Friday, June 9, 2017

Short Book Reviews: Lessons from an Early Novel

The Seventh Canon of the title refers to a principle in the practice of law: that an attorney shall do his utmost to represent the best interests of his clients. In this case, that leads to attorney Peter Donley becoming a detective to solve the murder of which his client, Father Thomas Martin, is accused. There’s more to the murder than meets the eye, of course, and one plot twist leads to another. As a legal/detective thriller, the story moves right along, competent although not extraordinary.  What is fascinating and makes the book noteworthy beyond its intrinsic uncomplicated reading pleasure, is that it is an early work by an author who went on to become an award-winning bestseller. The author made the decision to leave the story as it is, set in the time in which he wrote it, and the setting reflects that era (late 1980s). More than that, I could see the glimmerings of a deeper talent within a well-executed but fairly conventional story. The author tried to give his characters internal conflict and depth of background, which was much less usual when it was written than today. If the characters and their motivation seem predictable (abusive alcoholic fathers seem to be the simplistic reason for nightmares, poor self-esteem, you name it), that’s a judgment made by today’s more sophisticated standards. Then, too, the author was laboring under fairly rigid genre restrictions. Given the expected length (or lack thereof) of this type of novel when it was written, there just isn’t much room for the kind of in-depth character development possible at longer lengths. Today, the same story might well be viewed as a psychological thriller, with the expectation and scope to delve more deeply. So the resulting story must be viewed in context: not only the effort of a fledgling author, but a product of its literary times. I found that understanding this context enriched my reading experience and recommend the book not only for the story itself but for insights into how genre types as well as individual authors mature and change.

Decades ago, a well-established science fiction author told me of a novel written in the late 1950s in which the plot hinged on the inability of the human body to withstand the gravitational forces of space flight. No matter how good the story was (and the author thought it very good), it would not longer fly, not after Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight. Around 1984 I wrote a science fiction novel that hinged on the “Star Wars” satellite defense system President Reagan promised to build; another learning experience on the dump heap. Dugoni managed to write a thriller that, while dated, is still enjoyable, and for that he gets my applause.

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