While my wife is reading Alistair MacLean for the first time I have been sampling Harlen Coben. These writers make no claims to literary excellence, but they certainly know how to get the reader to turn the page over. The problem with these books is that they tend to be formulaic. Take Dick Francis for example. His books feature a hero is an expert in some arcane field. He might be a photographer, a sculptor, a pilot of small airplanes, a diamond merchant etc, etc. Something in his job brings him into contact with the horsey world. Then there is a beautiful woman, also has horsey connections. For some reason she is vulnerable. Then there is a villain - usually a crooked bookie, owner or trainer. Our hero tries to rescue damsel in distress and gets beaten up for his troubles. However, using his arcane knowledge he understands the mystery, overcomes the villain and rescues the girl, with whom he is by now romantically involved. Story over, next time the hero can be a jockey.
In the Alistair MacLean books there is always a false friend, someone who appears to be on the side of the hero but all the time working for the opposition. There is also always something that isolates the characters, like a sabotaged radio. In the few Harlen Coben books I have read, the hero is unjustly accused of a crime. He is attacked by the villains but shows superhuman resource to fight his way out and then fight his way through a complicated plot that has baffled the police (who are at least in part corrupt).
So it is; popular authors hit on a formula that works and then replay it over and over again. When they step outside their genre disaster often beckons, as with John Le Carre's book The Night manager. John Grisham therefore is to be commended for The Painted House and Stephen King for stories like those filmed as Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption.
There is no reason that thrillers cannot be works of art. Raymond Chandler's books will always bear re-reading and I enjoy James Ellroy for more than just the plot.
I have just finished watching the first series of Lost on DVD. This television series embodies the same characteristics as the thriller. There is an overwhelming need to know what happens next. All the characters are stereotypes apart from the central character - the Island itself. The Island is allowed to step outside the expected, and this is what makes the series watchable. I mean, Polar bears?
Last night I watched Antonioni's Blow up on TCM. I first saw it 30 years ago in the middle of the 'Swinging London' era. At the time I was puzzled as to what it all meant. It got rave reviews at the time and a couple of Oscar nominations. Even Halliwell gives it two stars. Swinging fashion photographer, David Hemmings, takes some atmospheric shots in a fairly deserted London park, but one of the few people in shot, Vanessa Redgrave, demands the film. Fascinated by the lengths that she goes to, to retrieve the film Hemmings enlarges his pictures and sees what appears to be a murder taking place. Eventually, he returns to the park and finds a dead body there. The story is punctuated with episodes of sex and pot smoking, which at the time I thought irritating; something to justify the swinging London reputation thrown in gratuitously. Now I'm not so sure. It is these distractions which prevent Hemmings from doing anything about the murder. His studio is broken in to and the pictures stolen and when he returned to the park the body had been removed.
The film ends with a group of students in the park miming an imaginary game of tennis. One of the 'players' knocks the 'ball' outside the court. All the students look at Hemmings who obediently runs over and throws the 'ball' back to them. The metaphor is clearly to ask the question, "What is real and what is just in the imagination?"
But the movie says more. This lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll is a blind alley which blurs the distinction between reality and non-reality and ends up in apathy. The bigger mystery is how this slim and boyish Hemmings turned into the fat and bloated Governor in Gangs of New York.