I’m the kind of writer—and reader—who’s always favored character over story. If your character is interesting enough—and real enough—to me, I’ll follow him or her anywhere. Stories that lead with story over character have always seemed a bit thin, insubstantial—even though I sometimes have friends who are big advocates for them.
But I’ve just read a couple of books that made me think a little deeper about this distinction.
Colin Cotterill’s ‘The Coroner’s Lunch’ has a terrific central character and situation. Siri is a 72-year-old doctor recently released from ‘re-education’ in Laos just after the Pathet Lao took over. As one of the few doctors who hasn’t fled the country with the change in regimes, he is sent to the capitol city to be the nation’s coroner. He has no interest in the job and even less in working with the party bureaucracy but has no choice but to fulfill his role in the worker’s paradise. And then the wife of a high party official shows up mysteriously dead and he follows the mystery to a winding conclusion.
The writing here is strong and the character interesting, both the man and his situation. Siri has a jaundiced eye that he turns on both the corrupt regime recently overthrown and its new Communist successor. There are a good number of subsidiary characters, many of whom—including Siri’s brother, a Vietnamese military coroner and a police detective—have to be rated as suspects or at least somewhat suspicious as the case proceeds.
The other book is something that, in the past, I might not have picked off the shelf on my own. Jon Land’s ‘Strong Enough to Die’ is the second in a series about the first female Texas Ranger and the writing and characters, at first blush, seem direct and clear but not particularly deep. There’s a story involving a Halliburton-like corporation—I like that idea—but the actual dangerous plot in the end seemed a little melodramatic. So you wouldn’t think this would be up my alley but I met Jon at a writer’s conference in February and he’s a really engaging funny gentleman, so I read the book—and got several great surprises.
I’m the guy who generally figures out the thriller plot on page 45 or fifteen minutes into the film. Maybe I don’t get every detail but I can give a good guess generally of who’s the villain and how the ending will play out.
‘Strong Enough to Die’ did something very unusual—it totally threw me twice early on and then maintained my interest all the way to the end, by creating a powerful tension within character. The problem with reviewing the book is that there’s very little I can tell about the story without giving away the surprises because they come early. I will just say that major characters do things you wouldn’t expect, the opposite of what you’ve been set up to expect—but when they make their moves, those moves seem not only understandable but almost inevitable and that’s a hell of a trick, especially early in a book.
And the result is that, ever after, you pay attention. This book gave me a new respect for strong story. I understood from that first big switch-up that there was no point speculating – it would only be blind guesswork or playing the odds, because the author had already defied those odds in a very satisfying fashion. And that kind of uncertainty is a huge strength in a thriller, because it mirrors what spooks us in real life.
Coming off that experience, I enjoyed ‘Coroner’s Lunch’ but not as much as I might have in the past. It ended up as what’s generally called a ‘cozy’ mystery, where the sleuth figures out the murderer with a minimum of violence and action. In truth, I’m not even sure who the murderer was or how Siri came to his conclusion. I enjoyed the book for the writing and characters, but after the experience of having been completely thrown by a well-written story, it came off as a tame exercise as opposed to a couple rounds in the ring.