Southern Gothic – Gladwell’s Grand Unified Theory

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece recently for Crime Reads in which he described his grand unified theory of thrillers. Briefly, he stated that “There are, structurally, four (4) essential narratives in [the thriller] genre.”

I tend to shy away from reductive theories, but they can be useful, too. And I think Gladwell is on to something. His four genres are cardinal in nature (and direction, too!):

1) In the Western, the hero comes to a world without justice or law, and establishes order.

2) In the Eastern, our hero works to improve and educate the institutions of law and order in a world where they are incompetent. (Think Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s sleuths.)

3) Third, is the Southern, where our hero, an outsider, restores order to a world that is hopelessly corrupt. “John Grisham’s novels are all Southerns,” Gladwell contends.

4) Last is the Northern, in which our hero works to perpetuate order from within a functional system. “The popular television show Law & Order is a classic Northern,” he notes, as is most Scandic-Noir.

It pains me to realize that while I’m drawn to “Western” thrillers (and Westerns), it seems (according Gladwell’s Theorem) that I’m writing Southern thrillers. Indeed, my favorite kind of Western stories are perhaps a subset of the genre, those in which not only is the world of the book or film without justice, but it’s going to take someone who’s even worse to put it right. And that person won’t be able to stay and enjoy it. They’ve made the world acceptable for decent people, which is why they must now leave.

Unforgiven, Shane, True Grit and the Road Warrior movies spring to mind. But so do Hammett’s Red Harvest, and the Jack Reacher novels. They’re mythic tales—Unforgiven resonates heavily with medieval themes of good and evil, stories of knights and quests. A quest tale turned upside down, to be sure: the knight is a vile murderer, the damsel is a prostitute and the magic elixir which allows him to transform into a hero is corn whiskey.

Those are the Westerns I admire, and go back to. But what of the thrillers that bear re-reading? For the discussion, I’ll stick with well-known favorites: LeCarre’s George Smiley novels, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal and Graham Greene’s Quiet American

Philip Kerr, to stick with Gladwell’s taxonomy, is writing Southerns. His recurring character, Bernie Gunther, is trying to inculcate something like morality or justice in the midst of Hell. Greene’s narrator, Fowler, can’t stop the war to come, any more than Gunther can stop the war he’s in, but he can do something, can strike a blow. By contrast, the wind blows Northern-ly for Smiley and Inspector Lebel, as they search and scratch and tighten the net around their quarry–Karla and the Jackal. Their dogged pursuit will prevail.

My protagonist FBI Agent Imogen Trager is a Cassandra figure, confronted with corruption no one else sees. She’s an outsider—even though as a Bureau Agent she should be the ultimate insider—made so by the very corruption and factiousness she opposes. She’s dedicated to law-and-order and accountability, because the opposite is thuggish, anarchic corruption and chaos. A Southern thriller, then, but with noir-ish elements of the Northern procedural. The conspiracy goes deep, and she knows that if you don’t get the root, it just grows back—perhaps stronger than before.

Whether the nomenclature of Gladwell’s Unified Theory is accurate (“eastern” and “northern” feel forced), it’s an interesting way to look at how thrillers operate. Fortunately, they’re not carved in stone, and there can be shared elements. His own take on Lee Child’s hero combines elements of both South and West(ern).

In each, we’re drawn to the problem, drawn in further by the situation and we want to watch our hero(ine) set it right. In the end, it’s just categories. It’s the details of why and how—and the characters—that will make it unique.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge.The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland. A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.

Systemic Weaknesses

We are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls “Stupid Watergate”

In my last blogpost, I wrote about how readers found Faithless Elector and Dark Network to be prescientFaithless is a page-turning thriller about stealing a presidential election by manipulating the Electoral College (published well before the 2016 election, thank you); and Dark Network looks at the exploitation of the the FBI in aid of a conspiracy to usurp the presidency.  Many readers are surprised to learn that neither of the parties is behind the conspiracies.

It’s less that each thriller is forecasting doom and intrigue, but that they examine very real weaknesses in the US system and how they might play out, pitting the feisty heroine, Imogen Trager, against the forces arrayed to abet these power grabs.  She is continually marginalized at the Bureau, even though it is her patient, analytical approach that gets results.

“If the president does it, it’s legal…no matter how he got there.”  

blog.DailyBeast-obstructFor two years now, the terms “collusion” and “obstruction” have been in almost constant use with regard to the Trump presidency.  My current Imogen Trager thriller, Emergency Powers (finished, but in pitch-mode), deals directly with collusion and obstruction of justice–only the conspiracy is so well organized that there’s no room for such charges.

Nor is there a special prosecutor:  if the House and Senate are controlled by the president’s party, and the president appoints a savvy, ruthless, hand-picked Attorney General, the minority party can complain, but it can’t really do anything when one party manipulates all the levers of power.  And since the Constitutional powers are operating more or less as designed, it can’t even properly be called a “crisis.”

EMERGENCY POWERS: When FBI Agent Imogen Trager learns that the President has died in office, she knows it’s no isolated tragedy but the final stage of a dark network power grab. The new president owes his position to a clandestine power that’s avid for greater control.  Over the next six weeks, through the new president, they’ll work to solidify their supremacy.  The pendulum of rule has swung decisively.  Unless Imogen can stop them, it won’t swing again.

Not content with merely “owning” a President, the wealthy, ruthless autocrat known only as The Postman plans to tighten his grip on power by staging a horrific false flag terrorist attack, which will allow his new President to invoke emergency powers and martial law.

As bodies pile up and leads go cold, a break in the case arrives when a dark network operative on the run from the FBI and marked for death by the Postman, reaches out. Trager is wary of trusting him, and not only because he’s offering intelligence that sounds too good to be true.  He’s already tried to kill her once.

That’s the premise of the “noir politik” thriller, Emergency Powers.  It’s not precisely what we’re experiencing in the moment, but as the earlier thrillers have demonstrated, it’s certainly possible.  Unless Imogen and her colleagues can trust and exploit their gap in the armor, it might very well come to pass.

blog.StupidWatergate-OliverWe are living through what the comedian John Oliver aptly calls Stupid Watergate, which is “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything”

But what if an administration were run by smart, seasoned political operatives?

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Quorum Sensing

My political thrillers are tense, fraught stories of people confronting forces greater than themselves.  There’s no magic (nor magical realism), no dragons, zombies or vampires.  And yet….Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 4.35.21 PM

The first two Imogen Trager thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are made the more disquieting because neither Imogen nor the reader know the identity of Imogen’s conspirator nemesis, referred to only as the “Postman,” nor what it is he ultimately wants.

Despite not revealing him, I had to look at events in the stories both from the perspective of my protagonist and from that of my antagonist. Moreover, I had to look at his enablers.  Who invited the vampire in?  And why?

BlofeldI’ve always wondered what drives people to work for/with the bad guys.  In the James Bond world, for instance, why would you work for Dr. No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  Beyond a paycheck (and, sure, that may be enough for some), what draws them in such large numbers?  How do you advertise the positions?  Are they just lackeys from the ranks of some sympathetic war lord?  Again, it’s possible, but that just kind of kicks the can down the road a bit.  I mean, how did the war lord get so many?

Here’s what I think happens: attraction, sorting and dissolution happens constantly, until there’s some critical mass.  Sometimes individuals coalesce into small groups but result in nothing more than pitiable sound and bitter, impotent fury.  At other times, they cause great suffering.  There’s an analog in the natural world, among bacteria, called quorum sensing (from US Nat’l Library of Medicine/Nat’l Inst. of Health). 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 12.57.09 PMBacteria, far from living solitary, cloistered existences, signal to one another, organize and coordinate into cooperating structures in a biofilm with specific roles and tasks.  Indeed, some potentially toxic bacteria never reach a level at which they can do damage, never “initiate gene expression for coordinated activities” (see link above), because their signaling and coordination is not turned on until they’ve reached sufficient mass or strength.

Among groups of people, certain phrases and symbols act as signals to draw out and sort those most sympathetic, amendable or susceptible to a World Power or Ruin message into discrete camps.  In small, uncoordinated groups they may appear benign, if distasteful.  But at some threshold, they become toxic and threatening. And, like bacteria, they will kill the host.

What fascinates me is that the elites who are drawn into this political biofilm are originally attracted not to the dear leader’s vision or objectives, but often view joining forces as an expedient to their own ambitions.  They think they’re the ones in control.  But as I’ve tried to explore in the Imogen Trager thriller series, once the juggernaut is set in gear, it will roll over everything.  And you can’t un-invite the Vampire.

Note: I’m grateful to Rutgers University for exposing me to this notion of quorum sensing.  I attended the Honors College Capstone presentations yesterday, where I listened to some wonderful presentations regarding Honors Seniors’ research work, where this came up in relation to bacteria on plastics in our waterways.  My daughter’s roommate, a Biochem and Microbiology major, broke it down for me and provided the NIH link. 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Northwest Return

Last week, I wrote about transporting a wine cellar across the plains when myScreen Shot 2019-03-07 at 4.04.06 PM family moved from Iowa City to Seattle in 1979.  This week, as I prepare to come back to the Pacific Northwest, to see family and old friends, before heading up to the Left Coast Crime conference in Vancouver, I’m thinking about my time there (1979-2000).Weekly-80s

 

Somehow, two three-year-old Seattle Weekly nostalgia posts helpfully popped up in my feed to prepare me for coming back. As I’ve been thinking about this trip, I find myself, like the character of Miss Gilfillan in William McIlvanney’s very fine, Docherty, dipping into nostalgia “like a narcotic.”

Back-to-back articles, Seattle in the ‘Eighties, and Seattle in the ‘Nineties, did a lot to spur those memories.  I skipped their piece on the ‘Nought’s because by then I was living in the East.

I recognized the Seattle depicted on both articles, though I wonder how much of the present city I’ll know when I come back at the end of the month.  And maybe it’s fitting that I’m writing about this on a cold, drizzly day here in Philadelphia, the better to feed my nostalgia.  The blinds are down, the light is low, and I can hear car tires swishing as they drive past our row house.Weekly-90s

The black-and-white photos in the Weekly articles best depict the Seattle I know (and still love).  In the scattered, flat light of the Northwest, black-and-white photos seem the most expressive.  They pick up nuances and depth of field that often fail to register in dismal color compositions.

Though nostalgic, this blogpost isn’t meant as some dreary yearning for a “lost” city that was better in the past than it is now, because I’m deeply suspicious of any such remonstrances. In the ‘eighties, I endured long, tiresome disquisitions from aging hippies who hated what Seattle had become.  What comes through in such ubi sunt diatribes is the speaker’s lament for lost youth, not any honest valuation of their subject.  Like Miss Gilfillan, “whose mind had closed a long time ago and in another place, wherever she looked she saw only the shapes of her own atrophied prejudice,” you learn nothing new by listening, unless it’s that you should endeavor to order your life so that your future happiness isn’t predicated on holding onto youth.

My family lived in Montlake, on Hamlin Street, “the museum side” of Montlake Blvd., we’d say, though I guess since MOHAI moved that isn’t particularly helpful. In high school, I worked at The Last Exit on Brooklyn (see “aging hippies,” above), for which I have an abiding affection.

I went to Garfield High for sophomore and junior year, and I spent the first semester of my senior year in France.  I graduated from the Northwest School of Arts, Humanities and the Environment, got my BA in English from the U-Dub and then my MFA there, as well.  I was married (twice).  All three of my children were born in Seattle.

The geographic center of my city was always binary, first oscillating between Pioneer Square and the U District, then Belltown and the U.  After the The Exit, I worked the dinner and late night shift at Trattoria Mitchelli and spent my downtime at the J&M Cafe and Central Tavern; while I lived and went to school in the U district.  Later, I also worked for Pioneer Square Theater, running sound for Angry Housewives and understudying props, lights & sound on The Foreigner.  Over time, one of those centers of gravity shifted north to Belltown and the Watertown, Tugs, the Frontier Room, Raison d’Etre, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, the Two Bells and a number of venues that came and went quickly.  I ran lights for a couple of shows at The Moore.  I even did a summer internship at the Weekly in 1987.

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The Palladian, 2nd & Virginia – 1987

Along with friends and family, what I remember and value most about those years in Seattle was an energy and attitude that still animates me; what the writer Clark Humphrey (another Belltown denizen) refers to as Seattle’s “DIY Ethic,” and it touched everything.

There was a sense (and I mean this kindly), that the stakes weren’t all that high.  In the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, you were allowed to take chances because failure wouldn’t be catastrophic.  Rents–commercial and residential–were relatively low.  There was space for experimentation and innovation.  Mediocre restaurants didn’t necessarily go out of business, but endured, got better, learning as they went.  Musicians often learned to play while they performed in tiny venues. Writers, painters, actors, could do their day-jobs while working on their craft.  People were open, supportive, engaged. The only downside back then was that if you wanted to be taken (more) seriously, you had to leave–for LA or New York.

I’ve lived all over the city, and contemplating any one spot in isolation is impossible.  I’m assaulted by memory.  There’s both the surface and what underpins it, a jumble of memories, images and contexts, like when your cursor rolls over a cluster of embedded links onscreen.  Each spot isn’t just what it is (or used to be), but who lived there, what happened there, what it was on the way to; what I was doing at the time. 

I lived in a couple of different places in Belltown in the late ‘eighties and ‘nineties, and it was largely in order to be close to Pike Place Market.  Here in Philly, I made sure to locate near the 9th Street/Italian Market, because it reminded me of the Market.  You can even get great seafood there, though primarily from the Atlantic, as you’d expect.

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Alaskan Way, w/ TDT – 1988

Can’t wait to spend some time in Seattle!  Looking forward to staying connected (and reconnecting!) with old friends.

I want to check out all the neighborhoods where I used to live and spend time: U-District, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne; Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the ID.  I want to check out some of the old and new bookstores.  I will eat at Dick’s Drive-in; will get a banh mi at Saigon Deli on 12th.  I want to see what’s left of the viaduct, what’s left of the places I used to know…and what’s going on now.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com