Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Genre Novel

Trader of Secrets by Steve Martini

What makes a great novel? British critic F. R. Leavis believed that a great work of fiction was both morally significant and artistically accomplished. By "moral" he didn't mean ideology, but a larger knowledge about character and humanity.

The major problem with genre novels is that most of the characters are pawns who can easily be disposed of at any time without thought or regret. The genre novelist is a sociopath almost by definition. This was not the case with forerunners of genre fiction like Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Somerset Maughm. Or even Raymond Chandler, who disdained the fictional puppets of other detective writers. But it's the case in novel after novel today.

Every death is a tragedy. Particularly when the bodies pile up (as they seem to do in my Crime City USA), you need to express a sense of the tragic; profound regret at the nature of the world.

At the end of the classic western movie "Shane," for instance, the hero expresses regret-- deep regret-- at killing the villain, for he knows that in so doing he's killed part of himself.

Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of regret one feels at the conclusion of Steve Martini's Trader of Secrets, but instead, regret that a skilled writer who's displayed the tools needed to write a very good novel has wasted his talents in conforming to the generic genre style.

Trader of Secrets is a spy/detective story in which hero Paul Madriani and friends travel the globe tracking down a supervillain named Liquida who's being used by a collection of terrorists bent on creating a device which could destroy much of the planet. The plot has obvious potential for melodrama, which would be fun, but Martini takes the scenario seriously, and makes it believable. Martini lays down his plot threads expertly. His characters are well drawn. One of them, a NASA scientist who's fallen in with the bad guys, is sympathetic. The villain Liquida is often fascinating.

The problem is with the heroes, who, in order to combat Liquida, become-- or always were-- as soulless as he is. Someone could argue that this is necessary to defeat villainy-- except that the AUTHOR at least needs to stand above this, needs in some way to convey the balancing morality of F.R. Leavis. Otherwise the novel degrades us more than improves or enlightens us as human beings.

There's nothing original in this novel, other than the technological premise. It's been done before, by Ludlum and countless others. Cookie-cutter stuff. Airplane-riding fare. Time filler. Martini is cranking out product, deliberately limiting his vision, in so doing saying, "I'm not an artist," because he doesn't push himself to be as good a writer as he could be.

I can pick out the exact moment when the author lost me, after hooking me for page after page. It occurs during the climax sequence, which is a small war. Martini's once in-control attorneys, Madriani and company, and his daughter Sarah, are suddenly in the middle of horror. It's not portrayed as horror, isn't shown as a nightmare, but as an everyday happening, after which the heroes will take a shower, brush their teeth, and go watch a football game. Another day at the office. Bodies everyplace.

Is America ancient Rome? Does the bloodlust appetite of the reading public demand to be satiated with dead bodies as if spectators at the Colosseum? Are we sociopaths?

Martini lost me when his hero-- the hero, not the bad guy-- with bullets flying everywhere, begins killing people (just the enemy) with his car. They're mowed down like store dummies. The tone is gleeful. I guess it's war. Undeclared, illegal, but still. If you're on the right side all is allowed. I'm sure Martini's heroes slaughter people in book after book and are never the worse for it. This is how the genre works.

(Study, by contrast, the outsized grief of barbaric Achilles and Priam in The Iliad.)

The moral failure of Trader of Secrets is also artistic failure. Any promise the novel gave of greater emotion and meaning isn't realized. Not that Steve Martini would care in the slightest.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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