Very Proper Death|
by Juniper, Alex Juniper,
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|Not Wild About Harry
by Douglas Marshall
THERE`S NO GREAT MYSTERY to the craft of writing successful thrillers. We have it on Ian Fleming`s authority (and who would know better?) that all one has to do is keep the reader turning the pages. By that criterion, strictly interpreted, both these books are moderately successful.
I wish in the case of Harry`s Fragments I could leave it at that, such is my admiration for George Bowering. But the truth is that the only reason this reader kept turning the pages was in the futile hope of elucidation. Bowering`s subtitle is honest. What happens to Harry is a puzzlement (curious choice of word, that) from beginning to end, for Harry and reader alike, and remains one long after the book has been slammed down.
So thriller fans need have no fear I`m about to divulge too much of the plot. Would that I could. The best I can give are impressions, which may be inaccurate.
The time is the recent past (the novel was written in 1985) and the Cold War still rages. Harry, a sometime Vancouver cab driver and dealer (goods unspecified), is recruited as a bagman by a covert international agency that uses a literary editorial board as its front. The action unfolds -glutinously -- in half a dozen cities, ranging from sunny Perth in Western Australia to rainy Berlin. Harry has plenty of time to brood Jung-ishly about art, love, and history as he criss-crosses oceans and waits in hotel rooms for phones to ring.
To be fair to Bowering, this of course is no more a spy thriller than King Lear is a soap opera. It is a rambling metaphysical prose poem draped like a thick woolly blanket over the rudimentary framework of a spy thriller. Bowering pays token obeisance to the genre with various allusions and devices that may or may not be spoofs: Harry has but to glance at a woman to be robustly in bed with her by the start of the next paragraph; a recurring series of Thai restaurants teases our appetite for clues; the universal awfulness of air travel is captured by abrupt switches to reportage, including the make and mark of every jetliner boarded.
As we should expect -- this is Bowering, after all, winner of two Governor General`s Awards for poetry and fiction -- the writing can he glorious. A ride on the U-Bahn in and out of East Berlin will stick in my memory, as will sentences such as this: "And then, knowing that we are giving them the gift of death, we bring children out of the mystery into the world, into this puzzle, send them on their way to doom."
However, the writing can also be repetitious, dense, and irritating. Bowering has an odd contempt for the apostrophe in contractions. He was clearly having a passionate affair with the adjective "feckless" in 1985. And there are far too many cute word games along the lines of "He was Deutschmarking time in Wet Berlin."
In the end, fairness to Bowering has its flip side. He must be fair to us and I don`t think he has been. There is a whiff of intellectual Barnumism about this book, complete with three pre- publication shills. He`s trying to lure the rubes and suckers who crave escapism into his tent with the promise of a real thrill. What they get is his scintillating mind, but it`s still a cheat. This way to the egress, indeed.
In contrast, Alex Junipers A Very Proper Death is entirely conventional and none the worse for that. It gets off to a flying start on the first page as Marni Verstak, a young Boston career woman, is jolted awake in the middle of the night by a suave telephone caller threatening her secret treasure - - a five-year-old son hidden away on a Vermont farm. The pace seldom falters as Marni is made rapidly aware of the power and vileness of her enemies and acquires a jaded middle-aged cop as her champion.
The novel`s great strengths are its convincing characters and its feel for Boston`s streets, monied and mean. Its major weakness is that the conspiracy against Marni becomes implausibly complex and its architect is too obvious. Yet this one remains a true page-turner until the last.
It came as no surprise to learn that Alex juniper is a nom de plume of Janette Turner Hospital, the Australian-born Canadian novelist. It comes as some surprise to learn that she evidently thinks thrillers are beneath her dignity. Dickens knew better.