I have a deeply embarrassing confession to make, but allow me to edge towards it rather than just blurting it out. I read a lot, but not novels. I have an acid test for all novels. At around the quarter mark, I pause, and ask myself whether I give a rat's arse for any of the people in the book. The answer being almost invariably 'no', I toss the book away and promise myself never to be suckered again by those smooth-writing critics in the heavy Sundays. My literary metaphor (ho, ho!) for meeting characters in a novel is that it is rather like going to a dinner party where all the guests are strangers to you. During the aperatif and nibbles period, it slowly dawns on you that you are facing four hours in the company of some A1 crashers of the first water, and that on the whole, given a choice, you would rather be decorating the mother-in-law's kitchen.
For real (and please note the emphasis) plots, surprising character development, excitement and shocks, I turn to history in general, and military history in particular. The study of old battles and campaigns, and the remarkable men who led them is endlessly fascinating, although I admit that the love interest is usually lacking somewhat. If anyone reading this suffers from that dread disease, Marxism, I advise you to study military history. All notions of historical inevitability will be dispelled instantly, and you will learn the great truth in these words written long before the dice-playing universe was discovered by the unbelieving Max Planck:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost, and for want of a horse, the rider was lost ... and I would add ... for want of a rider, the battle was lost!
As I write, we are celebrating Trafalgar. Was there ever a more fascinating commander than Nelson? A deeply committed Christian, a man so pious that barely a day went by when, in the privacy of his cabin, he did not fall to his knees to commune with his God, and yet, and yet .... this same man, to use the modern parlance, 'ditched the bitch' and the kid, and set himself up in a very public menage-a-trois with a rather jolly and pretty tart, and her elderly and complaisant husband. How he squared that with his God, we cannot know. Also, when it came to war, this same Christian, English gentleman was, arguably, the most ferocious 'throat-ripper' ever to command British forces. I think even Shakespeare would have hesitated to invent such a character.
However, it must be admitted that the study of military history does require one to engage the brain, and for most of us (I excuse those dull and dreary Marxists whose only intellectual stimulant is the thin gruel of ever more politics) it is necessary sometimes to turn to something lighter. For me, and here comes my confession, it is in the form of what I can only call 'pulp fiction'. I mean by that, American crime thrillers, and I have been consuming them for years. There was a slight interregnum in middle-age when I simply out-read what was available. That gave me the chance to brush up on the history but a few years ago I went back to the modern equivalent of the 'penny dreadfuls' to discover, to my utter joy, a whole new stable of thriller writers. Happily we have a market twice a week in my local town, and a regular stall-holder sells paperbacks for £1.50 each and offers you 75p when you bring them back. Oh joy! Oh bliss!
Having made my confession and admitted to reading rubbish by the ton, I would not wish you to think that I am indiscriminate in my choice of trash. Oh dear me, no! Very choosey, I am. A few weeks back, La Rullsenberg, whose confused witterings and twitterings add so much to the gaiety of nations and me, was recommending an American police thriller in which the two black (natch!) cops sit in a police car discussing at inordinate length the politics of black versus white in America. She thought it wonderful. I loathed it and insisted that it was not true 'pulp fiction'. To qualify, the male hero needs to be very male, and the female heroine very feminine, or if she is the villainess, then also very feminine. The hero should know the characteristics of every gun ever made, and use most of them several times during the course of the book. If the plot is thin, the action must be swift; and the opposite applies. It is a pity that I fell out with pootergeek (who has now, alas, retired from Blogdom) because he was the only other serious-minded blogger who confessed to the same weakness as me.
Well, there you have it! It's off my chest, and my conscience. Thanks for listening, or rather, reading, and the least I can do is offer you one of the best examples of the genre (if that is quite the word) that I have read for some time. It is A Tapestry of Spies by Stephen Hunter. He is a terrific writer of 'pulp fiction', and his 'Swagger' series of thrillers are a tremendous read. However, unusually with this one, he has gone back in time, and out of America for location. It is set in the 1930s in Spain during the civil war, and provides a deeply satisfying twist and turn to the tale of the real-life Kim Philby. Sort of le Carre, but with violence. Enjoy!