Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He checked the assembled device, then switched it on…”

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(Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 16. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Suspense novelists love information. The tradition of loading a thriller with arcane detail, especially involving exotic weaponry and the nuts and bolts of various cloak-and-dagger activities, goes back a long time, but probably reached its high point with The Day of the Jackal, the most memorable sections of which recount the acquisition, testing, and use of a deadly assassin’s rifle, as well as serving as a comprehensive manual of passport fraud. No one has ever done it better than Forsyth does here—including Forsyth himself—but we all keep trying. As I’ve mentioned before, this peculiar urge to combine the content of an action movie with the tone of a PowerPoint presentation can lead to unintentionally humorous accretions of detail, as in the famous line from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that critic Anthony Lane has called one of the most boring sentences ever written: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” And at its worst, as in many of Tom Clancy’s novels, the level of minutiae can render the underlying story unreadable.

So why do we do it? The obvious explanation is that showing your work in certain ways is designed to appeal to the traditional readers of big suspense novels—hence the emphasis on firearms, spycraft, and modes of transportation. (One could assemble a trainspotter’s guide to Europe entirely from the descriptions of continental railway stations in countless suspense novels, including mine.) At the same time, the fact that we see different kinds of arcana in books aimed at other audiences—think of the forensic expertise in the novels of Patricia Cornwell—makes me think that the impulse amounts to more than just a mere fascination with hardware. Information, in the thriller, functions as a kind of synecdoche for the overall plot: by describing functionally minor elements of the story with apparent expertise, the author subliminally persuades us that major aspects of the novel are equally accurate. The Day of the Jackal may be wildly implausible in its larger details, but we wouldn’t know it, because Forsyth describes that rifle so well.

This is all preface to explaining why I spend the better part of two pages in Chapter 16 of The Icon Thief describing how Ilya builds a handheld laser, MacGyver style, out of a flashlight and the diode from an optical drive. The details are accurate enough, as this sort of thing goes—you can watch someone build a similar device here—but on a structural level, the scene isn’t really necessary. I could have shown Ilya with the laser without any explanation, or, even better, dispensed with its construction in a sentence or two. Instead, I spend a fair amount of time on it, not so much to provide instructions on how to build a laser of your own, but because this kind of scene can be pleasurable for its own sake, and it adds to the verisimilitude of what I wanted to come off as a fairly realistic thriller, however outlandish it might be in other respects. (In fact, this is a good time to admit that I came up with the image of Ilya building the laser first, with only a general sense of how it would fit into the rest of the plot—and it went on, as we’ll see, to play an important role in the story at several crucial points.)

Perhaps most important of all, the scene tells us something about Ilya himself. This is the first time we’ve really seen him alone, and like his brief flashback later in the chapter to an exchange in Yekaterinberg, it reveals elements of his character that will pay off down the line: he’s smart, methodical, and capable of doing a lot with limited resources. It’s no accident that he builds his laser himself, with ordinary components: I don’t have much interest in spyware of the James Bond variety, but I’m very interested in seeing characters solve problems when they have almost nothing to work with, which is what Ilya does, on a number of levels, throughout the entire story. And I don’t think this impression would be conveyed nearly as well without the attention to detail we see in this scene. Information, in a thriller, can be a surprisingly useful tool for building characters, especially in a genre that tends to gravitate, for obvious reasons, toward individuals with a certain level of competence. The Jackal is his rifle, and Ilya, at least for the moment, is identified with the little gadget he builds here. And it’s going to come in handy soon…

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