Friday, 3 July 2009

PATTERSON'S OUTSIDE MAN: A Forgotten Friday entry

The Outside Man was Richard North Patterson's second novel, published in 1981, after The Lasko Tangent (1979) had won the 1980 Edgar for best first novel. Like Lasko, it's about a young lawyer, but it's a very different book, and although it's not one of his better novels, it does appear to mark a turning point, of sorts, in Patterson's career.

Adam Shaw is the outsider. An Irish Catholic from Cleveland, his father a cop killed in the line of duty; he's working his way through Georgetown law when he meets Kris Ann Cade, a quintessential Southern belle. They marry, and he takes a job at her father's law firm in Brimingham, Alabama, trying to fit himself into the hermetic world of Southern high society. One day, delivering a will to Lydia Cantwell, wife of Henry, the bookish man who's become Adam's best friend in Birmingham, he discovers Lydia dead, and his friend becomes the prime suspect.

From that point the story veers around between an almost Faulknerian mix of hidden sexual adventures and righting of past wrongs, all of which is wrapped in a seeming conspiracy to keep Adam from discovering the truth. Judges who sent black men to hang for rapes they didn't commit, more than one hint of incest within the intertwined families involved in the case, and enough steamy repression to fill a couple of plays by Tennessee Williams. Through this all, Shaw moves like a typical Patterson hero, with a straight-forward mind and a firm belief that the truth will indeed set suspects free. The story is filled with twists and red herrings, with almost every other character in the novel culpable in some way or the other. The denouement is melodramatic enough to come from Williams or Faulkner, but the ultimate resolution between Adam and Krissy Ann is particularly unconvincing, particularly because Patterson has set up a straw-woman for Adam, in the TV reporter Nora Culhane, Irish like Adam, and a career-woman type very familiar from Patterson's other novels. In most of them, Adam would begin an affair, and his marriage would collapse or wouldn't, and he would act honourably throughout, as honourably as an adulterer can, even if the revelations threatened to stall his investigations.

It occurred to me, that in crime novel terms, Shaw was a wanderer in what we now think of as John Grisham territory, and that, without too much effort, one could confuse The Outside Man with any number of Grisham's works. But I do wonder if, having got this book out of his system (Patterson studied fiction writing at Alabama-Birmingham), Patterson then moved on, making a conscious choice to go back into the direction he'd started with The Lasko Tangent, and began widening the political and conspiratorial nature of his books, to the point where I don't think it's fair to classify them as 'legal thrillers'. In fact, as I've pointed out before, he's in some ways far closer to Frank O'Connor, of The Last Hurrah, than to Grisham or Baldacci or Turow. Rather than concentrate on the hothouse atmosphere of your basic noble lawyer's life, as you might say Grisham has done, Patterson has used the basic noble lawyer to address issues with a capital I, but on a scale big enough to make the story keep rolling. When it works, he integrates the two, as flaws (or humaness) in his character usually reflect, if not propel, strands of the wider plot. I find it curious that when Grisham went directly into politics, in The Appeal, (link to my take on it, from here) its impact was diluted primarily by the one-dimensional nature of his lawyer-heroes.

But one-dimensional as Adam Shaw is, Patterson, knowingly or instinctively, set him up to fall very much in line with Christopher Paget, Tony Lord, or Kerry Kilcannon, his other lawyer-heroes. It's telling that he never revisited Shaw, his marriage, or his situation within the Birmingham milieu his persistence has shattered. It might be interesting to do so now, although, as Patterson has broadened his themes to include Presidential campaigns and Arab-Israeli peace (see my American Eye column on Exile here), he's left himself a lot of scope to fit him in.

1 comment :

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Michael. I've read one or two Pattersons but not this one.