Friday, 12 February 2016

Mark Dawson; The John Milton books

Not all of the John Milton books, because life is too short; just the first three, because Amazon had a bundle deal for three of them as e-Books and I seem to be redeveloping a mild thriller itch. 

They’re not bad. Dawson’s an OK writer and I am taken with his low-stakes approach of things; there’s an agreeable British cheapness to proceedings. Still they’re anything but indispensable, and I’m only commenting on them at all because as I was working my way through them, they struck me as a very British counterpart to Mark Greaney’s books. John Milton is a much more believable character than Courtland Gentry; he’s got a more plausible name, to start with, and it all runs on from there. He’s good at what he does because he’s experienced, not because he’s a wunderkind, and he’s out of the business because the strain made him an alcoholic, not because of some labyrinthine mystery.

Mostly, it started to sink in how the modern thriller is mired in a default of lone drifter comes to town, rights wrongs, moves on to next town. And there’s only one person to blame; Jack Reacher. Much as Harry Potter and the Hunger Games triggered a twin tsunami of magic schools and gritty dystopias for the under 16s, the huge success of Jack Reacher has left publishers everywhere looking for his understudy. 

Lone drifter is a perfectly good idea; it worked for Shane and it’s worked on and off ever since. And it doesn’t work too badly for John Milton, who’s a pretty plausible lone drifter, with good reasons to be drifting and lonely and most of all meddling. I found his economy of effort beguiling, though Dawson is going to need to find a way out of the narrative trap of always having Milton more or less sorted only to be derailed at the last minute by someone snatching the romantic interest and holding her hostage.

Still, it’s none of it the best in class. If you want lone middle aged alcoholic struggling with demons and righting wrongs, the gold standard is still Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder - the books, of course, not the movies. If you want the lone drifter putting the hurt on the bad guys, Reacher’s still the king. If you want British spies doing their subtly low rent versions of American bombast - actually, that’s Dawson’s strongest suit, but it’s a crowded field with a lot more depth to it; read Deighton, or Mick Herron, or Adam Hall; or  - an influence which Dawson winks to in the first book - James Mitchell’s Callan, the original British assassin who tries to quit his shadowy spook world but can never quite get loose.

Finally, obligatory grumble; like most guys in the field, Dawson can’t be bothered to do his gun homework, so things are littered with notions like Makarov revolvers. Guys; it’s the 21st century. If you just want some well cool hardware to name-drop and Wikipedia is too much like hard work, just go here and look at the pictures.

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