It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

By Evangeline Jennings

You ever come to a moment of epiphany only to realize your big light bulb moment of insight was actually mind-numbingly obvious?

I think that’s what happened to me last night.

To explain. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. Specifically Lee Child, Barry Eisler, and John Sandford. Three of the kings of the thriller series. All of them having problems with their franchise.

Lee Child’s last book – The Affair – was his second prequel to his best-selling Jack Reacher series which suggests the series is running short on momentum.

Barry Eisler had – to this fan’s way of thinking – ended his John Rain series with 2007’s Requiem For An Assassin and then moved onto write about Ben Treven – a US Black Ops killer.

The problem for Eisler is that Treven is no more than Rain-lite. Drizzle? The Treven books, frankly, suck – I could write a long list of reasons but I have hair and nails to grow – and I think Eisler knows it because he’s taken care to establish that Treven exists in the Rainyverse – referencing his own original Ronin as a killer of legend renowned throughout the elite world of assassins – and, at the end of the second Treven book, he actually gives up on the Treven series and character altogether, tasking Treven with finding Rain and his sniper sidekick Dox so that they can all come together to reinvigorate the franchise in his next book. Avengers assemble! In desperation, I think.

My spidey senses detected the jumping of a great many sharks and sure enough Eisler’s The Detachment – A John Rain Novel confirmed my suspicion. Rain, Dox, Treven, and Larison, the faux-villain from the second Treven story, do indeed unite in Eisler’s own identikit Justice League. They have people to kill, money to make, and Eisler’s political agenda to push. Yawn.

Eisler has published nine novels. I doubt I’ll buy another.

Lee Child has racked up sixteen Reachers and has a new one coming later this year. I’m still invested but can’t help wonder for how much longer.

John Sandford has out-written both of them combined. Ignoring his lesser series, he has written twenty-two volumes in his Lucas Davenport Prey series plus a further half-dozen featuring Davenport spin-off Virgil “That Fucking” Flowers. And his stories today are far fresher than either Child or Eisler could claim.

Why?

Because Sandford can do funny.

I’m not saying there is zero humour in Lee Child. I do remember the occasional one liner.  Perhaps one a book. And Barry Eisler’s Dox is a brash comic archetype – Falstaff with a long gun. But on the whole, neither man DOES funny. John Sandford does. And he does it in dialogue.

And this humour, the repartee between central characters, the golden one liner dropped in by a bit part actor, it papers over the cracks in Sandford’s exhausted plot pool. As it has for other writers. Consider Robert Parker. After maybe the first dozen Spenser novels, his writing was as one dimensional and formulaic as it was possible to be. But Spenser racked up forty best sellers. Jesse Stone – seven – was Spenser with a badge. Sunny Randall – six of her own books and walk ons in two of Stone’s – was Spenser with a clitoris. It didn’t matter. The stories worked because Parker rocked dialogue and voice.

And that, friends, is my point – my false epiphany.

You can succeed on plot alone.

You can establish a series with a strong central character. A star, if you like.

But when your plots become tired, your star – no matter how musclebound – won’t be able to carry the stories alone if you can’t leaven your doughy mix with humour, dialogue, and – above all – voice.

Duh.

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