Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Or should I call you the Scythian?”

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"Or should I call you the Scythian?"

(Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 45. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As I’ve mentioned before, no work of art has had a greater influence on my own fiction, at least on a practical level, than the movie L.A. Confidential. The novel is extraordinary as well, of course, and there are moments and scenes, like the last stand of Buzz Meeks, that I’ve revisited countless times. Yet it’s the movie that sticks in my head, both for its surface pleasures of action and atmosphere and for its deeper structure. Something about its story of three rival cops whose lives intersect at crucial moments appealed to me at once: it’s the best illustration I know of how a multiple plot can become greater than the sum of its parts, until it seems to encompass an entire world. It opens up possibilities of contrast, juxtaposition, and shifting perspectives, and when the pieces come together at last, it’s with an almost musical satisfaction. As a result, this kind of tripartite plot has been central to each of the novels I’ve written, although I’ve since come to see the film’s example as rather misleading: most stories lend themselves best to a single point of view, and there’s a reason why a movie like this only comes around once a decade or so.

But when I look back, I find that I’ve also misremembered or deliberately distorted the film’s structure in my own imagination. I’ve always thought of it as a movie that starts with its three main characters far apart, only to bring them inexorably together, but this isn’t exactly true. In fact, two of its three major characters share just one scene. On the night of Bloody Christmas, Jack Vincennes sticks his head into Bud White’s office and says: “You better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody.” Then he leaves without waiting for a response. As far as I can recall, that’s the only time Bud and Jack share the same frame, and Bud doesn’t even reply. Like the silences in Shakespeare, it’s a striking omission, and one that raises a lot of questions. This is a dense, crowded movie that finds time for countless fruitful pairings among its five or six most important players—Bud and Lynn, Ed and Dudley, Bud and Dudley, Ed and Jack, and finally Ed and Bud—and the fact that Bud and Jack aren’t among them is revealing in itself. And it’s quite possible that Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, for all their ingenuity, just couldn’t figure out what these two men would have to say to each other.

"Who are you?"

There’s a similar hiatus in The Icon Thief, which is a novel that owes a great deal to L.A. Confidential in its construction, even if the movie’s influence is otherwise hard to see. My investigator, Alan Powell, spends most of the novel unraveling a complicated criminal conspiracy with the thief Ilya Severin at its center, but if you don’t count their brief chase at the New York County Courthouse, Powell and Ilya only appear together once. It’s in Chapter 45, in the basement of the Club Marat, as Ilya emerges from the restaurant office with Sharkovsky as a hostage. Powell is there already, of course, along with a squadron of law enforcement officers, and in the standoff that follows, the two men exchange a line or two. But it’s Powell’s supervisor who ends up doing most of the talking, and in any case, the scene quickly moves to the next stage, as Ilya works out the logistics of his escape. And that, incredibly, is it. By the time the next chapter begins, Ilya and Powell have been separated once more, and they don’t cross paths again. These are two of the book’s three most important characters, and their only real encounter lasts for less than a page.

This wasn’t originally how it was supposed to happen. In fact, in my first draft, Powell and Ilya reunite on the final page. The story of how the epilogue was revised at the last minute, with enormous consequences both for this book and for the ensuing series, is one I’ll tell at the proper time. As it stands, though, the fact that Ilya and Powell don’t otherwise interact deserves an explanation. The first reason is that Ilya is most interesting when he remains something of an enigma, and whenever he’s clearly seen by another character, it diminishes that mystery—a problem I’d be forced to confront more seriously in City of Exiles. The second reason is a technical one: this is a book about a chase, and by definition, the pursuer and the pursued don’t often end up in the same room. But the third reason is the most important. What I didn’t understand about multiple plots when I began this book, and started to figure out only after I’d written several drafts, is that they’re most convincing when a piece is removed. A plot like this works to the extent that it evokes something larger, a world in which the stories intersect beyond the margins of the page, and if each piece connects too neatly with every other, that illusion is broken. In the end, Powell and Ilya go their separate ways. But they’ll meet again in another book…

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2013 at 9:38 am

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