The diversification in the Grit-Lit novel segment continues to amaze me.
In the old days, when Mickey Spillane, John D MacDonald, Ian Fleming and Robert Parker were kings, the lead characters were all pretty much the same. Men with character flaws – drinking, womanizing, excessive love of violence. Typically detectives of one type or another, these loners took on lost causes, fought the good fight and either got one of the beautiful girls or experienced what the modern TV world calls URST (UnResolved Sexual Tension) with a female member of their team.
Essentially there was one generic hero with a few variations – married or not, drunkard or not, womanizer or not. Just like there used to be one generic hamburger. Now there are 700+ kinds of heroes afflicted with all kinds of quirks and weirdness and 700+ kinds of burgers topped with everything from unpasteurized- raw-handmade-by-vegetarian-elves-designer-cheese to OMG! burgers topped with foie gras, caviar and pate.
It’s beyond the scope of this column to comment on the wisdom of foie gras, caviar and/or pate on a hamburger (silly idea – probably bad) but it is our job to notice and comment on the proliferation of heroes and heroines that bring new, blood to the Grit-Lit party.
These quirks don’t always enhance a story. As an example “Twice A Spy” by Keith Thomson (Doubleday, $25.95, 324 pages, www.keiththompsonbooks.com).
This is an excellent debut thriller with engaging characters and a convoluted, twisted plot line. The book is money and time well spent.
Thompson’s story is based around a spy team: beautiful female love interest, somewhat ne’er do well horse racing enthusiast son and his father, an experienced international spy whose capabilities are eroded by Alzheimer’s.
If the story delved into the disease enough to provide an entertaining learning experience, one that gave the reader new insights into the disease, “Twice” would have been strengthened. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is only used to add tension. Specifically, will Dad be able to focus and snap out of his disease long enough to rescue them from the bad guys.
“Twice” misses the chance to make the jump from an intriguing story, to the level of an entertaining, educational, inspirational novel.
“Shadow Pass” by Sam Eastland (Atra, $25, 289 pages, www.inspectorpekkala.com).
Another quirky, yet compelling hero, Inspector Pekkala seeks the truth in a nation – Russia – where finding truth can mean death – or worse. Pekkala has worked for the Romanov’s and now he’s working for Stalin. It is a very difficult world. Often the best choice he can make is between a horrific one and one that is catastrophically worse.
Eastland’s use of a hero trapped in Stalin’s Russia gives us insights into how the best human’s handle the worst possible situations. The entire Inspector Pekkala series is an outstanding example of an unusual protagonist being used to excellent advantage.
“Devil Red” by Joe R. Lansdale (Knopf, $24, 205pages, www.joerlansdale.com).
Sometimes, quirky protagonists hang around long enough to become old friends. Lansdale’s heroes, Hap and Leonard represent the bluest of blue collar detective fiction. They’ve scratched out a living working in chicken processing plants. Lived in the cheapest and worst conditions. Together they bring a kind of “Dirty Jobs With Mike Rowe” flavor to detective fiction.
When you toss in that best friends Leonard — black and mostly happily gay– and Hap — white and mostly happily straight—consider each other brothers there is a lot of unique territory for Lansdale to explore.
The series provides insight into the complexities of homo/hetero lifestyles, plus the challenges of men with different sexual orientations being partners, best friends and brothers to the death.
In “Devil,” Lansdale’s 8th Hap and Leonard novel, the guys have moved beyond exploring the complexities of their relationship and have become comfortable old friends. Sort of a low income version of Robert Parker’s Spenser and Hawk.
Tonight order a pate or caviar burger to-go. And celebrate quirky Grit-Lit fiction with one of these off-beat heroes.