As the heading suggests, this post is going to be partly a review of Ron Morgans' thriller Kill Chase, and partly a short disquisition upon the art of building a career as a thriller writer (if you really feel you must) in the digital age.
Ron Morgans is a former Fleet Street picture editor -- there's lots more about him on his own web site -- and, presumably following retirement, he did what he'd always fancied doing, namely write a thriller.
As thrillers go, Kill Chase is perfectly competent. If you found it on the shelf in the crime/thriller section of your local library, took it home and read it, you probably wouldn't notice that it wasn't published by one of the top firms.
In fact, it's self-published through Lulu.com. To which we will return in a moment. But first, it's only fair and reasonable to say a few words about the book.
Borrowing heavily from the blurb, here's a quick summary of the plot. Henrietta Fox is a paparazzo who takes a piccy of the Prime Minister's pregnant mistress with another man; the mistress gets murdered and the killer comes after the lovely Henrietta.
Christian Boyd is an ex-Royal Protection Officer living in Spain. When someone threatens to off the Queen, he is called back to duty.
And so on. The 'kill chase' takes our hero and heroine from Belgravia to Beverley Hills, Barcelona, and Jerusalem, and finally we end with blood staining the sands of Palestinian Gaza.
Now this is all good thriller-type stuff, as you can see. The question is, how well is it done?
The answer to that is, tolerably well. It's a neat professional job. Ron has not worked on the tabloids all those years for nothing. There are thirty-eight chapters in 250 pages, with short paragraphs and short sentences. He knows how to use viewpoint, which a lot of writers don't.
Should you wish to read the book yourself, it's available either direct from Lulu or via other online bookstores such as Barnes and Noble.
I don't know for sure, though I dare say Ron would tell us if we asked, whether he tried to get this book published through orthodox routes. He may well have approached a few agents or publishers. However, a retired picture editor, even an eminent one, is not quite the type of person that agents and publishers are looking for. What they really want is a more mainstream journalist, someone thirty years younger, who will look really cool (especially if female) on Richard and Judy's sofa.
In any event, it would have surprised me if, in the present market, Ron had succeeded in getting this done by one of the big firms. And whether he tried to go that route or not, Ron eventually went for self-publishing through Lulu.
Now. Let us pause here and consider the situation of a youngish person, male or female, but probably male in this genre, who fancies a career as a thriller writer. He looks around, and, if he's a Brit, he notes the success of people such as Jack Higgins and Ken Follett. They've had long careers, written many books, made lots of money, had films made, they've got fame if they want it, anonymity if they don't. And our young, ambitious writer fancies a bit of that.
I have argued elsewhere, notably in The Truth about Writing and On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, that such dreams are usually no more than dreams, and that the wise, mature individual will not pursue them, because that way lies deep and painful frustration if not actual madness.
But I will allow, in principle, that there is a rational way to at least make a reasonable stab at building such a career. And here's why, and here's how I think it needs to be approached in the digital age.
If you look at the careers of the two British thriller writers whom I mentioned above (and others, such as John Le Carre), you will see that they all started to write thirty or forty years ago. And they all produced a number of run-of-the-mill, fairly ordinary sort of books, before they hit the big time.
Let's start with Jack Higgins. We'll take the Wikipedia entry for starters, though there is masses more information elsewhere on the web. This makes it clear that Jack Higgins is one of many pseudonyms used by a man whose real name is Harry Patterson. Says Wikipedia: 'Patterson's early novels, written under his own name as well as under the pseudonyms James Graham, Martin Fallon, and Hugh Marlow, are brisk, competent, but essentially forgettable thrillers.' With which I would not disagree.
Patterson started writing in 1959 and it wasn't until 1975, and (by my count) his thirty-fifth book, that he produced a 'breakthrough novel' called The Eagle Has Landed. Even then, an agent once told me, Collins in the UK saw it as just another Jack Higgins book, until the Americans started getting all excited and everything took off big time.
Then there's Ken Follett. Wikpedia also has a useful article on him. We learn that, beginning in 1974, he published 'a series of competent but undistinguished paperback originals written under various pseudonyms.' It was not until his twelfth book that he made any real impact. This book is usually known by the title Eye of the Needle, but it was originally published in England as Storm Island.
The moral of all this is painfully obvious. Obvious that is, to anyone except a modern publisher. The moral is that, to become an internationally successful thriller writer you need time, practice, and experience. If you were writing anywhere between fifty and perhaps twenty years ago, you could get that time and experience, with a bit of luck.
You would begin, as everyone does, by writing a fairly run-of-the-mill book. Naturally you would think it was absolutely fantastic, because that is in the nature of writers, but other people would see it as promising as best. And in the days when there was a library market, British publishers (I can't speak for elsewhere) would have taken you on. At first they wouldn't make any money, and neither would you. But gradually you would begin to get a few reviews in provincial papers, perhaps the odd mention in a broadsheet, and ultimately -- just possibly, perhaps, maybe -- you might write a book which everyone could get genuinely excited about. Instead of trotting out the old pre-publication bullshit.
But those days, in the publishing world, are gone. There isn't any library market to sustain a young writer. And the friendly old publisher, puffing his pipe, who understood that these things take time, has been replaced by a thrusting young somebody who is under pressure from his multinational conglomerate to come up with a big hit now. And preferably sooner.
And we all know what this leads to. It leads to run-of-the-mill books being published as if they were fantastic. Which they ain't. It would be invidious to give examples, but, at the risk of being thought vindictive, I'll give one anyway: The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne.
I've had my say about The Righteous Men, here in this blog, many a time. Notably on 20 July this year. I haven't read the book, but I think it's fair to say that objective critics who have regard it as ordinary at best. And who can be surprised by that? It is, I venture to suggest, well nigh impossible to write an absolutely cracking thriller straight out of the box. It just doesn't happen, and it does no one any good -- most of all the readers -- to pretend that it's possible.
OK, so where does that leave our young man who wants to be the new Higgins/Follett?
I suggest that it leaves him with one clear and unambiguous strategy, which could be followed, and possibly successfully, if only our young man has the good sense to recognise his own limitations and to find within himself enormous amounts of patience and energy.
The strategy is this. You write a thriller, and you publish it yourself, through Lulu, or some similar outlet. You devote a certain amount of time to publicising it, but you have sufficient strength of character, and sufficient background knowledge, to understand that this time it ain't going to happen. Or the next, either, if it comes to that.
And you repeat that pattern perhaps half a dozen times. With each book you accumulate some halfway decent reviews, a bit of notice here and there. And, above all, you hone your skills. And then -- maybe -- you might just be in a position, after five years or so, to write a book which will seriously interest an agent and a publisher, and which might, perhaps, set you on the road to success.
But of course the strategy might not work. And you really need to be prepared for that too. And the really, really difficult bit is not pretending that you don't care -- anyone can pretend.
The really difficult bit is being mature enough that you genuinely do not care. Because you did it for the fun of the thing anyway, and not because you had any unrealistic and foolish illusions about the way in which modern publishing works. Or doesn't work, as the case may be.