Sunday, February 19, 2017

Good Persons, Bad Persons, but not Indifferent Persons

You've spent a few engaging pages watching a character encounter a problem of sufficient emotional and tactical severity to require a novel to bring to some plausible resolution. Perhaps this character was Antoinette Conway in Tana French's engaging novel of suspense and detection, The Secret Place.

Over the years, you've been a fan of the mystery, following the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolf, and Ellery Queen as they morphed into your hardboiled favorites from Hammett and Chandler. As such things went, many of your friends were the men and women who wrote such stories. Along the way, your mentor in the mystery fiction field, Dorothy B. Hughes, wrote about men and women in tense situations, underscored by social issues and their consequences.

So no wonder you like Antoinette Conway, whom Tana French has given a tough-but-plausible road to follow, well beyond the one-size-fits-all of the whodunnit. Within these opening pages, you expect Antoinette to encounter an opposite number, one or more persons representing her polar opposite, the South to her North.

Because you've admired the author, Tana French, you understand that Conway, although an intelligent, dedicated, and morally upright individual, has other--necessary--traits to help her project the portrait of the plausible. 

She has some defects to offset her positive resume. She has pride. She has an ego. She's had negative past experiences and the maraschino cherry atop the sundae of her presence is the attitude of self-preservation some of these past experiences have called into play. She's the one female cop on the Dublin homicide team, a group not noted for their views on equal pay and other forms of parity for women.

She's realized with the precise amount of edginess to win your admiration. You're rooting for her to be successful at the chores Tana French as set out for her within the story arc and pages of The Secret Place.

You've already read, reread, and admired the novel to the point where it and others like it lead you into your own worlds of supposition, investigation, and curiosity. How far, you wonder, could Tana French pushed Conway over mere edginess and into meanness of spirit and downright disagreeable? You've read novels where you were asked to root for persons you didn't like. 

At the same time, you read novels in which persons you didn't like because they were the opposition began to exhibit traits you admire. One of the early of the plot-driven stories, Frederick Schiller Faust,a man who was so prolific that he needed several pseudonyms to carry his output, had the formula that resonated dramatic solvency for you. "The good become bad," Faust wrote, and, indeed, his daughter, Jane, confirmed to you, "and all the while, the bad become good."

Front rank characters, even in short stories, are required by the forces of dramatic common sense to change. What's the point of a character who doesn't change over time? Even Sherlock Holmes underwent change.

How far into the negative must a lead character descend for you to say in the effect of setting the book down, unfinished? So far, the most recent character is Harry Hole, the immensely popular protagonist of a series by the Norwegian mystery writer, Jo Nesbo. For your tastes, Hole is too passive, two absorbed in his own alcoholism, too exaggerated in his apparently overwhelming need to be caught up in the solution of a complex and violent crime.

In recognition of the need for a story to have polar agendas at issue and risk, you're not looking for role models when you read. Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard seem to create such individuals, none of whom you'd want even as casual acquaintances. Nevertheless, there must be some point where they are at a kind of risk you seek in real life, in your reading, and in your own attempts at story.

This risk is the tug of persons caught up in the binary pull of what they want from their individual life style and what they've managed to provide for themselves. You want to be where they work, what they work at, what kinds of pictures or art they have hung on their walls. And you want to be in their room before they've had a chance to adjust any pictures that may be at tilt, any bed that may still be unmade. You want to see the inside of their refrigerator.

You'll be disappointed to see a half-eaten bucket of KFC chicken, thinking how much better for them it would be if the point of origin for the chicken were Popeyes. You don't want antagonists who drown kittens or kick dogs nor do you want ideologues who are inflated with political fervor to the degree where their thought process is switched off.

You want bad guys (and ladies) who run the risk of turning good. You want good persons who are right out on the cusp of turning bad and who, in the long run, avoid doing so not out of strong moral compulsion but rather from the hard won awareness that being good, painful as it may be on balance, still is the easier path. In as many words then, you want individuals with some measure of conscience, individuals who find it more convenient to help little old ladies across the street because it is more internally painful to them not to do so. 

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