Fast-Paced Books are the Pacifist’s Drano

Okay, the Drano comment isn’t totally fair. Many fast-paced books are well written, have inventive and cohesive plots, know how to keep readers guessing, and when all is said and done, sell to millions of readers. There’s a lot of art and craft to them in addition to marketing savvy.

I might have told this story here before. If so, bear with me. When the TV program “24” was running, a friend of mine and I realized that while we both have non-violent and anti-break-the-rules philosophies about police work and spy work, we puzzled out why we watched that series without fail. We decided that it was because the show brought us closure. That is to say, things got done, the bad guys went to jail, and the good guys (i.e., most of the population) weren’t made to sit in limbo waiting for government red tape and partisan politics to finally fix a problem.

I’m sure many of the viewers of shows like NCIS believe in the right to privacy, yet tolerate the show’s agents illegally hacking into private records because, at the end of the hour, the bad guys are dead or behind bars. I can understand why so many in the police and spy biz say the rules are tying their hands and why we keep hearing that our trusted agencies are doing things they shouldn’t do. Those things get results even though they go against everything this nation stands for.

In “real life,” I can’t support the black ops, off-the-grid actions of private agencies such as those in novels like Typhoon Fury. Half the stuff that happens is illegal as hell–and that’s the good guys. In the imaginary world of the novel, the bad guys get shut down. In the real world we live in, they probably don’t. Or if they do, they cause a lot more collateral damage before they’re stopped. Nonetheless, seeing the bad guys shut down in a novel provides a small measure of relief to all the frustrations that arise in the real world–and in my belief system.

So, I read these novels as a coping mechanism. As a writer, I also find it interesting to see how these novelists handle plots and characters and keep readers reading. But the closure is the important thing, even if it’s only in my thoughts and not in the world I see on the news. Perhaps these books are my heroin. Or maybe they’re the Drano that flushes out my anger at both the criminals and the government for (a) creating problems that harm us all, and (b) for creating regulations that compromise our privacy and other rights in exchange for more security.

Some people turn to booze, some to sex, some to violent sports, some to drugs, some to music, and others to staying late at the office when they really don’t need to ignore their families and stay late at the office. We all have our ways of coping with the realities around us that are over the top. I can’t say that these methods, or reading James Patterson and Clive Cussler, are the best possible solutions.

But until we find and implement the best possible solutions, these escapes keep many of us out of mental institutions. I can’t say I’m proud of that, but I do feel better after flushing a lot of my frustrations about the way the world works out of my system with a slam-bang novel. And when my frustrations are flushed out, I’m less tempted to go over to the dark side.




A car chase with meaning

On my writer’s website, I refer to my “Garden of Heaven” (coming soon to print) and “The Sun Singer” novels as adventures for the spirit. I often call them mythic, though that sometimes causes people’s eyes to glaze over when they think back to their boring high school mythology class.

Last year a friend and I talked about how odd it was that we both watched the exploits of Jack Bauer on the popular TV series “24.” It was odd because both of us are non-violent and–in real life–would never sanction more than a fraction of the stuff Bauer got away with as a government operative on that show.

So why did we watch a show where people were getting shot, knifed, kicked, blown up, or crushed during one of the many car chases? Because it was fun seeing somebody getting results in a world where there are so many shades of grey, it’s often hard to make any project move forward. Jack brought out the dark and dangerous hero in us–while we were watching the show.

Weeks later, we had little memory of one episode of “24” or another because it was all rather like pure sex, a string of one-night stands, an orgy of sensation that–while hot and thrilling at the moment–didn’t mean anything, didn’t help anyone, and didn’t leave anyone with any food for thought.

An adventure of the spirit is rather like a car chase with meaning. “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix” “The Golden Compass” and similar feature films have their share of high-pitched action, but they are also mythic. They address universal themes, show characters struggling against great odds (including their personal demons) to improve themselves and the world around them.

In the process, mythic books and films also leave the reader with food for thought, something to ponder and talk about after the thrill of the car chase or the gun fight in the lobby or the battle is over. If an author is lucky, some readers find ways to improve their own lives after seeing how the fictional characters did it.

If you’ve seen one Hollywood car chase down a busy street and through a crowded parking garage, you’ve seen them all. Each new car chase sequence has to show larger explosions, more cars flipping over or careening through plate glass windows, or we’ll all be bored. That’s how it is with one-night stands and drugs: without a higher peak experience, there’s nothing there.

Neither “The Sun Singer” nor “Garden of Heaven” have a car chase in them. But each has elements of grief, mystery and danger. I hope readers will find meaning in the way my characters resolve their challenges. One is caught in a battle, and the other is kidnapped. Both discover their lives are at in danger.

Unlike so many of the lives in a non-stop-action car chase movie, I want you to come away from “The Sun Singer” and “Garden of Heaven” thinking “these lives matter.” I want you to care what happens to Robert Adams and to David Ward. I want you to feel that they’re more than one of the innocent people along the street Jack Bauer runs over them en route to catching a world-class criminal.

That’s an adventure of the spirit, a car chase or a plane crash or a battlefield scene that stays with you–perhaps even bothers you–long after you’ve read the book.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Garden of Heaven,” “The Sun Singer” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”