Tag Archives: Nelson DeMille

The Gate House, Nelson DeMille

<em class="BookTitle">The Gate House</em>, Nelson DeMille

Grand Central, 2008, 677 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-53342-3

Even twenty years after publication, Nelson DeMille’s The Gold Coast remains an oddity in the author’s bibliography: It’s not a thriller as much as it’s a romantic drama, a social study and a mournful look at the end of an era.  Set among the Long Island upper-crust, it tells of a tragic love triangle between a narrator, his wife and a Mafia don having purchased a property in the very exclusive old-money “Gold Coast” community.  It doesn’t end well, and by the end of the novel our narrator left Long Island for an unspecified duration, taking a sailboat trip around the world while the old way of life on the Gold Coast continues to disappear.

As The Gate House begins, ten years later, John Sutter is back on Long Island to take care of business: After sailing for years and establishing himself in London, Sutter is compelled to head to the scene of The Gold Coast when his old housekeeper is hospitalized for her last few days.  Trying to take care of the estate, he discovers that his ex-wife is back in the area as well, and he is soon contacted by the son of his deceased nemesis for “business”.  Before long, Sutter is once again navigating the dangerous shoals between love, in-laws, mafia lords, yachting clubs, Iranian expatriates and everything else that can fit on Long Island.

Readers used to the typical DeMille protagonist will feel instantly comfortable with Sutter’s smart-alec narration.  Sutter, having married into money, had always been described in the previous book, as being in the Long Island aristocracy and yet not part of it.  After ten years away, his detachment is even more pronounced in the sequel.  His comments on everyone are acerbic and often very funny –no one deals with in-laws as acidly as a DeMille protagonist.  His narration gives some narrative energy to a very long book in which not much actually happens.

If there’s one thing to keep in mind about The Gate House, it’s that it’s not driven by plot.  Leisurely-paced, it spends pages ruminating on the events of the previous novel (so much so that even readers who haven’t read it will be thoroughly spoiled within a few chapters), and then lets plot points accumulate every fifty pages or so.  Even Sutter’s easygoing and witty narration can’t mask the slow pacing or the thinness of the story.  Much of the point in describing the evolution of Long Island feels like a rethread as well –if The Cold Coast was about the end of eras as nouveaux riches were invading the hunting grounds of the old aristocracy while the mafia was losing its influence, then The Gate House is an epilogue in which the invasion is complete, estates having being replaced by McMansions, and the mob being unable to provide leaders as capable as the previous ones.  The Gate House is also significantly lower in thrills, not only compared to the rest of DeMille’s work, but also compared to The Gold Coast itself –while the original was already more focused on relationships than on action sequences, the sequel is even more sedate, physical danger being late in threatening Sutter and sharply resolved when it happens.

For readers worried about DeMille’s career after a few duds in a row and an unhealthy obsession with 9/11 (the two being related), The Gate House offers a cautiously optimistic indication: DeMille is still obsessed with 9/11, as the events of the novel take place in 2002 and semi-faithfully recall the paranoia of the time.  Fortunately, The Gate House isn’t as  thoroughly insane as either Night Fall or Wild Fire… even if some character decisions seem dubious at best, or plot-driven at worst.  The Gate House is, at least, pleasant to read throughout, even entertaining to a degree that DeMille hadn’t been able to sustain since Up Country.  While the result won’t be enough to make any sceptic claim that DeMille is back, it’s better enough to make us believe that he’s taken a step away from the edge.

Since “too long” has been a feature of DeMille’s novels for a while, and since DeMille has dabbled with romance in a few books (in Spencerville, for instance), it’s not as if fans will be caught unprepared by The Gate House’s mixture of slow pacing, courtship and sarcastic narration.  But compared with the rest of DeMille’s pre-2001 bibliography, The Gate House isn’t much of a success.  It’s an average entry in the author’s bibliography –entertaining, even amusing, but far from reaching any kind of high point in either thrills or drama.  It will make fans happy… but it’s unlikely to draw in newer readers, or restore faith that he’s regained his touch.

The Talbot Odyssey, Nelson DeMille

<em class="BookTitle">The Talbot Odyssey</em>, Nelson DeMille

Grand Central, 1984 (2006 mass-market re-issue), 543 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-35858-3

A generation after the end of the Cold War, the past already feels like an alternate universe: With the advantage of hindsight, we now understand how weak the Communist forces were, even at the height of the great transatlantic eyeball-staring contest.  It’s strange, after seeing the way Russia imploded after the end of the USSR, to read about all-powerful Soviet forces and the valiant attempts by US secret forces to keep them in their places.

Nonetheless, that’s what we get with The Talbot Odyssey, a deeply paranoid throwback to the Cold War that survives even today in bookstores because it was an early novel by someone whose reputation continues to sell books.  At the exception of his brand-new The Gate House, this novel marks the end of my effort to read the entire main-line DeMille back-catalogue.  I’m not sure I would have bothered otherwise: Reading about the binary certitudes of the Cold War may be a comfort for those who think today’s world is shaded in too much gray, but it seems increasingly irrelevant.

Still, the Cold War isn’t too much of a bad time to get back to.  After all, the stakes were high and simple: the survival of western civilization against an enemy seemingly determined to enslave America –and presumably provide free single-payer health-care whether Americans wanted it or not.  1984 was one of the last good years of the Cold War: Gorbachev would ascend in 1985, and after 1986’s Chernobyl, the myth of Soviet technological superiority would ring increasingly hollow.  It’s also noteworthy that the closest we ever came to nuclear war was not in 1962, but 1983: Read up on Stanislav Petrov and Able Archer 83 to learn more.

So it’s no surprise if The Talbot Odyssey ends up being a muscular tale of espionage set in mid-eighties New York and Long Island, filled with brutal Soviet operatives, able American heroes, quite a few traitors, and a drawn-out ticking-bomb climax.  It involves the weight of decades of clandestine operations reaching out to the 1940s, tangled family loyalties, multiple identities, high-technology threats and a little bit of romance.  The backbone of the tale is about the unmasking of a deep mole in the US intelligence community and the hero is a policeman whose traits echo most of DeMille’s latter protagonists, but the only thing you really need to know is that it’s a superb late-period Cold War thriller, one that fully uses most of the plot mechanics of the genre and seldom hesitates to liquidate its own characters.  One of the book’s standout sequences is a drawn-out torture scene in which a fairly sympathetic character comes face-to-face with a double-agent: it’s a terrifying sequence, and it ends on a spectacular note.

The cast of characters is large and not always clearly distinguishable and the book’s opening third meanders quite a bit in an effort to establish everyone’s complex lineage and relationships.  No surprise, then, if The Talbot Odyssey feels like a meaty saga rather than light entertainment: This is one book that’s perfect for long flight or other uninterrupted reading moments.  It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to say that it’s a great book for its time, but there’s really no other way to explain that a novel like this couldn’t be written today: The overdone ruthlessness of the Soviets would be a tough sell now, and we know from our own history that the threat that weighs on every characters’ shoulders has not come to pass.  Quite a bit of the novel plays upon genre espionage conventions, and so we get almost every trick in the thriller source-book except for hidden twins –perfect for a mid-eighties marketplace in which nearly every single suspense novel dealt with Communist spies, but not so much today when a “historical” novel would have to stick closer to accepted facts.

Nonetheless, it’s a heck of a read and another good entry in the DeMille oeuvre.  By now, it has acquired a comfortable patina of quasi-alternate reality, and can be enjoyed not as a possible story, but as a fine example of once-possible genre fiction.  It almost makes one nostalgic for that kind of fiction, when America-the-virtuous was a credible proposition, and there were implacable enemies up to Western Civilization’s standards.

Wild Fire, Nelson DeMille

<em class="BookTitle">Wild Fire</em>, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2006, 519 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-57967-4

I used to believe that Nelson DeMille couldn’t do wrong, that even when he padded a wildly implausible story with hundreds of useless pages, there was always something to rescue the wreckage and send it soaring about the norm. Night Flight was the novel that disabused me of the notion, and now Wild Fire is the one that confirms that DeMille is a fallible writer after all.

What’s dispiriting is that Wild Fire repeats a good chunk of Night Flight‘s mistakes, and indulges in a few more along the way. It’s almost as if DeMille was at a point where he didn’t have to care anymore. As a thriller, it’s botched from the get-go; as a sequel, it’s well within diminishing-returns territory; as a reflection of the zeitgeist, it’s ridiculously paranoid.

But let’s start with the essentials: Wild Fire is John Corey’s fourth adventure, after Plum Island, The Lion’s Game and Night Flight. Like its predecessor, it’s voluntarily set in the recent past, taking place in September 2002, which is to say a year after the events of Night Flight and sometimes between 9/11 and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The historical setting is part of the conceptual problems that plague Wild Fire like they plagued Night Fall. We know how, in large strokes, the story is going to end. Given how DeMille spends his first 120 pages explaining a plan to nuke two American cities, this becomes a bigger problem than in Night Fall. We knew that Night Fall was going to run into 9/11. This time, we know it’s not going to run into a nuclear apocalypse. This transforms the novel from a suspense thriller to a procedural one, as Corey uses his skills to discover and defuse the conspiracy.

That’s not necessarily a fatal problem: DeMille has certainly managed to produce strong novels from weaker premises. But the alpha-male charm of DeMille’s usual heroes, often the single best things about his stories, here seems to run on empty. Corey’s narration often plays up his loutish humor at the expense of his real skills as an investigator, but Wild Fire overindulges in the regard and Corey seems more like a caricature than ever before, a smart guy playing a shtick to the benefit of the peanut gallery.

It doesn’t help that DeMille seems bored with the proceedings, throwing bones to his audience more out of expectations than organic plotting. When a much-hated recurring characters makes a brief appearance before being taken out again, it feels like a wink and a shrug rather than the culmination of a long enmity. The macho banter between Corey and just about every other character (flirtatious with the women, aggressive with the men) feels tired and ready to be taken out.

Maybe it’s a sign that both Corey and DeMille still feel shell-shocked by 9/11. Corey can’t shut up about it, while DeMille indulges into paranoid plotting in which the American conspirators plan the deaths of millions of Americans with a sense of dutiful glee. The title of the novel itself refers to a doctrine (secret to us, but apparently known to all terrorist sponsors) in which terrorist nuclear attacks on American cities will result in the retaliatory glassification of most of the Islamic world. In some ways, Wild Fire accurately reflects the Bush-era paranoia of an American population feeling stuck between bloodthirsty terrorist and an uncaring government. But in others, the idea of a government-led conspiracy to kill Americans is fast becoming a cliché as thriller writers try to re-fight the last 9/11: Wild Fire may have been one of the first novel to touch upon that notion, but since then there have been quite a few more, including Steve Alten’s even more paranoid The Shell Game. It’s time to move on.

And by “move on”, that includes the notion that DeMille may be better off writing original novels again. For an author who, from 1978 to 1997 wrote ten independent novel, DeMille has turned to the dark side and produced a string of five sequels, up to and including 2008’s The Gate House. Enough is enough; just kill Corey once and for all (yes; I’m at the point when I’m actually cheering for his demise) and go do something else. Because the current 9/11-obsessed, sequel-writing, formula-set DeMille is a shadow of his former self, and it’s exactly the kind of slide into self-absorbed irrelevance that has doomed a number of his thriller-writing contemporaries. He has pulled some improbable writing challenges before, but the biggest one is going to be to save his own career from implosion.

Night Fall, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2004, 692 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61662-1

Looking over my notes about Nelson DeMille’s fiction, I keep seeing a common theme: DeMille is not just a reliable thriller writer, but he often manages to find success where other lesser writers would flounder. His books are regularly longer than they ought to be, deal with themes that shouldn’t be interesting, use the same repertory of characters from one work to another –and yet DeMille is one of the surest values in the thriller market, churning out hit after hit.

With Night Fall, he comes perilously close to failing –although I haven’t yet made up my mind about it, and I don’t expect to for a long while yet.

The first and most important difference between Night Fall and the rest of DeMille’s oeuvre is that he sets it against a very specific time period: The action begins on July 17, 2001, five years after the TWA Flight 800 explosion. Returning protagonist John Corey (Plum Island, The Lion’s Game) heads out to a memorial celebration in company of his wife, but she’s got a complete show-and-tell in mind. By the end of the day, Corey has determined that there’s something rotten about the way the TWA investigation was wrapped up, and decides to investigate further. Warnings from superiors quickly come and are discarded at some peril.

The first question that readers should ask is why DeMille would want to pick Corey as a protagonist and very specifically why we would want to set a novel in 2001. The answer, of course, is obvious… and so the book takes on a very special quality of impending doom, a quality that becomes more and more obvious as the characters make plans that bring them to That Place on That Day.

As suggested above, Night Fall isn’t an unqualified success. On one level, it certainly places the novel on a different register. DeMille knows that by his specific story choices, he can bring the reader to do most of the emotional heavy lifting of the novel. We know what’s coming and the character doesn’t (though the author certainly does, as demonstrated by the number of references that are obvious now but weren’t then.) and that is the very definition of suspense and dramatic irony. The novel rushes along to its inevitable conclusion even as the reader hope against all other evidence that something will happen to prevent the inevitable.

But the very same factors that given strength to Night Fall also contribute to the impression that DeMille is blindly cheating his readers. Think back to the reasons why DeMille, after nearly a dozen novels loosely tied to contemporary times in general, would specifically tie himself to a specific time period. Why show a protagonist uncovering a conspiracy three years before the publication date of the book, if we know perfectly well (reading the morning newspaper) that the conspiracy is not going to be exposed in time for 2004? As the novel started building steam toward an ending and the days were counting down to That Day, I found myself contemplating the upcoming crash and muttering darkly that DeMille really shouldn’t go there nor do that.

But he does, and arguably negates the preceding investigation, burning up 600 pages in smoke because Something Else happens that, of course, Changes Everything. Did he lock himself in a box and only thought of burning up the box because nothing else worked? I can’t say. I can only testify that Night Fall left me unsatisfied, which is probably a first in the entire DeMille oeuvre. Worse yet is the feeling that this is completely deliberate: DeMille knew what he was doing, and it falls to the reader to decide whether it worked or not.

If I’ve spent so much time discussing the ending, it’s because everything else is up to DeMille’s standards: The crystal-clear prose, the engaging characters, the sardonic narration, the beautiful integration of exposition… it’s all there, slickly developed. There are a missteps or two, like the unlikely reappearance of a character for pure pummelling purposes, but the rest is DeMille solid gold.

It’s just the ending that stick out like an undigested bone, and it’s not inconsequential because it hangs over the book like an albatross. The date tells you to expect it and dramatic theory suggests that it’s going to be pretty tragic. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that DeMille has chosen the easy lazy way out.

In this light, I’m really curious to see if DeMille’s next book, Wild Fire, will acknowledge or even confront some of those issues. It’s said to feature the same characters in (once again) a free-flowing contemporary setting: we’ll see if Night Fall will have any lasting impact on them, or if the big Reset button will be pressed.

The Gold Coast, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1990, 626 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-36085-6

As I slowly make my way through Nelson DeMille’s oeuvre, two things strike me about his books: The first one is that they all succeed to a degree or another. Some of his books are less interesting than other, but they’re still well worth reading even with the skimming and the speed-reading. But the second thing about DeMille is the most fascinating: His books work even when they shouldn’t.

Even though we could point at Word of Honor and Spencerville as other books that shouldn’t be as gripping as they are, The Gold Coast is the clearest example so far of a story that simply shouldn’t be as preposterously readable. A bare plot description is trite beyond belief: it’s about a rich middle-aged man who starts doubting his life and finds uneasy comfort with a new friend. I shudder to imagine how many awful novels have been written about mid-life crises, especially once you start looking at literary novels written by middle-aged academics. To imagine DeMille, master of the contemporary thriller, tackle such a subject is almost beyond description. Where are the guns? Where are the thrills?

As it turns out, you may not need any of the above –though they do make an appearance at some point. No, the big surprise is that The Gold Coast is a middle-age crisis novel written by a writer who’s a pro at holding his readers’ attention. Protagonist John Sutter is like every other DeMille narrator so far: self-deprecating, smart-alecky, perhaps a bit too smart for his own good. He’s living in a curious situation, having married well above his class: he makes a decent living as a Wall Street lawyer, enjoys his boat and drives nice cars, but his wife is the one with the real class, being the latest in an old-money family living on a Long Island estate that dates back to an earlier and more glorious time. For Sutter, trouble starts once his new neighbour moves in: Frank Belladonna, an old-style Mafia don who starts taking a bigger and bigger portion of Sutter’s life.

Belladonna, of course, is a magnet for danger. When guns finally make their appearance in The Gold Coast, they come courtesy of the Mafia. But that happens relatively late in the book: what really makes up the meat of the novel is DeMille’s description of the last remnants of old-style American aristocracy, compared and contrasted by the similarly dying nobility of the New York Mafia. Sutter see this through the troubled eyes of a besieged man, with a wife that grows more distant and tax troubles that are not coincidental to the tug-of-war between his neighbour and the federal government. Sutter lives at the edge between the world of the super-rich and the rest of us: an outsider to all, he makes a rich narrator who notices everything.

And indeed, the interest of The Gold Coast comes not from the late-book thrills, but in the vivid study of a way of life, of characters living down an era. DeMille’s characterization is impeccable: don’t be surprised if you’re seduced by the rough-hewn charm of Belladonna even as he’s clearly more trouble than Sutter can handle. The Gold Coast is a trial by fire for Sutter, and part of the fun is seeing him harvest the just deserts of his life so far. Scenes after scenes of delicious characterization make this novel a lot more fun to read that you’d expect from a 600-page novel about some rich guy undergoing a mid-life crisis.

And so I remain astonished at DeMille’s capacity to wring interest from an unpromising premise. Unlike some of his novels (The Lion’s Game being the worst offender), he also maintains our interest through the entire duration of the book: It’s hard to look at any 600-pages book and not think that it should be cut by a hundred pages, but trying to guess where to cut in The Gold Coast would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say that it’s a book that will never be too far away once you start reading it. DeMille’s prose here is like popcorn, with a very real “just one more chapter” quality.

In short, The Gold Coast makes an unexpected entry at the top of DeMille’s oeuvre: Well-written, endlessly fascinating and surprisingly engaging, it shows what happens when genre writers turn their sight to more prosaic literature: perfect pacing and sharp characterization in the service of a story for the ages. It shouldn’t work, but it certainly does.

Word of Honor, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1985, 738 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-30158-2

Every book review presents its own special challenge, but taking on Nelson DeMille’s Word of Honor presents challenge of its own. Simply put, this is a book that shouldn’t work. Describing it will send you in a coma and make you wonder how it can possibly be a pleasant reading experience. And yet it is. And yet it works.

For fans of DeMille’s books, this won’t be much of a surprise: While most of his books could be cut by half without much sacrifice, DeMille seldom deliver anything less than excellent novels. Despite the lengths, the indulgences and the sometimes tepid pacing, DeMille means entertainment. Word of Honor may be a bit less interesting than his other books, but it’s still crackerjack good stuff.

Writers are often advised to “start the story at the beginning, but no earlier” and the first page of Word of Honor is a textbook example of that axiom as Manhattan middle-manager Ben Tyson sees a fellow commuter reading a nonfiction book about Vietnam. Upon verification, Tyson is in the book, highlighted as a commanding officer who allowed a wartime atrocity.

And so it begins. The book outrages a segment of the American population and forces the US military brass to do something: before long, Tyson finds himself recalled to duty and in serious danger of being court-martialed. The obvious question, of course, is just what happened back there and then: what is the truth behind those so-called atrocities? Could there be some more to the story than wholesale massacre?

Of course there is. This is a DeMille novel, after all, and anyone who’s read works such as The General’s Daughter knows that the author can spin quite a yarn from the most ordinary beginnings.

But frankly, Word of Honor is more about soul-searching than plot. DeMille has been to Vietnam and if his latter Up Country remains a classic exploration of the conflict’s lasting legacy, Word of Honor can be seen as the first draft of his feelings about the war. War makes losers of everyone, seems to be saying DeMille, and there are no statue of limitations on atrocities. Ben Tyson may have become a well-adjusted, moderately successful all-American protagonist after Vietnam, but Word of Honor is the story of consequences for what he’s done. The perfunctory plot is just an excuse to think about what happened and continues to happen.

Doesn’t sound too riveting, right? Can you imagine more than seven hundred pages of that stuff? Contrarily to other DeMille novel, there aren’t too many crazy twists in here: The story progresses linearly to its conclusion, with the expected revelation late in the book and the protagonist’s just punishment. Even The Explanation, when it comes, seems underwhelming.

And yet Word of Honor is never boring. DeMille’s natural storytelling abilities are such that every page is a delight, that every character is worth understanding. Tyson may be a bit rough around the edges (the sarcasm so prevalent in DeMille protagonists seems muted here, often taking the form of anger rather than flippancy), but he’s worth caring about throughout his entire odyssey. As a Vietnam novel, it’s tremendously effective.

This 1985 book has aged a lot, but not in the way you may think. In these brave early days of the twenty-first century, it’s impossible to read without making parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. As with Up Country, reading Word of Honor brings along the certitude that the American invasion of Iraq is another national traume in full bloom: We know that there will be further stories of atrocities in the years to come. We know that in some ways, many people have learned nothing from Vietnam. Word of Honor has not aged in twenty years. If anything, it has become even more current.

So don’t let the lack of plot of the book discourage you. Just sink into the novel’s easy narration and enjoy, if that’s truly the appropriate feeling, DeMille’s sure-handed storytelling. It’s an unconventional novel, but one that delivers solid satisfaction. It shouldn’t work, but it does so magnificently.

The Charm School, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1988, 630 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35320-5

As we uncertainly make our way through this fifth year of the current self-proclaimed “war on terrorism”, it’s good to remember that it wasn’t always so. That barely twenty years ago, everyone was looking anxiously at the Soviet Union as the potential source of nuclear Armageddon. Now, of course, we know better: The Soviet bear turned out to be a paper tiger, a third-world country with a nuclear arsenal and not much else.

But as of 1988, paranoia and cold war thrillers were still hot viable commodities. The Charm School, an espionage thriller set deep behind Russian borders, may seem a charming antiquity today —but it must first be viewed through its historical context before being criticized as a relic of another era.

It begins with an American student, as he makes his way through Russia on his own set of wheels. A chance encounter allows him to see something he shouldn’t know about, rolling the plot into motion. Before long, intelligence officers inside the American embassy are alerted to the horrible secret, and plunge neck-deep in a vast conspiracy. DeMille being DeMille (see Up Country), he can’t resist the temptation of using his novel as an excuse to travel and probe the depths of late-Cold War Russia.

The Charm School has both its good and less-good aspects, but one of the highlights of the book -indeed, one that has survived intact through what we now know of the defunct Soviet Union- is to be found in its depiction of the USSR as a joyless place barely subsisting above poverty levels. Through its investigating protagonists, DeMille takes us deep in Russia, from the tourist spots of Moscow (which, I gather, DeMille visited) to the rural countryside. DeMille nails down two important aspects of the experience; first, the sheer backward nature of a place where electricity is still a tenuous privilege; second, the domination of a totalitarian regime where anything can happen to anyone on a whim from the upper hierarchy. Nearly twenty years later, The Charm School is a time capsule dedicated to a defeated enemy: Let’s just hope that things are better over there today.

The not-so-good parts of the novel come when the Vast Conspiracy is exposed, the one that directly threatens America’s very own social fabric. Knowing what we know about the relative strengths of both societies, especially given the problems described by DeMille elsewhere in the novel, it seems unlikely that the Charm School could have had even a minimal impact on America. (Heck, some will say that home-grown Americans are far more likely to behave stupidly on their own than due to a Vast Conspiracy. Indeed, it remains to be seen if a Soviet-penetrated US would end up more like Canada than Russia.)

But it’s a constant strength of DeMille’s writing skill that we’re more than able to overlook this dated piece of hysteria. (If there’s something to overlook, naturally; readers with a good knowledge of Cold War clichés and rumors will just read the back cover blurb, guess the conspiracy, raise their shoulders and read on anyway.) The first half of the book is a quick and impeccable espionage thriller full of trade-craft details and slices of life in an embassy. Protagonist Sam Hollis is a tough-guy that clearly represents the early prototype for such latter-day DeMille heroes as Plum Island‘s John Corey or The General’s Daughter Paul Brenner, minus the polished sarcasm. The relationship he has with Lisa Rhodes is also emblematic of DeMille’s male/female character dynamics, though Up Country keeps coming back to mind thanks to the “travelogue in a totalitarian regime” aspect. (This being said, I keep going back up DeMille’s early bibliography and finding those elements over and over again. Don’t be surprised if an upcoming review ends up saying something about earlier characters being early drafts for Sam Hollis.)

If the novel suffers from a third-quarter slowdown (in which description takes the place of action), DeMille’s terrific prose is delicious enough to keep us reading without pause. Fans of the author already know all about the addictive nature of his plotting: The Charm School is no exception to the rule. It helps that the ending is both suspenseful and mournful, allowing both personal triumph and political hard edges. As a novel, The Charm School has aged relatively well, especially when compared to other similar novels of the era: It counterbalances its wilder moments with enough careful accuracy to make the final result seem worthwhile. Even today, it remains an essential piece of DeMille’s work.

Up Country, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2002, 859 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61191-3

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Vietnam still looms large over the American psyche even after a lifetime (my lifetime, to be exact; I was born in 1975, not even six month after the fall of Saigon) Sixty thousand Americans died or disappeared during that war; the nation hasn’t stopped mourning ever since. In some ways, the United States have been colonized by the enemy. Events thirty years distant dominated even parts of the 2004 American Presidential election. And as the nation slides into another inextricable conflict (oh, you know which one I’m talking about), Vietnam emerges from the depths of history as a lesson everyone forgot about.

It’s hard not to dwell on such subjects while reading Nelson DeMille’s Up Country. Nominally billed as a thriller and a sequel to the rather good General’s Daughter (you’ve probably seen the movie by now), it’s much closer to a confessional, a travelogue and a lengthy meditation on the continuing nature of the Vietnam war. With it, DeMille may have written his worst novel and his best book.

Let’s first state the obvious: This is the return engagement for Paul Brenner, sarcastic (and retired) investigator for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. As the novel begins, Brenner is bored, possibly in difficulty with his girlfriend and stuck with a Danielle Steele novel. But there’s some hope: his ex-boss has a simple mission for him. Just a tiny little thing: Go to Vietnam and investigate a thirty-year-old murder by interrogating a witness who may or may not be alive. Brenner immediately suspects there’s more to the story, but agrees to go anyway. Pages later, he’s on the ground in Saigon (Oops; now “Ho Chi Minh City”) and already getting in arguments with the local authorities.

Fortunately, he’s got some help: An American expatriate named Susan Weber is his local contact, and she quickly seems to warm up to Brenner’s charm. Pretty soon, she sticks around as he travels around the country and re-visits the battlegrounds of the Vietnam war. Up Country takes on its true dimension during this section of the book, as DeMille, himself a Vietnam veteran who briefly returned to Vietnam during the nineties, describes the memories and the scars suddenly revealed by the trip. DeMille and Brenner’s identities may blur during this segment, but one thing is for sure: This is a heartfelt book and even Brenner’s sarcasm takes a holiday as he revisits his own history.

But Up Country has been sold as a thriller and so soon enough it has to evolve into one. As Brenner pushes northward in search of his witness, he gradually loses all the trappings of American civilization. By the end of the novel, he barely squeaks by with the clothes on his back and his trusty passport. Some ominous political scheming emerges throughout the novel and is barely resolved by the time the last words are read. Thriller-wise, Up Country does the job… but there’s no doubt that it’s not the book’s raison d’être. The General’s Daughter is the procedural thriller you expect from DeMille; Up Country is, much like Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis, an excuse to re-visit the sixties by dressing them up like what the author’s fans expect from him. Somehow, I doubt that they’ll be disappointed.

This being said, DeMille fans already know that the man writes too much and his books (especially the latter ones) are far too long for their content. But even as Up Country breaks new records for DeMille at nearly nine hundred pages, it also manages to keep the interest level high during its entire duration. The careful description of modern-day Vietnam, Brenner’s inner conflicts and the thriller framework all contribute to give the depth of a satisfying book. Less-patient readers (or readers without a good understanding of DeMille’s work) may not be so charitable.

Still, the travelogue, the memories and the end payoff are more than enough to sustain interest in this book. Plot-wise, it’s not his best novel. But in some ways, Up Country is the best, the most moving thing he has ever written. It looks at history and the march of nations, making the point that wars are made out of people, and people remain stuck with memories much like countries do. It’s enough to make you ask; as America’s latest unwinnable war drags on in the middle-east, are we going to see, in thirty years, an equivalent novel about a veteran re-visiting Baghdad?

The General’s Daughter, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1992, 464 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-36480-0

I don’t remember much from the 1999 film THE GENERAL’S DAUTHER, and it’s just as well: If my memories are correct, the film adaptation of Nelson DeMille’s 1992 novel is quite different from the novel, presenting a different culprit, extra action scenes, an exploitative rape scene and a suicide that doesn’t happen in the novel. It’s no surprise if my expectations going in this book were low.

But not that low. If you take a look at DeMille’s entire oeuvre (and I’m still working my way though it myself), you will find success after success —and this despite an overall propensity toward books that are two hundred pages too long. From his fantastic 1978 debut (By The Rivers of Babylon, well worth reading even today), he has delivered the goods as a professional writer should. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has also developed a distinctive style depending on witty first-person narration and technical details that are as delicious as they’re cleverly integrated in the flow of the action. The General’s Daughter is no exception, and even represents a minor masterpiece of the genre.

It stars Paul Brenner, a military undercover investigator. As a member of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), it’s his job to catch the no-gooders in the army’s half-million-people pay roster. On a summer night as he’s stationed in Fort Hadley, Georgia, he’s summoned from another case to investigate a fresh murder on the base. But the victim is not just another soldier. Captain Ann Campbell is a top-ranked military officer, a West Point graduate, a recruitment-poster girl and, most importantly, the commanding general’s daughter. Finding her murderer becomes essential, but as the clock ticks against Brenner (until the FBI takes over the investigation), more and more suspects start coming out of the woodwork.

As he’ll soon discover, this murder ends up being a gateway to the discovery of a massive corruption scandal implicating most of the senior cadre at Fort Hadley. No one really want Brenner to get to the end of this affair, because most have an interest in silencing everything. If you have read other novels by DeMille, you know how convoluted his plots can become and this one is even more complex than most. So it’s somewhat heartening to find out that “complex” doesn’t mean “complicated” when there’s such a comfortable storyteller at the helm. Brenner’s narration is impeccable, a mix of cynical humor and false tough-guy impassivity against the horror of murder. The biggest difference between novel and movie may just be the first-person narration, considerably more affecting than just an objective description of events. In the context of DeMille’s body of work, one has to note that The General’s Daughter‘s Brenner acts as a precursor to Plum Island‘s John Coffey, sharing much of the background, quips and sarcastic attitude of the latter character.

The rest of the book is just as good: Great dialogue between Brenner and the other characters. Excellent procedural material, with enough details to keep nerds such as myself interested in the mechanical aspects of an investigation. The writing is skillful, even drawing considerable sympathy from a difficult scene that, in the film, seemed gratuitous and self-indulgent. I was particularly impressed by the way Brenner desperately tries to maintain a still upper lip in the face of terrible revelations; this is not quite a reliable narrator, because he doesn’t want to explore what he thinks. Similar deceptions abound when dealing with his personal life. All good stuff.

There’s also plenty of good material in what DeMille has to say about the tensions between the military frame of mind and the baser demands of civilian life, to say nothing about the type of gross criminal activity that Brenner has to face every day on his job. On the other hand, some may feel that the novel, as a whole, is a touch misogynist. I’m not so sure, but it definitely exploits the tension generated by womens’ increasingly important role in the US armed forces.

All in all, a good and solid book by one of the better thriller writers out there. It’s not very different from DeMille’s other books, and yet it’s original (and well-developed) enough to keep our interest throughout. Superior procedural murder mystery; above-average summer beach reading.

Spencerville, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1994, 639 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60245-0

Ten, maybe fifteen years after the fact, it’s obvious that the end of the Cold War has been a disaster for thriller authors. No longer could they rely on their favourite Soviet villains as convenient plot devices to rile up their audience. Columbian drug lords, Russian mafioso and right-wing militia groups kinda did the trick until everyone re-discovered Islamic fundamentalism, but for a while the American thriller has in serious trouble.

And so it’s not difficult for bestselling thriller writer Nelson DeMille to create a convincing character in Keith Landry, a freshly-retired master spy at loose ends after being taken off the global chessboard as part of the “peace dividend”. Looking for something to do, he travels from Washington to his old hometown of Spencerville (after an absence of twenty-five years) and starts puttering around his parent’s farm while they live the easy life in Florida. But they say you can never go home again, and in Landry’s case that’s truer than usual: For he’s sharing the small town with an old flame and her husband, a man who uses his job as the sheriff to do terrible, terrible things.

The most interesting thing about Spencerville is how much of a romance it is. Yes, it’s coming from an author who specializes in suspense novels. Yes, it’s a cheerfully macho story of good versus evil. Sure, it’s got pages and pages of detail about spycraft, guns and torture. But at its heart, it’s the story of a romantic relationship and all the obstacles in the way of this union. While the book’s protagonist is Keith Landry, you could make the argument that the true hero is Annie Prentis. Add the despicable (boo, hiss) Cliff Baxter to the mix and you’ve got a classic love triangle.

A love triangle that deals in automatic weapons, dirty tricks and dripping violence, mind you: It doesn’t take fifty pages for major characters to start pointing guns toward each other: Even before Keith’s arrival, Cliff is depicted as a wife abuser who may be running out of time. Add to that the rampant police corruption and Spencerville starts looking more and more like a lawless town in a western epic, waiting for a no-name man to take down the rot.

There are many pleasures in Spencerville and not the least of them is seeing a covert operative apply his skill to a town in mid-western America. As Landry finds out, the basics of overthrowing a corrupt police work aren’t terribly different from operating in Eastern Europe. In return, reading about small-town policemen trying to impress a man used to the KGB’s methods is rather amusing.

But the comedy soon turns to drama as the emotional stakes are driven even higher. Romance blooms, and so does the antagonist’s madness. By the time the book is midway through, well, there isn’t much doubt in how the book will end.

Which makes the book’s latter half even more disappointing. At more than 600 pages, Spencerville is far too long for what it has to say. The last hundred pages are especially tedious, as the resolution is obvious and extra obstacles are placed in the way just for the sake of further obstacles. The contrast with DeMille’s fast prose and his tepid pacing becomes increasingly uncomfortable and the book’s impact suffers because of it. But then again, this is neither the first nor the last work from this author to suffer from drawn-out endings. (See his latter Plum Island, etc.)

Overall, though, Spencerville is an unusual and slick thriller, with just enough off-beat elements to make it stand out in its field. Overlong but never less than interesting, it’s a really good choice for DeMille fans and general thriller readers, with some cross-over potential for romance readers. If nothing else, it’s a way of showing that there’s no need to time-travel to 1980s Moscow to find good suspense, even as the genre’s favourite playgrounds have been closed.

The Lion’s Game, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2000, 926 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60826-2

Prior to September 11, 2001, I merely disliked terrorists.

Living in good old peaceful Canada, I’ve never had any direct nor indirect experience with it. It was something that happened elsewhere. Sure, people got killed, and for this reason alone terrorists should be caught and tried… but as far as day-to-day life went, they did their stuff, I did mine, and that was it.

That notion came tumbling down along with the World Trade Center.

Now I simply hate terrorists. Unconditionally.

On July 1 2001, me and me sister, while visiting New York, passed through the North-West Tower ground floor, snapped a picture and left.

Now we can’t go back. The whole area has been destroyed. Terrorists have effectively destroyed part of my history.

The effects ricocheted back to the present. A dear friend of mine was forced, amidst great personal turmoil, to cancel two trips she was looking forward to. And now I find that terrorists have invaded my library.

The Lion’s Game should have been a good read. Indeed, I passed up an opportunity to buy the hardcover edition in August 2001, rationalizing that I’d read it sooner or later, so why not later?

Later, after the WTC collapse, proved to be an atrocious idea.

On the surface, without any outside influences, The Lion’s Game is a promising read. It brings back John Corey, the wisecracking narrator of DeMille’s good Plum Island. This time around, though, Corey has accepted a job with the New York Antiterrorist unit. As the book begins, he’s en route to the airport to pick up a terrorist in transit from Europe. So far… so good?

Alas, any of the novel’s innocuous mentions of the World Trade Center now triggers a reflex. And that’s without counting lines such as “the quality of terrorists we get in this country is generally low… and the stupid things they’ve done is legendary… But then again, remember the World Trade Center. Not to mention the two embassy bombings in Africa.” [p.47] Later, there’s the disturbing scene on page 219-220, where our narrator stares at the WTC, reflects on the near-miss of 1993, possible worst-case scenario and the efficiency of American anti-terrorist units. Ow.

But the worst realitymod in The Lion’s Game is the nature of the terrorist himself. The titular “Lion” acts too much like… a honorable villain. He kills specific targets to fulfill a personal objective; he doesn’t blindly strike at whoever he can kill. He is up-close and personal with his victims. He goads our narrator. He in no way acts like the monsters of September 11. He’s clearly a fictional construct.

The resulting chase, which wouldn’t have been very good even when read “cold”, now seems more trivial than DeMille intended when writing the book. A few dead people here and there. Oh well.

There’s plenty to say about the book in itself. How the narrator is the main attraction, and the chapters starring “The Lion” are merely filler. How the book is much too long. How the ending, as original as it is -in the sense that you probably haven’t seen anything like it before-, wraps the book in a messy fashion that satisfies no one. How Corey once again gets to sleep with a different woman. How little there is in these 900+ pages.

But no; now, the main problem of the book is its attitude, its approach, its lackadaisical attitude toward terrorism. Scenes that now couldn’t exist. Lines that were funny, now turned sinister.

The terrorists that killed 6000+ persons on September 11, 2001 and destroyed the World Trade Center have also invaded our libraries and video stores, turning run-of-the-mill thrillers in distasteful disappointments. They’re messing with the 1976 remake of KING KONG. They are retroactively planting bad memories in our minds. They are souring the thrills out of thrillers. They don’t even need to kill another person to do so; the damage is self-sustaining, rotting away our leisure time.

That’s why there’s no escape, no surrender and no mercy possible for terrorists. And that’s why I hate their guts. No one messes with my library.

Plum Island, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1997, 574 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60540-9

Hey, guess what, constant reader? It’s summer. Uncovered sun, oppressive humidity, TV reruns… Like most winter-hardened Canadians, I suddenly feel the need to stop all activities, sit in the shade and work really hard at doing absolutely nothing. As there is a definite limit to the number of hours you can cat-nap -believe it or not- it’s always a good idea to keep a good seat-of-your-pants thriller to fill in the rest of the day.

Chances are that you won’t be able to find much better than Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island in the summer-reading category. A big fat thriller mixing tension with smart-ass narration, this is one book that will keep you interested through it all without necessarily requiring excessive amounts of concentration. Just perfect for your summer-addled mind.

Plum Island isn’t as much about a story as it’s about a character, our wisecracking narrator John Corey. Appropriately enough for a summer read, our novel begins with its hero in semi-vacation, actually on disability leave after a serious three-bullet incident in New York City. Temporarily relocated on the eastern edge of Long Island, Corey is, in theory, free to read as many fat thrillers as he’d want to.

That is, if two people he knew didn’t have the misfortune to get killed in what initially seems to be a messy robbery. It’s not, of course, and as Corey digs deeper in the case, he discovers small-town scandals and suddenly has a lot to learn about pirate treasures and biological warfare. Limping and annoying his way to a solution, Corey even gets to sleep with two women and shoot a few people. All very satisfying. Or sign that you went from drowsy from dreaming in your lawn chair.

At 550+ pages, Plum Island might have felt considerably longer if it wasn’t for Demille’s narration. John Corey is true-blue NYPD cop, with an extra dash of wittiness. His eye for detail and odd observation really help at giving life to the novel, and that’s not even mentioning the dialogue. Expect to laugh out loud a few times: Fortunately for us, Corey doesn’t like everyone he meets, and it’s invariably more fun to see the fireworks between our fearless protagonist and his least favorite characters.

The thriller mechanics are as efficient as they can be from a writer with nearly a dozen other thrillers to his name. The slow accumulation of clues is steady, and even the red herring scenes are efficient, such as the memorable visit to a biological research center. A professional product from beginning to end.

Still, there are lengths. They get worse as the sneering humor evaporates, more characters die and suddenly, we’re in straight no-joke thriller with man-against-man, man-against-nature and man-against-himself life-and-death conflicts. The last hundred pages stretch beyond reasonable length and even the most indulgent summer readers might feel a few faint touches of exasperation.

But hey, guess what? Doesn’t matter. As you lie down, sweltering in thirty-degree heat, you’ll feel grateful for yet more time spent with John Corey in the cold, humid, windy shores of Long Island. There’s plenty in Plum Island to keep even the most demanding summer reader interested. Forget your bookmark and pick up your sun-tan lotion, because you’re going to be reading for a while.