I’m never getting any of this time back. Ten days of reading time, a snatched minute here, a distracted lunch break there, and all I’ve got to show for it is this sense of numb bewilderment. These books are popular - Orphan X (Greg Hurwitz) even got a favourable review in the Guardian - and that must mean they’re pushing a lot of buttons somewhere.
I’ve mumbled before that our villains tell us what we’re scared of, whether it’s vampires standing in for shadowy elites poisoning our sense of community or zombies standing in for the faceless hordes coming to take our stuff. Now I’m wondering if our heroes tell us what we admire, or what. If today’s thriller heroes really do say anything about our values, it’s scarier than zombies.
The gold standard of lone hero narrative is - YMMV - Chandler’s endlessly quotable mission statement for the noir hero
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
Today, we are not talking about those guys. We are talking about guys who can barely talk, for starters.
Well, let’s not be picky. Not everyone can be Chandler. Not every character can have Philip Marlowe’s voice. That’s not what I’m trying to pick at here. What’s bugging me is that today’s lone heroes are outsiders defined almost entirely by their ability to kill other people. Even though the Gray Man and Orphan X are explicitly put forward as people trying to be good guys, the way they go about being good guys is to schwack people who they think are bad guys. What makes them men of honor in their context is that they choose who to kill, rather than doing as they’re told by someone else.
I got down this rabbit hole because Back Blast - the newest Gray Man book - was cheap and I was curious about whether it sorted anything out for Courtland Gentry, proud owner of the weirdest name in state sanctioned murder. That hinted me into The Hunter, Victor’s debut. I’m ashamed to say that I bought Orphan X by accident; it looked cheap and I got it mixed up with something else I had in my “maybe” list. I’d finished it by the time I noticed it getting a favourable review in the Guardian. I sort of agreed with that review; Orphan X is competently written and the protagonist’s superpowers are credibly undercut by his knack for getting things wrong on the big picture. But what it all boiled down to was for a couple of weeks I was immersed in a peculiar world where men were men and everything else was some kind of target, and now I’ve emerged blinking wondering what the hell it says about the world we live in.
Back Blast sorts out all Court Gentry’s problems, at the expense of turning a whole five-thriller series into the world’s longest origin story; finally the Gray Man’s off the hook and rehabilitated, and the CIA wants to put his superpowers to good use killing bad people. I’ve got just enough respect for Mark Greaney to suspect this is all going to wind up not working out as advertised and his new friends in the CIA will spend the next few books bamboozling him. But; lots of people get killed, you can’t trust big gummint, and somewhere out there, there’s a factory churning out young men who can kill anything that walks and most things that don’t. Orphan X; product of an elite killing machine factory has gone into business for himself killing people because they look bad to him; by the end of the book, lots of people get killed, you can’t trust big gummint, and the protagonist is set up for a life of further adventures killing more people. And The Hunter; lots of people get killed, you can’t trust big gummint, and at the end the protagonist has been pushed into working for the CIA to use his killing powers for good - not that I imagine that will work at all as planned; see under you can’t trust big gummint.
And these guys are just the ones I was reading this last couple of weeks; Jack Reacher kills all around him and you can’t trust big gummint, and John Milton kills all around him, and you ...
You can never trust big gummint, and I wouldn’t argue that you should. But all these guys are loners, full of weird skills and no hobbies. Some have no money and possessions (Reacher, Milton, The Gray Man on his bad days) others have way more money than is remotely credible (Orphan X, Victor), but they always seem to have whatever they want and no real needs; maybe they like a particular kind of vodka, but half the stuff in their lives seems to be there because it struck the author as a cool signifier of some kind. There seems to be no point to them beyond their deadliness. You can read all the Marlowe books without ever getting a full sense of his life; family? previous career? thoughts for the future? A mystery, pretty much. But before you’ve got half way through any of them, you know what kind of person Marlowe is, and what he’s going to do when the going gets tough. All you know about today’s loners is that they kill stuff.
And we’re supposed to be OK with that; these are the protagonists, and the world’s their target range. They pick the people who are bad enough to kill, and by reading along we’re tacitly endorsing the choices - more than that, we’re tacitly endorsing the idea that it’s OK for lone murderers to decide who lives and and dies. Today’s heroes are vigilantes. Let’s hope I’m reading way too much into that.