Friday, July 23, 2004

Henry Porter -- Empire State

Henry Porter is a name that I’ve gradually become aware of over the past year or two.  But, until recently, I had steadfastly declined to pick up one of his books.

Why so?  Well, because one normally ‘becomes aware of’ a writer as a result of publishers’ hype.  And hype, all too frequently, is based on a lack of substance.  It is the result of a kind of barter system which operates between publishers on the one hand and newspaper columnists on the other: free lunches, advertising, and other benefits are exchanged for column inches.  Reality and true quality, not to mention entertainment value, are factors which seldom enter the equation.

However, I recently succumbed to temptation, as I so frequently do, and bought a secondhand paperback copy of Mr Porter’s Empire State.

Given my views about hype, as described above, I was not too impressed to find Jeremy Paxman quoted on the front cover as saying that ‘Empire State had me turning the pages through the night.’  Well yes, Jeremy, I felt like responding.  You may very well have turned these pages through the night – but did you actually read any of them? 

These initial doubts were not assuaged when I opened the book and found that, on the acknowledgements page, Mr Paxman is warmly thanked for helping to dream up the plot of the book ‘during the course of a very idle afternoon by the river.’  We can all get helpful quotes from our mates.

It was a pleasant surprise, after all this, to find that the book is a very professional piece of work.  It’s an espionage-based thriller, I suppose, featuring mainly British intelligence staff seeking to prevent a 9/11 type terrorist coup.  The early chapters are a little confusing perhaps, and the ending is a tad predictable.  Furthermore, the bad guys give in a trifle too conveniently at the end.  But this is a commercial novel we’re talking about, and overall the book is a very passable read.  I am inclined to look out some of his earlier stuff and give it a go.

A few caveats are, however, in order.  The preliminary pages of the paperback edition give copious quotes from favourable reviews of the book in the major newspapers.  In relation to these, you should remember (a) what I said in paragraph two of this post, and (b) that Henry Porter is a very well connected journalist.  At one time he edited the Atticus column in the Sunday Times, and he is the British editor of the American magazine Vanity Fair.  He also writes for the Guardian, the Observer, and others.  It’s not too difficult to get your book widely reviewed with an address book like that.  (And if you want to know more about him you can read an interview here.)

I also have to report that some reviewers were not as enthusiastic as those quoted by the publisher.  Mike Jecks, in Shots magazine, declared that the book ‘didn’t feel quite as believable as, say, Frederick Forsyth in his heyday’, and that ‘there was a sense of emptiness in the middle.’  And even in the Guardian Joan Smith declared that ‘the author’s grasp of Middle Eastern history is superficial.’

On the whole, however, I commend Henry Porter to your attention.  


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