“The Inquisitor,” by Mark Allen Smith, “The Innocent” by Taylor Stevens, and “Phantom” by Ted Bell

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Lately, I’m wondering what happened to heroes.

It seems a group of yahoos and goof balls, although they prefer to call themselves “Script Doctor” or “Writing Coach”, started teaching aspiring novelists that great characters had to be complex. And in these wizards’ minds complex equated to broken, twisted, sadistic or worse.

Looking back on the best grit-lit you can see where the idea came from. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a violent drinker. Robert Parker’s Spenser had qualms about violence and an unusual relationship with the woman in his life. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a loner who travels with cash, the clothes on his back and a toothbrush.

Sure these guys are quirky, but you’d be darned glad to have them on speed dial when the some skinhead tweeker attacks your daughter.

Lately, lead characters have gone way beyond quirky. Often being so tortured and broken that endless pages are required to communicate their internal angst. Others are so deviant it is difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The Inquisitor

An example is “The Inquisitor,” by Mark Allen Smith. (Henry Holt & Company $27, 336 pages, hard back. www.henryholt.com. Audio book, MacMillian Audio. $39.99, www.macmillianaudio.com)

The lead character – I guess you could call him a hero – has a gift: he knows a lie when he hears it. Unfortunately, Giger puts his special skill to use torturing people for money.

Giger has no memory of his life before the age of nineteen or twenty. He has flashbacks of being tortured, and maybe loved (in a strange, sick fashion). And he has scruples—there are people he refuses to torture.

The writing is excellent and the story captures your imagination. But I could never separate myself from the idea that the main character, someone I greatly want to bond with hurts people for money.

The Innocent

Another example—don’t worry, we’ll get to a book with a conventional hero next—“The Innocent” by Taylor Stevens. (Crown Publishers $27, 331 pages, hard cover.) www.taylorstevensbooks.com

Stevens wrote “The Informationist” an outstanding first novel featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe a resourceful loner with combat training, sex appeal and a great sense of humor. I loved the first book which was fresh, compelling and while it covered Munroe’s internal issues there was a lot of grit-lit style action.

In “Innocent” five year old Hannah is kidnapped by a cult. Munroe and her dysfunctional team agree to rescue the girl. Unfortunately a large part of the story revolves around Munroe’s inability to sleep without drugs, her inability to trust and her and her team’s extensive personal issues.

“Innocent” has great insights into the inner working of cults. Stevens brings real world knowledge having been raised in communes, ultimately breaking free of the “Children Of God” and transforming herself into a darn fine writer. I just wish her lead character, Munroe, was more of a tough-woman action hero.

Phantom

“Phantom” by Ted Bell. (William Morrow, $27.99, 496 pages, hard back.) www.harpercollins.com

This quote, about Bell’s lead character, Alex Hawke, says it all.

“Quite a simple man, actually,” his friend Ambrose Congreve, the famous Scotland Yard criminalist, had once explained about Hawke. “Men want to be him, woman want to bed him. And when he puts his mind to it, he’s an immovable object.”

Things in the world are not going well. A USAF F-15 jet, seemingly controlled by outside forces, inexplicably attacks the VIP jet it is supposed to be guarding. A Russian sub, seized by an invisible power, torpedoes a cruise ship. Even Disney World rides run amok and kill customers.

Hawke and Congreve are sent to find out what’s behind these disasters.  They discover the world’s first ultra-intelligent machine—a superweapon that can bend any weapon to its mechanical will.

Hawke goes to stop it. Guns and internal angst be danged.

And that’s what a hero is supposed to do.

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