Special Guest Post by Victor Catano
I bought a copy, and was immediately dazzled by the fantastic characters in the story about the Lamb of God coming to earth. Rain Johnson, the indifferent messiah, and Jude, the one time betrayer of Jesus trying to set things right by guiding her, were especially vibrant. And that’s not to mention the wonderful characters of Rain’s mother and sister and lover.
For me, that’s the main thing I look for in books when I’m reading. Vivid, memorable characters. I am drawn to great characters and that is what makes me return to a series again and again.
This is not to say that plot is unimportant. A great plot twist – one that is truly unexpected – is an amazing pleasure to read. But, to quote Harlan Ellison, there are only two plots. The hero goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. It’s the characters that make me want to read more.
To give you a personal example, I read a lot of mystery and thriller series. I’ve read about 35 Spenser novels from Robert Parker, all the Stephanie Plums from Janet Evanovich, almost every one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer and Harry Bosch books. All of these books bring me great joy to read, but not all of them are finely tuned plot machines.
Take Spenser, my Mom’s favorite detective and one she introduced me to. She tried like heck to get me hooked on Robert Heinlein, but it never quite took. Spenser, though! The cool, Boston PI with the dry wit and a strong jab! A man’s man, he could beat you up and then cook a three course meal to celebrate. Add to this his friend, Hawk – a self described Nubian who jokes and banters with Spenser but can be a no-nonsense killer when needed – and Susan Silverman, a Jewish psychiatrist, is Spenser’s girlfriend and also his conscience. The interactions between the three of them are what gives the books their charm.
The plots are often interchangeable. Spenser is in his office, either drinking coffee or watching the girls walk by, when a poor naif comes in with a sob story of injustice. Said naif can only pay him a token fee or a box of donuts. Spenser’s inner sense of decency is piqued, investigating ensues, quips are quipped, heads are beaten. (You get the idea.) The reason I’ve read 35 or so of these books (including a couple of the ‘estate sanctioned’ ones cranked out after Parker’s death) is because I love these guys. I love Spenser’s quips. I love Hawk’s banter. I…tolerate the part in every book where Spenser declares that his love for Susan is More Real and Stronger because they aren’t married and don’t live together. I love the way the character goes about investigating. It’s a visit with friends, but with more punching. (I assume. I can’t speak for your gatherings.)
And that’s important because when you’re reading book six out of forty, it kind of lessens the suspense about whether or not Spenser will escape from the villain’s clutches. Unless Spenser is a ghost detective for books 7-40 (Spoiler: He’s not.), you can be confident he’ll escape without too much damage. While I, of course, would like the plot to be interesting I also want to see how the characters react to a new situation.
Interestingly, if you ask Spenser fans what their least favorite books in the series are, I’d wager it’d be the ones about ten books in where Susan leaves Spenser (A Catskill Eagle) because of an infidelity of his. (A Savage Place) These plots are very different. The characters are in incredibly different environments, and it’s uncertain if things can be repaired between them.
And I hated them. Hated. Hated that Spenser would have an affair with a TV reporter (that he tries to justify by saying it’s not really a betrayal). Hated that Susan would run off to ‘find herself.’ Hated that she would then need to be rescued by Spenser because she started dating a new guy who had a criminal background. HATED.
Now, am I an indiscriminate reader? Do I hate being challenged? Do I only want happy endings?
No. I hated these books BECAUSE they were a betrayal of the characters. They were acting in ways that they didn’t normally act by being stupid, insensitive and careless. In fact, one of the better Spenser books is Small Vices, where Spenser gets shot by an assassin and spends a good part of the book with Hawk and Susan while they try to rehabilitate him. This is a very different plot than usual and works wonderfully because of the characters. There are whole chapters where Hawk is trying to get an exhausted Spenser to run up a hill. That’s it, and it’s fantastic. It works because it showcases how much hawk and Susan love Spenser in different ways, and how much Spenser relies on both of them despite his tough guy front.
I’m sure everyone can name an instance where characters they loved started acting cuckoo crazy. I always think of Hannibal, the long awaited sequel to Silence of the Lambs. The book chugs along nicely until the ending, where Clarice and Lecter declare their love for each other and run away to Argentina to go tango dancing. (Really. For once, the movie ending is about a million times better.)
So that’s me. I’ll put up with familiar plot lines so long as I have characters that I’m drawn to. (There’s a reason I’ve seen hundreds of Law & Order episodes with identical plots, and his name is Detective Lenny Briscoe.) I’m a sucker for a great character. That’s why I keep bugging Katrina to write more about Rain Johnson. (Not yet? How about now? Now?)
Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, light designer, and technical director, working mainly with dance companies. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles.
— Many thanks to Victor Catano for visiting with the Dolls today. For some serious giggles, check out Victor’s book, Tail and Trouble.
And now he’s made us curious. How do you read?