Thursday, 17 January 2013

Jon Stock: Games Traitors Play

I don't read that many thrillers, though I've noticed that I grumble about the ones I do read; a far greater percentage of that part of my reading winds up in this blog than the competition from SF and Fantasy, and I've never had anything to say about the history science or economics books. 

I've got all of Stock's work, pretty much, because I have a friend who knows him somewhat and keeps buying them as presents for me. Games Traitors Play is the second of a trilogy about the trials and tribulations of modern day MI6 and in particular Daniel Marchant, who is a second generation spy and somehow the pivot around which the whole world appears to be turning.

The problem I have with the Daniel Marchant books is that I don't know what Stock is trying to do. He's an ambitious writer who wants to write well rounded characters and realistic situations, or at least as realistic as thriller genre books can be. But at the same time he seems driven by the need for a big high-concept McGuffin in the middle of things. The first book opens up with Marchant running in the London Marathon and realising that it's about to be the venue for a brisk bout of terrorism; it's the kind of thing which makes for a good thriller movie or TV episode, but wedged into a larger character driven novel about compromise and moral ambiguity, it just knocks everything around it off kilter. The second one, the one I've just finished reading, has a big set piece climax where an old Soviet ground attack plane is used to carry off what is probably the least realistic terror plot I've read outside of a Tom Clancy book, and it sits incongruously on top of the real book like they'd wheeled Megatron into the middle of Downton Abbey and given him Maggie Smith's lines; not just "What's that doing there?" but "Why did you just wreck that?"

The difference between the first and the second books is that once Stock got the marathon out of his system, he got on with the book; in Games Traitors Play, the staging and foreshadowing for the big terror plot keep jolting into the narrative all the way through what might otherwise be the good bits. Of course, this time round, there's a horrible warning near the beginning that Stock doesn't quite know whether he's writing a novel or hoping to get optioned; Marchant gets chased around a resort by two Moroccan hoods on Segways purely because - I think - Stock thought that it was a cool image to have their heads whiz past a hedge too smoothly for them to be running. 

There's an established form in the actual novel Stock seems to be writing in three novels, and the acknowledged leaders are le Carre and mid period Len Deighton. I don't actually like Deighton's mid period stuff because the realism and endless betrayal by close friends and family gets to be a grind over six linked novels in which nothing is what it seems. Nothing is what it seems is good once or twice, but when it goes on happening again and again, it turns into nothing being worth reading about because it's all going to change again in a minute so what's the point of even trying to keep track? le Carre I'm a bit more open minded about, though as with the aliens in Stardust Memories, I prefer his earlier, funnier work (and Deighton's too, though I'm being less sarcastic there). Anyhow, in both cases, the template is sprawling groups of friends and families all in the spying line of work and all shafting each other like a scorpion conga line because in the end self-interest and deceit for the sake of it matters more than ideology or even job descriptions. Or something. I might not have been able to stay awake for absolutely all of the plots in any of those books.

The defining characteristic in all the set texts is that the fate of the world is never at stake; people's careers and lives might be up for grabs, but the effect in the real world is almost invisible. These books are not, in short, terribly explodey. Stock seems to have seen this as a defect which the 21st century should redress, without giving enough thought to the problem that books don't lend themselves well to explosions and car chases, much as movies are famously pants at the inner state of mind of complex and compelling characters. And here I stumble upon the reason I don't usually read thrillers; movies are just naturally better at blowing things up real good and all the other stuff of which thrills are made. Books are better at the inner claustrophobia and craftiness of homo sapiens in a bind.

That said, I romped through the book pretty rapidly, largely down to Stock's pattern of writing short choppy chapters and switching from one character to another to move the narrative along briskly. It reminded me a bit of Lee Child, albeit rather better written most of the time; Stock's characters are not as - ahem - stock as the plot-defined sock puppets Jack Reacher needs to pummel his way past. It would have been nice if he could have kept the quality control consistent; his Americans are straight out of ugly-American goon school, and I found myself missing the comparative subtlety of the senior CIA goons in Olen Steinhauer's books. It felt particularly jarring next to the painstaking efforts to make the Russians and Brits layered but above all people who hadn't lost sight of decency even if they couldn't quite manage it on the day.

And now and then, I got jolted out of my disbelief. A key piece of side action involves a Polish agent who wants to take revenge for the death of her brother; except that when we're sitting in her head for a chapter of backstory, she's an only child. I found myself flipping back through the book looking to see if I'd got mixed up. Nope, the book had. Now that's just plain bad editing, as was the moment of inattention that let through the notion of a US Marine lieutenant serving in the attack phase of either of the Gulf Wars and still being a lieutenant today. No-one spends nine, still less twenty, years in the Marines as a lieutenant. Either you're promoted, or they get rid of you as a waste of space. Something tells me that the third book is going to need to up its game a bit and play to Stock's real strengths or I'm going to be looking at using the space for something better.


Jon Stock said...

No idea who our mutual friend is, but has he/she sent you a copy of Dirty Little Secret, the last in the Daniel Marchant trilogy? I've only just seen your very perceptive review of GTP and would love to know your thoughts on DLS.
Best, Jon

Max said...

There can be few moments more embarrassing for a deservedly obscure, snarky, blogger than to get a gracious comment from the writer of a book that has been dug over in the blog. Sadly, there is a quick post on Dirty Little Secret at I wrote it too soon after I wrote this post, and didn't give the book the thought it deserved. I should probably revisit it; there was more solid material in it than my dashed off comment would suggest. I didn't do it justice. But anyone who's read more than a few of these posts will have their own sense of when I'm full of crap, and I'm not worried that I will scare anyone off reading the books.

The real rub is much simpler. Jon Stock actually wrote a book. Several of them. He wrote them, he stuck to doing that until each one was done, and then he stuck to sending it to publishers and arguing with editors until there was that solid reality of work in people's hands. It's a hard thing to do, to magic something up that didn't exist til you thought of it. It's something I've never managed to do. No matter what I say on the blog about this or any book, at best, I'm graffiti-ing a building; spraying casual, almost effortless, guff onto something which took real work over months and years of effort by someone who had something real to say.

Though I still think that Jon didn't quite pull off what he genuinely has the talent to do; he's still pulled off a heck of a lot more than I ever will in print, and I'm humbled that he has the magnanimity to call my snarky ramblings perceptive.