Thursday, August 26, 2004

James Siegel: Derailed

From time to time in this blog, I may well have expressed a preference for fiction of the commercial variety rather than the literary. And I am certainly not going to change that view. I do have to make plain, however, that there are limits. Or at any rate there are constraints. In other words, I don’t like my commercial fiction to be too damned commercial for its own good. A case in point is Derailed, a thriller by James Siegel.

Siegel is an interesting character. He is vice chairman and senior executive creative director of the advertising agency BBDO in New York, and seems to write at weekends and when commuting. In that respect he strongly resembles James Patterson, a thriller writer who wrote several books in his spare time while he was still chairman of J. Walter Thompson, which is yet another advertising agency.

In a recent interview, Siegel tells us that he is now forty-plus, and that he has been writing since his youth. As a young man he wrote a couple of novels which never made it into print, so when he hit forty he decided to have another go. When he had completed his new book, Epitaph, he approached Sara Ann Freed at Mysterious Press, and asked her to read it. (Sara used to publish my own detective novels when she was at Walker, years ago. I once showed her round the city of Bath.) I imagine that Siegel told Sara what his job was, and she, realising that he was not short of intelligence and writing skills, agreed to read the book. Having read it, she recommended a good agent and he landed a two-book contract.

So, we have an author who has been writing (i.e. practising his skills) for well over twenty years, and a writer who is quite smart enough to do his research. Research, that is, on how to bolt together a commercial novel. There is quite a lot of information available for those who take the trouble to burrow for it. Plus, of course, you can read successful books for yourself, and analyse what factors they have in common – in much the same way, I imagine, as an advertising man looks at a competitor’s campaign and works out what made it sell soap.

Now to Derailed. The plot concerns an advertising executive, a married man with a child, who commutes into New York. One morning he sees an absolutely fabulous-looking woman on the train, gets into conversation with her, and begins an affair. When they go to a hotel to have sex, a bad guy bursts in, rapes the woman, steals our hero’s cash, and departs. Later, he blackmails our hero for every penny he has. Things get worse from then on.

It has to be admitted that the structure of Derailed is clever, up to a point, the characterisation tolerably sound, and the story moves at a fierce pace. Siegel has done his homework: he has studied the structure of modern thrillers, worked out that sudden surprises and unexpected plot twists are big plus points, and has included the necessary number of same. And my guess is that Siegel has had more than one conversation with his fellow advertising executive, James Patterson, about how to tell a tale. The 53 chapters average about 5 or 6 pages each, which is very Pattersonesque.

What then, is the problem? Why, in short, do I find Derailed so unsatisfactory?

Well, let me go back a bit for younger readers. In the distant mists of time, when people actually went to the theatre, and authors wrote plays which actually got produced, there were several well-tested formulae for a popular success. The three-act structure was then the preferred arrangement for a play, and one pattern for a box-office hit was as follows: in act one, get your hero up a tree; in act two, throw rocks at him; and in act three, get him out of the tree, and preferably married to the girl by the time the curtain comes down.

So far so good. Siegel follows this formula to the letter. He gets his hero into trouble, and then bombards him with rocks of formidable size and weight from all angles. The protagonist finds himself in every sort and kind of trouble: he is being blackmailed, his wife hates him, his daughter is dying, the police keep knocking on his door, the man he recruits to help him ends up dead, and so on.

But Siegel has forgotten one important factor. In getting your hero into trouble, it is not wise to have him act like a complete idiot. Otherwise, why the hell should anyone care? And the first and most major problem with Derailed is that the hero acts like a complete arsehole. He is presented to us as an intelligent and successful man, with a basically sound marriage. But he embarks on an affair after little more than a friendly smile. The guy is a shit, a fool, and a clown. So when he gets beaten up and finds himself having to sit there and watch while his girlfriend is raped it is hard to feel much sympathy for him.

That’s the first problem. There are others. There’s the fact that the surprises and plot twists are not really very surprising (at least not to someone like me who has plotted a few of his own). Then there’s credibility: lots of problems there. Just by way of example, would a couple wanting to have illicit sex really go to such a sleazy hotel? There are many more comfortable places to go, and our hero could certainly afford one. Neither do I believe that it’s quite as easy to adopt a new identity as Siegel would have us believe – not in the present-day United States. And the whole story-within-a-story framework of the book is totally unconvincing if you stop to think about it for one moment.

So, there we are. Derailed is entirely typical of the kind of slick, ruthlessly professional commercial fiction which publishers just love. They have orgasms over this kind of thing. In London, Derailed was advertised on the underground, and probably got the full publicity treatment in other respects as well.

And the result? Well, on there are three five-star reviews, so Derailed obviously found and pleased its audience. But its audience, if I may say so without sounding too condescending, is probably young, somewhat naïve and inexperienced, and relatively undemanding in what they require from a thriller over and above a page-turning impulse.

Such readers are not like me. I am old, cynical, bitter, twisted, awkward, difficult, fussy, and generally hard to please. In a word, grumpy. But I am ever optimistic, and perhaps next week will bring something about which I can be genuinely enthusiastic.