Airport books for those flying home for the holidays
By Ian Mitchell
Every time I start a John Grisham book these days, I wonder if I have read it before. I often think I recognise this character or that shouted argument, only to come upon an episode that I definitely do not remember. Alternatively, I am reading happily and suddenly realise that I know how this story is going to end. I remember exactly how the harassed, underpaid but righteous lawyer socks it to the ugly corporate monster which has been “screwing the little people” for years. I once got to page 125 before realising that I had read a particular book before. That was my record. Does that make it bad, because it is so unmemorable, or good because it has the quality of re-readability?
John Grisham is, by quite a few measures, the most successful American suspense writer of recent times. Keeping you waiting is his main skill—that and a sort of wry wit which is to me his most attractive feature. The downside is well known: the cardboard characters, the cut-and-paste financial battles, and the predictable corporate awfulness. Yet he has sold 300 million copies of his books, which is almost 15% of Agatha Christie’s lifetime total.
I say every time I start a Grisham book “these days”, because there was a time when they were not so predictable. Many of Grisham’s earlier stories were very skilfully told. His second book, The Firm, must be one of the best studies of lawyerly awfulness ever written. The problem with Grisham is not that he is a bad writer, it is simply that he has either run out of ideas or got lazy and started repeating his formula.
Ian Fleming did the same, but few people would ever wonder half-way through Thunderball, or You Only Live Twice, if they had read that one before or not. They were, respectively, Fleming’s 9th and 12th novels. Grisham’s equivalents were The Street Lawyer and The Summons. I have read both, but could not say for sure what either was actually about, though I enjoyed them at the time. And I’ll probably enjoy them again some other time. Is this the future for fiction: books that leave so little trace in the mind that they can be reread every couple of years or so?
Grisham’s British equivalent is Jeffrey Archer, though his total sales are around half of the American’s. Both men write primarily for money, and both revel in what an unfavourable critic might call the pornography of cash. The surface appeal of great wealth is often used to grab the reader’s attention. It might be relevant that both have been politicians, though only Archer ended up in both the House of Lords and jail.
Both men take an interest in sport and are physically active, though I suspect that Archer, though fifteen years older, could still run faster than Grisham, especially if he had someone else’s money in his pocket. There are two notable differences between them. First, Archer is the only one who publishes a blog detailing for a hungry world what he does every day. Secondly, in real life, Grisham is a straight-forward person, while Archer is a paradoxical figure: a more superficially colourful character who, at a profounder level, is a bumptious, egocentric bore.
Both authors specialise in plastic characters and fantastic situations. And why not? I have enjoyed many such books, though the master of the plastic-fantastic genre will, I suspect, always be Ian Fleming. What they both all do is to create suspense. It was Wilkie Collins, the inventor of the page-turner in the late nineteenth century with The Woman in White, who established the formula: ‘Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait,’ he said.
Grisham’s latest offering (apart from a book of short stories) is The Associate, where we have yet another brilliant lawyer, who is dragged into the shadow of criminality by the huge firm he works for with all the attendant moral, practical and financial issues that we have come to expect since The Firm was published twenty years ago.
Jeffrey Archer’s latest production is a re-write for the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of his most successful book, Kane and Abel. His most recent new title was published earlier this year and called Paths of Glory. Like several of his previous novels this is a fictionalised account of real events, in this case the ascent of Everest by the British mountaineers, Mallory and Irvine, in 1924. Grisham tells his stories more than once, while Archer solves the same problem of lack of inventiveness by telling other people’s stories.
Both the Grisham and the Archer books will, in modern jargon, do what they say on the tin. But it is surely a matter for concern to the wider reading public that the best selling authors from America and Britain were first published more than twenty and thirty years ago respectively. Where are the new Grishams and Archers? Let us hope that the problem is not a general lack of authorial inventiveness but simply that the publishers have learned the writers’ trick: Make ’em wait.