Writers, yes. Storytellers, not so much!
It’s taken a while but I think I now know what’s troubling me with so many “Award-Winner” and “International Best-Seller” books, especially of the crime-thriller variety.
Having been an avid reader for years, the recent dissatisfaction with certain books could have been put down to over-familiarity with the genre. But now I think that’s not it. The real reason has to do with intent.
The craft of writing
There are many aspects to writing, among them style and engagement. You may like a writer’s style and, in some cases, not care too much about how close a book stays to a genre. You may get hooked into a story and go with it, style be damned.
But ONE FALSE MOVE (a Myron Bolitar novel), re-read recently on holiday, suddenly made my issues clear.
The book is not a story. The characters are cyphers but in a bad way. In a “Frasier” bit-part kind of way. It’s like Coben wants to be a TV scriptwriter rather than an author. The clever quips (at least one per 5 pages) soon become tedious as they fail to tell us about either the character OR the story. All they tell us about is the writer.
Is the writing good?
In Coben’s case, yes. The writing’s good IF it’s for a TV episode full of clever but ultimately throw-away quips (did I mention “Frasier”). There is plenty of “style” to the writing, in the same way that a rap star over-emphasises certain traits for effect, like MC Hammer’s trousers. But the trousers do not make a great song.
Myron and Win are a 12-year-old boy’s super-heroes – super-smart, super-strong, super-prepared, super-successful-with-girls. Are they believable? Not one iota. Can they stand if we suspend disbelief? No. That’s because, like “Frasier” or “Friends”, the characters are too OTT. Nobody is quite as innocently dumb all the time like Joey, and nobody is as airtight competent as Win.
The Joeys and Wins are fine on TV because they are here-today-gone-the-next-minute. You’re not having to read 80,000 words that depend on the character.
Is the storytelling good?
In Coben’s case, no. Let’s be clear. I don’t care for the style, at least not in the way Coben strains to make it work over the whole book. But I could excuse that if the story held real interest, or had a stunning finale. But hauling all those words and quips along, just to get to the old chestnut of the super-rich man and the super-attractive maid – surprise! – er, no.
I guess I shouda known – the “vicious young mafioso on the make” blurb – that Christian Science Monitor recommendation on the cover – by the award-winning author (but for an older book, not this one) – and the weird recommendation by the Houston Chronicle (“a heavy hitter like Robert B. Parker”).
And there is the difference. You could say Parker’s CEREMONY and Coben’s ONE FALSE MOVE are similar. Like Ferraris and Toyotas are similar – they’re both cars, right? Parker is gritty, unconstrained, open-ended and a chronicler of life. Coben is smooth, up-tight, middle-class-closed and a chronicler of TV-style and feather-weight non-life.