Saturday, 21 January 2012


Extending the careers of other novelists' memorable characters is a task which has defeated many big-name writers, some (like Sebastian Faulks with James Bond) almost before they've even started. On the other hand, there have been many characters written by ghost writers where no one has, at the time, noticed the difference (Ellery Queen springs to mind).

In the detective field, such franchises tend to be offered to likely suspects; Robert B Parker with Chandler, Joe Gores with Hammett, Max Allan Collins with Mickey Spillane; often writing sequels or finishing material left behind (see my take on Max's Mickey here). Recently Parker's work has been passed on, with Michael Brandman, who produced the Jesse Stone TV movies, writing new Stone novels (see my review here), and Ace Atkins a surprising choice to continue Spenser.

The difficulty is deciding how far to go on the road to pastiche. Can you remain true to the spirit of the writer while taking his character in new directions? Can you write in his style, or is it useless to avoid your own? The more distinctive the writer, and the character, the more difficult the task becomes.

On the surface, Don Winslow may have seemed an unusual choice to produce this prequel to Trevanian's Shibumi. Winslow is an immensely talented writer who has produced some fine, neo-noirish, California stories, a recent series of laid-back surfer detective novels, and two remarkable books centered on the drug wars, the majestic epic Power Of The Dog and the brilliantly bleak Savages. He may have been chosen because Hollywood has caught on; The Death and Life of Bobby Z has been, so to speak, filmed (see my take here); Robert De Niro and Michael Mann were at times attached to a film of The Winter Of Frankie Machine, Oliver Stone is adapting Savages. And you might argue his bittersweet novel Isle Of Joy (see my review here) showed a facility with spy tales that might have appealled to the Travanian estate.

What must be remembered is Shibumi, although Trevanian's most successful book by far, was an outgrowth of his earlier work, straight-forward Bondish stuff like The Eiger Sanction. He moved from them to The Main, a dark police procedural set in Montreal, which may be his best, but wasn't a best-seller, before simplifying his formula and hitting on a character, Nicholas Hel, who is, in effect a Super Hero, pitched beyond Bond and nothing like a Marlowe, Spade or Hammer. Hel beat Jason Bourne into print by a year, but whether there's any influence would be for the reader to decide.

The background was intricate, but the problem was that, as a super hero, Hel would always triumph in the ultimate shoot-out, and this is a dilemma that might constrain your story telling. As this is a prequel, Winslow has to conform to the Hel Trevanian created, but he is afforded some freedom in showing how he got to be who he is, and he uses this freedom well. After all, as the blurbs suggest, Hel is not only the 'world's most dangerous assassin', but a 'mystic, master of language and culture, and the world's most artful lover'--so Winslow gets to provide him with a French courtesan to instruct him in whatever he doesn't know, courtesy of the CIA. The multiple conflicts and contradictions implied are something Winslow has fun with, but his assignment, to kill a Soviet commissioner in China, becomes something more complicated.

This is where he is at his best, outlining multiple betrayals, warring loyalties, and as you might expect from the author of Power Of The Dog, following the drug trade through Asia alongside the budding conflicts in South East Asia. He is constrained, to an extent, by Hel's talents, the fact that he is a Superman, and at times the trying to draw all the strands together can have twists colliding with each other. But he manages to draw it all together in a climax that not only resolves his story but does leave Hel set up properly for Trevanian's own book from three decades earlier.

I think if you're a Winslow fan already you'll be impressed rather than enthralled. If you're a Hel fan you shouldn't be disappointed; the world may have caught up and passed Trevanian's super-assassin in 30 years, but Winslow, while taking him back in time, also brings him forward. The news that Leonardo di Caprio wants to play Hel in a movie makes a lot more sense than his playing J Edgar Hoover, and should help cement Winslow's name. Next he brings back Hel to the Manhattan setting of Isle Of Joy, say in the early 1960s, all hel breaks loose, and the adapters of Mad Men option the film rights.

SATORI by Don Winslow
Headline, £14.99 ISBN 9780755370207 (paperback published at £6.99)


Bob Cornwell said...

Tut tut, MC. It's POWER of the Dog, not HOUR. Which reminds me, what of Winslow's should I read next after that one? I'm tempted by the surfer novels...

Michael Carlson said...

Oh jeez. And it's sitting on the shelf right next to me. Don I guess was too polite to point that out! My apologies and it's been corrected...

Eesti said...

I liked Satori, several things troubled me about the novel. The characters are caricatures: Voroshenin and the head of the Chinese secret police are cartoonish sadists while Nicholai Hel is the most honorable assassin ever envisioned. Every character in this novel has a story and every story is a cliché: the woman who spies for the French Resistance by selling her body to German soldiers; the woman who gives her body to a Russian officer to save her home from confiscation; the Russian and Chinese officers who torture for pleasure; the intelligence officers waging turf wars; the intelligence officer working for his own (rather than his government's) purposes; the journalist/informant who is a slave to gluttony -- all are familiar characters. The plot depends upon Voroshenin coming to a conclusion that is unsupported by evidence, logic, or the reasonable exercise of intuition. The discussion of Zen philosophy is cheesy. Every now and then the story is slowed by a dull lecture about the evils of communism.