Tyro novelists are always told: “Write what you know.” Sometimes — as in experienced non-fiction writer Adam LeBor’s thoroughly enjoyable debut, the political thriller, The Budapest Protocol — this means the reader benefits from a wealth of a particular author’s experience. And Lebor’s hero Alex Farkas is, funnily enough, a British journalist based in Hungary — just like LeBor himself.
Sometimes, crime and thriller writers push familiarity to its outer limits. In the repertory casts invented by many, even bit-part players from one book can emerge in similar roles in another. Lead characters, of course, will take a bow in each new book in their series.
The mega-selling Peter James’s slightly mournful cop, Roy Grace, duly features in James’s latest, Dead Tomorrow, as do his two background constants: James’s home city of Brighton and Grace’s never-ending search for his disappeared wife, Sandy.
James, whose mother Cordelia, the Queen’s glove-maker, was a Jewish refugee from Nazism, promised his faithful readers a twist in this, the fifth in the series, and he duly delivers: there is a quick, tantalising glimpse of Sandy, cinematically walking through the same airport as Roy. But the pair’s paths do not cross in this horribly realistic thriller, in which body parts are traded from Romania to Britain.
Grace will soon be on our TV screens, and the whole pack of cop friends with disintegrating marriages; creepy villains; Grace’s new pathologist girlfriend Chloe, and — oh, yes — their unborn baby, will become thoroughly familiar.
American writer Reggie Nadelson — the archetypal Greenwich Village Jewish liberal — has peopled her compelling Artie Cohen books with a fascinating cast, which enables her to explore different characters as the series progresses. Artie, a lean, cynical New York cop with a passion for Ella Fitzgerald, is properly Artemy and Cohen is his mother’s name. Mother — the former Nina Kaganova (Kagan is another variant of Cohen) — Nadelson explains, is now living in a nursing home in Haifa, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Artie’s (exceptionally) larger-than-life best friend, Tolya Sverdloff (Nadelson would like him played by Robbie Coltrane), and the accompanying atmosphere of sometimes seedy Russian “otherness”, allow Artie to move seamlessly between different societies in New York, Moscow and London.
Nadelson herself spends much of her time in London, and her latest Artie thriller, the eighth outing for her hero, is Londongrad, which convincingly incorporates the polonium scare which led to the death of Alexander Litvinenko in London, Russia’s fitful love affair with Vladimir Putin, and the end of the Bush era. Tolya fans should prepare for heartache, but Nadelson assures me that all will be well in the next two books, on which she is working more or less simultaneously.
In one, she is exploring the history of Artie’s KGB spy father, while the other is set in Harlem, with “a lot of dead bodies” on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. And there is even more to come. In the promised Disco Tel Aviv, Artie will go back to Israel (the family left Russia for Israel before Artie went to New York) and explore “the high life of Russian Jews”. And still another, Nadelson hopes, will be set in Cuba.
Nadelson’s advice, incidentally, for budding series writers, is: “don’t make your hero too specific.” Artie, she says, “is just a guy”. Overload your protagonist with too many quirks and foibles, she says, and boredom may ensue — for writer as well as reader.
This may well have happened with the spectacularly successful Harlan Coben, who began his career as a novelist in 1995 with an oddball Jewish hero, Myron Bolitar, sports agent and former basketball star, whose promising career was ended by a freak knee injury. So, instead, he has turned to law, running his agency and solving crimes and mysteries with the aid of a cheerfully freaky cast of friends and lovers.
Chief among Bolitar’s henchpeople is Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III, a super-Wasp who was once Myron’s college roommate and is now his business partner. Win is ever-so-slightly psychotic, with an unending appetite for violence and sex, the latter, mercifully, mostly carried out behind closed doors. In the first eight Bolitar books, every time Myron gets into real trouble, Win is magically drafted in to throw money at the problem or to inflict lasting injury on any of the manifold thugs threatening Myron.
Though Harlen Coben writes beautifully, this relentless tendency to use Win as a kind of rescue parachute can grate. Plainly, Coben thought the same, because in 2006 he told the JC that Bolitar “looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both said, we need a break.”
The stand-alone novel, Tell No One, followed in consequence and was turned into a hit French film starring Kristin Scott Thomas. But, eventually, Coben was persuaded to return to Bolitar resulting in, first, Promise Me and now, Long Lost, his tenth Bolitar outing. Here’s a flavour: “I took out my mobile phone and hit the speed-dial button once. Win answered on the first ring. ‘Articulate,’ Win said. That’s how he always answers the phone, even when he can clearly see on the caller ID that it’s me, and, yes, it is annoying.” You said it, Harlen.
This time Myron is in love — again — after Coben has rather improbably dispatched his girlfriend to Scottsdale, Arizona. The new love interest is a woman from his past, Terese Collins, who suddenly summons him to Paris where a loopy roller-coaster adventure ensues, featuring members of the French secret service, the Mossad and a plot that reads as though it’s been pinched from the script of The Boys from Brazil. En route, Myron and Terese — and, of course, Win — spend time in a London known only to the location-finders from a Guy Ritchie film. Much though I love Harlan Coben, I am beginning to think he should abandon Myron altogether.
Baltimore’s David Simon, creator of the intensely cool, award-winning TV series, The Wire, approaches the character-packed thriller from a more journalistic perspective. Only visitors from another planet could have failed to note the paeans of praise heaped on Simon. As The Guardian intimidatingly put it, “You either love The Wire or you haven’t seen it.”
Now, fresh on the back of The Wire’s adoring reviews comes a re-issue of Simon’s 1991 blockbuster, Homicide, which became the basis for his first award-winning TV series, Homicide: Life on the Street. Or, as the book subtitles it, Life on the Killing Streets.
Simon, a former street reporter in Baltimore, engages with the rat-like cunning needed to deal with the lowest levels of human society to come up with a wonderfully crafted account of misery and deprivation.
Every cough, spit and swear-word uttered by a Baltimore cop is carefully recorded in a faithful, almost Dickensian account. No amount of ellipses at the end of chapters can shield you from the sheer vileness of late-1980s inner-city life.
David Simon is married to the thriller writer Laura Lippman, who also sets her novels in Baltimore. Her stories are not as gritty as her husband’s but there is an undeniable sense of menace leaking from the Simon/Lippman household. Dinner parties must be fun.
Homicide by David Simon
Londongrad by Reggie Nadelson
Atlantic Books, £12.99
The Budapest Protocol by Adam LeBor
Reportage Press £16.99
Dead Tomorrow by Peter James
Long Lost by Harlan Coben