Friday, July 13, 2012

The Plots of Characters

by Gp

Hawk nodded. He was slouched in the driver's seat, his eyes half shut, at rest. He was perfectly capable of staying still for hours, and feeling rested, and missing nothing.

“Something will develop,” Hawk said.
“Because we're here.” I said.
“Un huh.”
“They won't be able to tolerate us sitting here,” I said.
Hawk grinned.
“We an affront to their dignity,” he said.
“So they'll finally have to do something.”
“Un huh.”
“Sort of like bait,” I said.
“Exactly,” Hawk said.
“What a dandy plan!”
“You got a better idea?” Hawk said.
“Me either.”

That’s a scene between Hawk and Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novel Double Deuce.  The two amigos are sitting in Hawk’s Jaguar in the middle of a housing project, nicknamed the Double Deuce, looking to shake things up with the gang that controls the complex in their pursuit of who killed a teenage mother and her infant in a drive-by.

I used this passage, which has resonated with me since I first read it years ago, among some others in an essay I wrote published recently in the Parker tribute book, In Pursuit of Spenser, edited by Otto Penzler.  I’m not what you’d call a fervent fan on the Spenser books, but certainly there were some of those novels that melded plot, characters and setting in such a way that you could see as a reader why Parker, at times, could be at the top of his game.

Like Alan, setting doesn’t come first for me except maybe in science-fiction.  I love the locked room aspect of murder mysteries like Asimov would write set on space stations.  Then there’s the film Outland, High Noon in space or the recent one about a prison break on a floating prison. I’m a sucker for those.  Something about the characters in this large thing, but really they’re trapped unless you have a rocket shop or a transporter to get the heck out of there. 

But I suppose to be the contrarian somewhat, as a reader I vacillate between being initially drawn to a book because of plot versus character.  For instance there’s this true crime book called King of Heists by J. North Conway.  It’s the story of a robbery that took place on October 27, 1878 of almost $3 million -- $50 million in today’s monies – of the Manhattan Savings Institution during the Gilded Age.  That’s the gist of what it says on the back cover of the trade paperback.  I was hooked (as was apparently actor Jeremy Renner who I find out later optioned the book).  But the copy then went on to say the man who planned the score was a playboy society architect named George Leonidas Leslie. 

Now I had to read the book to know how they pulled off the robbery and who this guy was.  So was it plot that got me or Leslie…or like in Double Deuce, I couldn’t be separated from the other? 

Ah, but there’s a twist.  I bought the book, which I hadn’t heard of, when me and the wife were prowling about the now gone Barnes & Noble once in the Westside Pavilion during its fire sale.  So the title had me pick it up, the backcopy intrigued me, and the deal was sealed because I got the book for a steal as it were.

Hmmm, maybe I’m just cheap and that’s what comes first as I troll remainder bins?


Meredith Cole said...

King of Heists sounds intriguing, Gary. I love a good non-fiction book, too. I agree that it's hard to separate out what makes a good book work (plot/character/setting). If the book is really good, you probably don't notice the elements as separate from the whole.

Gary Phillips said...

I agree, Meredith. For sure I pretty much had no interest in the Gilded Age per se, but how could you not be fascinated by a guy who ingratiates himself in that world so as to rub them. An old story recently repeated with Madoff.