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.

Sharing Space – recent guest blogs

I’ve been fortunate (and honored!) to have my writing hosted on other writers’ blogs over the past few months–and ones that I read regularly! Tomorrow, my post “Decisions, decisions…” will come out on the Writers Who Kill blog. Beginning in late September/early October, my writing will again be hosted on other blogs, and I couldn’t be more excited!

writers-who-killThis summer, I’ve written primarily about the short story “Numbers Don’t Lie,” included in the charity anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2Every Stolen Vote is a Crime, and I’m taken with the support and fellowship offered by crime writers. I’m deeply grateful.

In case you missed them, below, are links to the most recent guest blogs and appearances, including a brief outline of future appearances.

July 14, 2020 – Art Taylor’s The First Two Pages

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July 8, 2020 – FacebookLive reading, excerpt “Numbers Don’t Lie”

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July 7, 2020 – Do Some Damage (Scott Adlerberg)

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_JMc-contact20James 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 coming October 1st.

He’s at work on a fourth book called Bastard Verdict (w/t) .

 

NetGalley-EmgPwrs

 

You can check out and review Emergency Powers for free on NetGalley.

 

 

The Imogen Trager #NoirPolitik Thrillers at a glance:

Faithless Elector – Everyone thinks the election is over, but six weeks is a long time in politics. An idealistic, young researcher stumbles onto a plot to steal the presidency, with deadly consequences.

Dark Network – Without law, there’s only power. FBI Agent Imogen Trager is alone and in grave danger from a conspiracy she failed to destroy. She’ll have to fight against time, a sinister network, and even her own colleagues to defeat it.

Emergency Powers (Oct. 1) – No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The investigation that was FBI Agent Imogen Trager’s undoing may be the key to stopping a brutal, false flag terrorist attack meant to tighten a puppet president’s grip on power.

trilogy-draft

Find them all through BookShop.org.  They are also  available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones (UK) and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, you can pick up your copies at Head House Books, or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:  JamesMcCrone.com

 

 

 

 

Preparing for Crisis

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

On March 21st, The Hill and NBC, among others, reported that the DOJ was asking Congress for emergency powers during the COVID-19 Crisis. This leapt out at me, as I imagine it did a lot of Americans, who are strongly in favor of the rule of law, and habeas corpus, and who are aghast at the undermining of Constitutional prerogatives. But in seeking “emergency powers” AG Barr was also making use of the title of my new thriller (due out Oct. 1, 2020), called Emergency Powers.

DOJ-EmgPwrCentral to the thriller’s action (which I began writing in the spring of 2017) is a corrupted DOJ, a pliant Attorney General and a power-mad president who chips away at the underlying foundation of government. It’s up to FBI Agent Imogen Trager—unsure whom she can trust in the Bureau—to see that this crisis is not compounded.

And in the novel, the crisis the president and his cabal create will allow him to invoke emergency powers, and increase his grip on power. While the fictional crisis is much different from our current situation, politicians and policy people are fond of noting that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It’s the heart of the story.

But in order not to waste the crisis opportunity, those who seek advantage must first be prepared, must have laid the groundwork. For Imogen Trager in the thriller, and for us in real life, it’s instructive to look at what has been prepared.

The dictum about never wasting a crisis is generally attributed to Rahm Emanuel, but it was first uttered by Stanford economist Paul Romer, and it echoes the political scientist, John Kingdon’s notion of “policy windows” and “policy entrepreneurs.”

These shifts can end up being positive, or negative. The point is that a set of policy entrepreneurs has an agenda, and that policy change comes about when the three streams of problems, politics, and policies connect. To gain advantage, they must be prepared ahead of time.

In the 1930’s, FDR responded to the Depression with the New Deal policies. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the “W” Bush administration hurried through its war-on-terror agenda, which included the Patriot Act, pre-emptive war with Iraq and enhanced interrogation. The Trump administration seems inward focused, bent on eroding Constitutional prerogatives. It’s disquieting to see what this administration has been preparing in the background.

Emergency Powers is the third book in the Imogen Trager thriller series, which began with Faithless Elector and Dark Network. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been doing what could be called Kingdonian plot entrepreneurism.”

That is, rather than react and respond in a ripped-from-the-headlines manner, I’ve looked at the broader state of our democracy and thought forward: “How might it be made worse?” “What are the forces behind this decline?” and “What would it take to subvert those machinations?”

And, I’ve asked myself whether it could be stopped…

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The Imogen Trager #NoirPolitik Thrillers at a glance:

Faithless Elector – Everyone thinks the election is over, but six weeks is a long time in politics. An idealistic, young researcher stumbles onto a plot to steal the presidency, with deadly consequences.

Dark Network – Without law, there’s only power. FBI Agent Imogen Trager is alone and in grave danger from a conspiracy she failed to destroy. She’ll have to fight against time, a sinister network, and even her own colleagues to defeat it.

Emergency Powers (Oct. 1) – No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The investigation that was FBI Agent Imogen Trager’s undoing may be the key to stopping a brutal, false flag terrorist attack meant to tighten a puppet president’s grip on power.

trilogy-draft

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 coming October 1st, and he’s at work on a fourth book called Bastard Verdict (w/t) .

_JMc-contact20

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, you can pick up your copies 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

 

Anything But Straightforward

For the Electoral College, the way forward is anything but straightforward.

In the 1796 presidential election, when one elector, Samuel Miles, who was pledged to Adams (Federalist candidate) changed his mind and voted for Jefferson (Democratic-Republican candidate), Federalist party members were outraged.

Samuel Miles-elector

Samuel Miles

One wrote, “Do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No, I choose him to act, not to think.”

This has been the central question for the Electoral College for over 200 years, since the rise of national parties.

A scant four years ago, Faithless Elector debuted, and it’s been thrilling and challenging readers ever since. Its combination of strong characters pitted against forces larger than themselves resonated then, and it continues to do so now.  FaithlessElector-cvrAgainst the backdrop of a very close presidential race, the novel asks, “What if?”

What if Electors could be lobbied and bought? What if a group of ruthless conspirators saw a way to upend an election for their own gain? How far would the conspiracy go to keep the machinations quiet?

The questions FBI Agent Imogen Trager, Duncan Calder and Matthew Yamashita are forced to confront as they risk everything to uncover who’s behind the conspiracy and stop it, haven’t just remained salient, they have become more relevant.

Who decides the presidency?

Since Faithless Elector’s publication, we have witnessed the election of Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote, but won in the Electoral College (the second president to so this century). Into the bargain, in 2016 we had seven (7!) Faithless Elector defections. Now, at the end of April, the Supreme Court will hear arguments for and against so-called Faithless Elector laws in the states.

At stake, and the central plot point for the characters trying to save the presidency, is whether Electors are regarded as independent actors or mere delegates. That debate is over 200 years old.

The Supreme Court will decide, but as the twists and turns of Faithless Elector show–and the articles below demonstrate–the way forward is anything but straightforward. It’s unlikely any single group will be happy with the Court’s decision. Whatever it is.

 

Why do We Have an Electoral College Again?(NYTimes)

What if We Just Counted Up All the Votes for President and Saw Who Won? (NYTimes)

The Electoral College is long past its sell-by date… (NYTimes)

How to—Carefully—Surmount the Electoral College (Atlantic):

The Chaos Coming for the U.S. Election (Atlantic):

The Imogen Trager Thrillers at a glance:

trilogy-draft

Faithless Elector – Everyone thinks the election is over, but six weeks is a long time in politics. An idealistic, young researcher stumbles onto a plot to steal the presidency, with deadly consequences.

Dark Network – Without law, there’s only power. FBI Agent Imogen Trager is alone and in grave danger from a conspiracy she failed to destroy. She’ll have to fight against time, a sinister network, and even her own colleagues to defeat it.

Emergency Powers (Oct. 1) – No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The investigation that was FBI Agent Imogen Trager’s undoing may be the key to stopping a brutal, false flag terrorist attack meant to tighten a puppet president’s grip on power.

#   #   #

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 coming October 1st, and he’s at work on a fourth book called Bastard Verdict (w/t) .

_JMc-contact20

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, you can pick up your copies 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