Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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Vicious Circle by Robert Littell Duckworth Overlook £7.99 ISBN 9780715637494

Exile by Richard North Patterson Pan £6.99 ISBN 9780330440134


Robert Littell It's unlikely there's a more intractable geo-political problem than that of Israel and Palestine. Not only is it a tragedy of epic proportions within its own lands, but it is a root motivator of much of the extremism that sees itself transformed into terror around the world.  It is a conflict which forces the United States government into positions that may flow contrary to its overall best interests, and sometimes contradict much of its stated foreign policy goals. It is also such a tinder box issue in America, that it takes a certain amount of courage simply to approach it in a balanced way.


It is surprising how few writers who operate in the espionage genre have delved into the issue itself, which is why two recent novels by very different sorts of novelists have been so fascinating to compare.  Actually, that one of those two should be Robert Littell is no surprise at all. Littell is one of America's very best spy novelists: one of the first to be compared to John LeCarre (when he wrote The Defection Of AJ Lewinter) and one of the few to be compared to Norman Mailer (with his massive CIA novel The Company).  If there is a big three of American espionage, Littell would have to be there along with Charles McCarry and Alan Furst (and Furst, thus far, has dealt exclusively in the past).  And Vicious Circle is a novel firmly grounded in the world of intelligence, with its focus on the hunt for an American-born fundamentalist rabbi and leader of the settlement movement, who is kidnapped and held for ransom by a legendary Palestinian assassin.


Richard North Patterson, on the other hand, is best-known as a writer of legal thrillers, though following the course of his career, his best work has usually been done on the political side; I once said he's much closer to writers like Allan Drury (Advice and Consent) than to, say, John Grisham or Scott Turow, with whom he's more usually compared.  So with that interest in politics, it's not shocking that he chooses the Arab-Isareli conflict as the basis for a thriller, but what is fascinating is the way he frames his book within the boundaries of the courtroom genre in which he's worked.  A moderate Israeli prime minister is assassinated in San Francisco, and a Palestinian woman is accused of having masterminded the killing.  For her defense, she turns to a prominent local attorney, with whom she had a secret affair in law school, and who is, of course, Jewish.


On the face of it, very different books.  Indeed, Patterson's follows his template, which is that of a lawyer, sometimes a lawyer turned politician, engaged in a battle where his loyalties to individuals will be set against both his self-interest and usually his overall aim. It breaks the mold in that the lawyer in question, David Wolfe, is not one of the small circle of characters who recur in Patterson's other novels, and which is one of the things that keeps them interesting, even when the people themselves seem too good to be true.  The story becomes, for a long while, Wolfe's own initiation into the intricacies of the conflict, forcing him not so much to choose sides as to reconsider the whole element of sides themselves.  Which is, in the end, what Patterson has set out to do. The title of the book reflects the fact that both the Jewish people and the Palestinians are exiles, and winds up taking a very balanced perspective on the roots of the conflict, or, more importantly, the prospects of solution for it.  Patterson's is a very liberal approach, recognising common ground, common struggles and common humanity, and what he is at greatest pains to reveal is the way that the conflict has become self-perpetuating, with vested interests of both sides with no desire to see it stop at anything short of total victory.


But the novel itself remains a typically Patterson courtroom battle, with the resolution very much one of personal betrayal, which is the core of all his novels that do resolve themselves in courtrooms, rather than the political process. As is frequently the case, the ultimate villain is pretty obvious early on, but the reader is given plenty of uncertainties along the way. That he chose not to pursue this issue with a series character like President Kerry Kilcannon (and most of Patterson's books have featured a cast of recurring, and often interlocking, characters) is significant in itself, and a signal of how intractable he finds the situation.  Thus when Wolfe goes to Israel, his education becomes the readers, and there really isn't too much point to the trip other than that.


Littell's book is much more grounded in the world of intelligence, and where Wolfe's attempts to get to the root of the intelligence are an issue for him and his client, in Littell's book the workings of intelligence agencies (and the Palestinians own equivalent) are the core of the story.  Its ultimate point, however, is very close to Patterson's, in that his extremist rabbi and Palestinian kidnapper are inevitably drawn together, closer and closer, to the point where their enmity becomes self-contradictory.  At the heart of both books is a real sense, an outsiders sense, that these two peoples are indeed more similar than different, and that a solution is possible. If Littell's ultimate twist turns out to be a personal one, and perhaps not totally convincing in terms of execution, if not character, it is the solution to which he has been building all through the story.  Perhaps because his books deal with intelligence professionals, rather than lawyers, Littell may have more faith in the ultimate good intentions of such men. But the point of his book his summarized in his title, and it's every bit as pessimistic as Patterson's.


That the crime and espionage genre should be the place such issues are addressed is fascinating in itself.  Speaking about a McCain rally, where the candidate himself repudiated calls by Mitt Romney and Rudi Giuliani for 'more Guantanamos' by asking if America really wanted a 'second Spanish Inquisition', Matt Taibbi reflected that it's a strange world where speaking against the Inquisition can be seen as an act of political courage.  This is more evident for Patterson, who, as a lawyer has presented a balanced case. It's more bleak for Littell, who has laid out the details on the ground, and sees the most promising future for the enforcers, not the peace-makers.  These are two informed and revealing books, and make a finely matched pair.


Vicious Circle By Robert Littell

Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
26 Jun 2008) pbk £7.99

Exile By Richard North

Published by Pan Books
2 Nov 2007) pbk £6.99



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