaking crunch of the snow, smell the sweet scent of the pines. The plot had a few issues, but the author set up the story in a way that I could see the horrific, inescapable train wreck at the climax building from early in the book—which is undoubtedly why I ended up missing a few hours of sleep. I just couldn’t look away.

So what was wrong with this book? The characters. It’s not that they were clichéd or cardboard or unbelievable, because they weren’t especially so. They were just…unlikable. And (except, obviously, for the hero) they were meant to be. Apart from the protagonist’s wife and daughters, all the women were either crazy, power-mad bitches, or shallowly obsessed with their looks, or dumb sluts—or all three. The men—with one exception—were surly assholes. Now, I’m all for conflict on every page, and it’s hard to get conflict if all your characters are saints. But when everyone in your book is portrayed as unpleasant, and we’re looking at these people through the eyes of your protagonist, it starts to feel like maybe the protagonist is one of those guys who just doesn’t like anyone and who especially has issues with females. And that diminishes him.

I also had problems with the protagonist’s behavior. At one point, the law officers arrest a man they think is the killer. The suspect (the one male character who is not a decidedly unpleasant individual) has surrendered peacefully, yet one of the deputies hauls off and smashes the butt of his rifle into the man’s face hard enough to break teeth. A great place for our protagonist to step forward and act, well, heroic, right? But what does our protagonist do? Nothing. So the deputy smashes the poor suspect in the face again. What does our protagonist do? Nothing. He doesn’t try to stop him. He doesn’t protest. And, afterwards, he doesn’t report the incident. In other words, he behaves in a very unheroic manner.

Of course, in real life, most guys wouldn’t do anything. I know that. But I don’t want to read about the kind of guys who go along to get along, the kind of guys who would torture kids in some CIA black prison because they were “ordered” to. I want the protagonist of a mystery/thriller to be heroic. And this writer didn’t deliver. He didn’t even have the protagonist agonize over his failure to do something to avert/stop/compensate for this injustice; that would have worked, since he could then have grown during the course of the book and acted like a hero at the end. But it didn’t happen. After this disgusting display of police brutality, our protag simply goes on with his life and forgets about it. Eeeww.

In the end, our protagonist does risk his life to stop the train wreck we’ve seen coming. By that point, his stepdaughter’s life is also at risk, which does a great job of “upping the stakes” since we now have a pretty, blonde-headed (of course she’s blonde), emotionally vulnerable little kid in danger of being swallowed up by the train wreck. Yet I’m left with the impression that if she hadn’t been his stepdaughter, he wouldn’t have risked even his job, let alone his life, to avert what he knew was a horrific abuse of government power.

Now, the writer of this book may be a great guy. He may not have issues with women. But I doubt it. This is the second of his books I’ve read, and my reaction to the first—which I read a couple of years ago—was very similar. So I don’t think I’ll be reading him again—I don’t like being left with a bad taste in my mouth. Which is a shame, because there are some things he does very well.

Oh, and he killed a cute, pathetic little dog and the kid—both unnecessarily. When “they” tell writers that’s not a good idea, they’re right.


Steve Malley said...

Hmm, your post gave me an idea-- a story in which two 'saints' end up on opposite sides of a conflict. Trick'd be trying to show that both are good people, but that one *must* destroy the other...

Mike said...

So what was the title of the book? Come on, out with it! It must have had some redeeming value if it kept you up all night!

cs harris said...

Steve, I think those are some of the best plots. Think Officer and a Gentleman, where the drill sergeant is bent on keeping Zack from becoming an officer (because he--rightly, at the beginning--thinks Zack is too self-absorbed to be officer material), vs. Zack, who is determined to become an officer.

Mike, I'll spill the beans if you want to email me at I try never to criticize other authors in a public forum. You never know when it'll come back to bite you on the ass.

laughingwolf said...

i have to know too, candy... so i can avoid him!

cs harris said...

laughingwolf, if you want to email me, too, I will let you know the name of the book. But I can be hypercritical so you might not find the characters unpardonably offensive. After all, I still managed to enjoy it enough that I did finish it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I know, I know! I heard it first hand at the writing group.

*looks all smug*