Since the last newsletter, I’ve endured a fairly lengthy run of ok books in there: The Expats, A Cold Day in Paradise, The Faithful Spy, Act of Fear and The Thomas Berryman Number (more on that last one).
They were all fine.
This is not damning with faint praise. Well. Objectively. They were, genuinely, fine. I read them. And I don’t regret it. Win and win. Behaviourally, I played more games on my phone during this particular streak, which doesn’t bodes well for how ‘engaging’ I found them. Or ‘gripping’, as the blurbs would say. But no complaints. Ergo, fine.
The thing is about creative quality - or cultural quality - or however you want to call it - it is a fantastic living experiment in watching your own standards erode. If I read, or ‘consume’, a lot of stuff in a row that’s fine, I very, very quickly find that ‘fine’ becomes ‘ok’, or even ‘good’. My own expectations become managed, as I convince yourself that what I’m consuming is satisfying, simply because I’m consuming it. The sunk cost fallacy + a DIY shift in social norms = boiling the frog of quality. And, of course, this very much applies to any other area as well, from Netflix binges to creative campaigns.) Given enough adequacy, you can forget what good looks like.
But then… you stumble on actual greatness, and that puts everything else back into perspective. That’s where the damnation of faint praise occurs. Relatively speaking, ok is ok. But it is also long, long way from great.
In this case, greatness came in the form of John Dudley Ball’s In The Heat of the Night. All the clever detailing and intellectual rigour of a traditional detective novel, but interlaced with powerful social commentary and gloriously rich, complicated characters. There are several different voices in this short novel, yet each and every one is distinct. Heat has a lot to say, and uses the mechanics of the mystery as the way of getting it all out there. Moreover, despite the mystery not being ‘the point’, it is an incredibly good mystery. It manages to capture far more than its genre, while still being true and loyal and loving to the genre itself.
In fact, that latter point is one of the (many) reasons Heat is stuck in my mind. I’m - and steal yourself - not a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the stories immensely, and still remember reading them for the first time in a battered brown paperback omnibus, smuggled into the back of class. And, like others of my generation, Holmes is Jeremy Brett (or perhaps vice versa).
As I’ve grown up though, the appeal of Holmes has faded. I find it to be the Asimovian mystery: all about the intellectual rigour and the bitty detail, but with character - and to some degree, story - lagging behind. Kudos to a centuries-old fanbase who have worked tirelessly to give Holmes the sexiness, personality, and depth that’s just not present in the original texts. Holmes as written is ‘Hard Detection’. (And don’t get me started on Agatha Christie, who I find about as interesting as reading an IKEA manual with the front cover missing. AHA! It was a Detolf all along! I sussed it when we opened the second bag of dowels!)
In the Heat of the Night features a Sherlockian uberdetective, in this case, Virgil Tibbs. He’s a highly-decorated homicide officer, a martial arts expert, a master of deduction, and, also, black. The last is particularly important, given, in Heat, he’s tasked with solving a murder set in a small town, in the deep South, in the mid-1960s. Imagine all the admirable intelligence and deductive prowess of Sherlock Homes, but in a character completely devoid of privilege. Unlike Holmes, Tibbs’ authority is never taken for granted. The police aren’t Lestrade-like, bumbling goofballs, they’re actively opposed to Tibbs’ every move. Two-thirds of Tibbs’ witnesses won’t even talk to him, and the remaining third won’t make eye contact. Every single statement he makes is challenged; no deduction goes without thorough cross-examination. He can’t utter a word without being contradicted, shouted down, or flat-out ignored by everyone around him. Gallingly, they’re all his intellectual inferiors, and as the reader, we know. Tibbs has no resources, no connection and no allies - frustratingly, the people he’s trying to help are the ones most keen to reject him.
It is infuriating, but also, in a literary sense, completely wonderful. Holmes is Superman - a perfect, alien being who has to disguise himself as a relatable human being. Tibbs, however, is a lightning rod for human frailty. While Sherlock has fans, Tibbs suffers fools. He’s every female academic that gets mansplained their own subject matter on Twitter; every person of colour told to ‘go back where they came from’; every hard-earned success that’s undermined by pettiness and aggression. In Bells’ novel, we have the satisfaction of knowing that Tibbs is right. We watch him slowly, inexorably, grind towards justice (and edge those around him just the tiniest bit towards progress). It is a beautiful and deeply, deeply rewarding sight to witness.
I suppose the only downside of the whole thing is that the book that followed - The Cold War Swap - would, in other circumstances, be the best I’d read on the list. It is very, very good indeed. But it isn’t In The Heat of the Night.
We all deserve a touch of goodness in our lives, if only to remind us not to settle for ok.
Get: Anyone in a position of creative judgement
To: Not stop at ok
By: Reminding them what good feels like
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Alluded to above: James Patterson’s The Thomas Berryman Number.
I am not a Patterson reader. I’ve tried Patterson’s books. I did not like Patterson’s books.
As a result, I was not particularly keen to read The Thomas Berryman Number when it appeared on my challenge, but I am extremely courageous so in I went. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not the cheeseball straight-to-Cinemax thriller that I anticipated. Instead, Berryman is an intricately-constructed character study. It isn’t perfect, but it is, in fairness, fine. Possibly even pretty good. Something like The Last Picture Show by way of George Pelecanos. Occasionally tedious, definitely messy, but atmospheric and pleasantly ambiguous.
Patterson fans haaaaaate it:
James Patterson is usually a good writer, so I'm surprised he hasn't pulled this one. Granted, I only got half way through, but still couldn't make heads or tails of it.
I can usually read his stuff in a day but this was not the case. It took forever to finish and I wanted to throw it away half way through the book. It never got better.
If I had read this before any of his others I dont think I would have read any of his other books!
Constantly through all my reviews on Patterson books I have continually said that i have yet to find a bomb so to speak. The Thomas Berryman Number was my 21st Patterson novel and how ironic the bomb i would find planted within the Patterson bibliography would be his very first book ever??!!
I'm a big fan of Patterson and have read most of his work. I have been looking forward to reading his first novel for some time and was very dissapointed. If there is one possitive thing to come out of this book it is that James Patterson's story telling has greatly improved since he penned this work. Quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.
Berryman is the third-lowest rated Patterson title on Goodreads. Its supremely shitty 2.86 rating puts it squarely behind such treasures as The Lifeguard, The Homeroom Diaries, French Kiss, Give Thank You a Try, Mistress (Free Preview Edition), Zoo: Graphic Novel Edition, Private: Delhi, Middle School #12 (also, de facto, #1-11), The $10,000,000 Marriage Proposal, and the immortal Penguins of America.
Meanwhile, Patterson, by the numbers:
114 New York Times bestselling novels
67 #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author
One in 17, roughly 6%, of all hardcover novels sold in the United States
Patterson. He’s an overwhelming commercial success, he’s connected through the supply chain, he aggressively reaches out to different reading audiences (including new ones), he has a clear value in ‘the story’, and he’s converted his name into a brand that’s far more iconic or recognisable than any publishing imprint or logo. Dude has won publishing.
Yet, it wasn’t until his 8th (I think?) book, Along Came a Spider, that Patterson began his evolution into THE PATTERSON: the birth of a brand. Berryman is arguably both the purest form of Patterson and the book most distant from THE PATTERSON. As the author’s debut, it was written with no personal industry context: no pressure, no precedent. The pilot: the book Patterson wanted to write, and written, relatively speaking, in a vacuum. The evolution of THE PATTERSON, the commercial powerhouse, is utterly fascinating. Was this a conscious choice? Is it incremental? How does this work?
Just like trying to piece together ‘influences’, this is an impossible question to answer. I like Patterson a lot (see above, especially as regards using his clout to reach - and create - new readers). Knowing that he can, when he chooses to, write a pretty good, Edgar-winning novel, only increases my respect for him.
* * *
Stuff happening: I’ll be in Dublin in early August (exact programming tbd - negotiations ongoing). I’m reading for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. The Outcast Hours sold really well at Bradford Literature Festival (thank you, THE NORTH), and is still available at all good bookshops. And, of course, Djinn.