Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The hardware of suspense

with 2 comments

Sean Connery as James Bond

Suspense novels, as we all know, have a lot of hardware. As regular readers are probably aware, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role of hardware in my own books, which contain detailed information on guns, weaponry, and tradecraft to an extent that might seem surprising in the work of a confessed moderate liberal. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I don’t think I spent much time worrying about this: to my mind, it was a convention of the genre I was happy to embrace, since it fit in nicely with my love of research and real-world information. Later on, I began to see it as a way of enhancing verisimilitude: if the writer can describe small technical details accurately—or at least convincingly—the reader is more likely to accept the story’s larger leaps of logic. I still believe this, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that it can be taken too far, as in the corporate jet with its “dual Pratt & Whitney engines” that intrudes into one scene in The Lost Symbol. And it’s only recently that I’ve begun to figure out why certain forms of hardware are distracting while others immerse you more fully into a novel’s world.

My initial clue, oddly enough, came from Ian Fleming, who might not be the first novelist you’d consult for advice on the unobtrusive use of detail. Fleming once wrote an excellent essay called “How to Write a Thriller,” which while amusingly dated in some respects—he says that his books “are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes and beds”—is surprisingly insightful on the subject of hardware. Fleming writes:

My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible. Even so, they would stick in the gullet of the reader and make him throw the book angrily aside—for a reader particularly hates feeling he’s been hoaxed—but for two technical devices: first, the aforesaid speed of the narrative, which hustles the reader quickly beyond each danger point of mockery and, secondly, the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure him that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points of reference to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.

Ian Fleming

At first glance, the 4.5 litre Bentley with its Amherst-Villiers supercharger may not seem that far removed from Brown’s dual Pratt & Whitney engines, but there’s a crucial difference. Brown doesn’t give us any indication that the character in this particular scene would take any interest in the engines flying his plane, but Ian Fleming is talking about James Bond, who might well be expected to care a great deal about the specifications of his Bentley. In short, the details here tell us something about the protagonist, his point of view, and the things he finds important, from his martinis to his weapons to his custom-made Morland cigarettes with the three gold bands on the filter. Fleming, as it happens, smoked the same brand of cigarettes himself, and he gave Bond many of his own personal habits, such as his love of scrambled eggs, which only helps with the identification between the author, the character, and most of all the reader. The brand names and hardware in these books are an expression of Bond himself—as if he’s willing the world around him into existence—which is a point often lost on Fleming’s many imitators.

In other words, hardware in a thriller works because it’s an expression of the personality that occupies the center of the narrative, whether it’s a cop, a spy, or a hit man. The novelist Steve Rasnic Tem has a wonderful essay called “One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction,” available in this collection, in which he compares this approach to the way dreams are created:

An analogy I’ve always found useful for the relationship between characters and their settings is the relationship those same elements have in dreams. A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…But whether you agree with its validity as a method of dream interpretation or not, I think it suggests a useful approach for fiction making…[And] the approach to characterization I’m suggesting here puts increased weight on the individual details that make up a story.

Tem is speaking mostly of fantasy and horror, but this approach also has fascinating implications for the thriller. If every aspect of the story and setting is expressive of the protagonist, the details will naturally tend to center on what he notices and cares about the most, which in suspense is likely to revolve around hardware. When it’s done poorly, it’s less an issue of excessive research than a failure in point of view: those Pratt & Whitney engines reveal less about the character than about the writer. When done well, as in The Day of the Jackal, it functions as a sort of metonymy: the Jackal is his rifle, just as Bond is his martini, and we learn a great deal about both men in the process. Ultimately, hardware is all very well and good, but character is the software that makes it run.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. A great post, thanks for writing it. I’d never considered it before, but the idea of ‘hardware’ reflecting the protagonist feels absolutely right. The link to the Fleming essay is also terrific – concise, wise, and very much of his era. But still relevant, and something I’ll be sharing in a post of my own

    bishbashboogie

    May 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  2. Thanks! I was really pleased when I discovered this essay—until recently, it was very hard to find.

    nevalalee

    May 1, 2013 at 9:42 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: