Graham Greene called his earlier bestseller Travels with My Aunt an entertainment and The Honorary Consul a novel. The distinction is apt.
The main character in The Honorary Consul is physician Eduardo Plarr whose English father disappeared after having gotten involved with revolutionaries in Paraguay.
Plarr’s medical bag gives him entree into all classes of society in the unnamed Argentinian city in which Charles “call me Charley” Fortnum is honorary consul. Britain recalled the under-worked real consul. The locals don’t know the difference, and most of the time Charley is too drunk to care.
Charley has wed a woman from the local brothel who, to Charley’s delight, is pregnant. Unknown to Charley, Dr. Plarr is Clara’s lover and father of his child.
Charley is kidnapped by revolutionaries who mistake him for the American Ambassador. Rather than waste a hostage, the revolutionaries threaten to kill Charley if their demands are not met.
The kidnappers call Plarr to look after Charley.
Greene is a master of incisive detail. Whether sketching a character or describing a revolution, his pen is precise: Every word matters.
What’s more, every character matters. Greene cares about the countries and the people about whom he writes.
The Billion Dollar Sure Thing is a suspense novel about international monetary policy.
Novelist Paul E. Erdman knocks off in chatty style a complex story of wheeling and dealing by “three arms-length cronies” who control the currency exchanges in three European central banks.
One of the three, Switzerland’s Dr. Walter Hofer, happens to see the American Treasury Secretary Crosby and Bank for International Settlements Secretary-General Bollinger dining together when there was no public reason for both men being in London.
Hofer observes they discuss a red-bound document the American brought, but which the BIS secretary-general carried when they left the Savoy.
Hofer shares with his alternate numbers in New York and London what he observed and what he thinks it might presage.
Hofer’s instincts are right.
The U.S. government is secretly preparing to announce a return to the gold standard and simultaneously revalue gold from $38 to $125 an ounce.
Days later, a red-bound document is stolen from Bollinger’s home safe.
Erdman’s novel is an engrossing yarn; he has a knack for simplifying complicated ideas and a flair for apt character tags.
Sure Thing is also an education in history and economics. Nixon took America off the gold standard in 1971 and we’re living with the consequences today.
The Matlock Paper is a tense, carefully plotted thriller about Jim Matlock, a young English literature PhD recruited by the Department of Justice to go undercover to find Nimrod, the brains behind an organization running drugs, gambling, and prostitution and in nearly every university in New England.
The DOJ regards Matlock as “flawed but mobile” and susceptible: Matlock’s younger brother died from a heroin overdose and he holds himself responsible.
Organized crime has arranged a conference to negotiate an accommodation with Nimrod, whose extraordinary growth is taking a bite out of crime.
The same night after giving him a crash course in how to go undercover, Matlock’s DOJ contact is killed on the way to his car and someone takes a shot at Matlock.
All that happens in the first 38 pages.
Even though there are dozens of characters to watch, novelist Robert Ludlum makes his characters distinctive so that there’s no trouble remembering who’s who.
Aside from letting Matlock go more than two weeks without ever going to teach a class, Ludlum makes his inventive tale seem plausible.
You won’t gain and wisdom from The Matlock Paper, but you’ll be totally caught up on Matlock’s world for a few hours.
That’s just the first of many intriguing and ultimately frustrating aspects of Irwin Shaw’s 1973 bestseller.
Jesse Craig, 48, a film producer who hasn’t produced anything in years, is in Cannes to pitch a film he’s written — if he can work up the courage.
He was successful early in his career, but the work he put in to create the success took its toll. Craig’s wife is divorcing him, he’s alienated from his daughters, and the pilgrims coming to Cannes worship money rather than honest storytelling.
A 20-year-old “journalist” chases Craig for an interview. She’s obviously motivated by something more than a byline, but Craig can’t figure out what.
At Cannes, Craig learns what he had feared: He may get a buyer for his script but he’ll never get an audience for his film. The world Craig knew is gone.
Craig returns to New York where he is almost immediately hospitalized for a month with a bleeding ulcer which his surgeon tells him is self-induced.
In Shaw’s pen, Craig comes across as a genuinely decent guy. He treats even people he dislikes politely, albeit coolly.
Nothing in the novel prepares readers for Craig’s hospitalization or for his behavior after release.
Evening in Byzantium by Irwin Shaw
Delacorte Press, 1973, 368 p.
1973 bestseller #7. My grade: B+
The Hollow Hills is Mary Stewart’s follow-up to her bestseller The Crystal Cave.
Stewart picks up where that story ended, giving just enough background that people who didn’t read the earlier work aren’t lost but dedicated Stewart readers aren’t bored.
Within days of his birth, Arthur is given into Merlin’s care. Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, had sent the Duke of Cornwall into battle and then bedded the Duke’s wife while the Duke was dying on the battlefield.
Arthur is a bastard.
Uther hopes as his queen Ygraine will bear sons untainted by bastardy, but Uther wants Arthur kept safe just in case he has no legitimate male heir.
Most of The Hollow Hills relates Merlin’s travels between the time he secrets the baby away and the time he comes back to return Arthur to his father as his successor. Those chapters allow Stewart to display her considerable landscape word-painting skills.
The Hollow Hills has less hocus-pocus than Cave and better developed characters (although Merlin, his youthful sidekick Ralf, and Arthur each have about a quarter century’s more maturity than appropriate to their chronological ages).
Stewart isn’t to my taste, but The Hollow Hills gave me more to admire than others of her novels that I’ve read.
The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
William Morrow, 1973. 490 p.
1973 bestseller #6. My grade: B
In his “Afterward” to Burr, Gore Vidal says that with the exceptions he describes, “the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did.”
One of the exceptions is Charlie Schuyler, Vidal’s invented narrator.
Charlie is working as a clerk in Burr’s law office ostensibly with an eye on joining the bar; in truth, he wants a literary career. That vantage point lets Charlie record personal and public information about Burr from a wide range of sources, including Burr himself.
Charlie agrees to dig up dirt on Burr for publishers with political as well as mercenary motives.
The facts about Aaron Burr that today’s typical reader knows appear on the first page of Vidal’s novel. While vice-president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Three years later, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to invade Spanish territory and make himself emperor of Mexico.
Readers get to sift all the dirt and make up their own minds about Burr’s character.
Tidbits of the novel are fascinating (eg: George Washington wanted to be addressed as “Your Mightiness”: Thomas Jefferson wanted to send slaves back to “their original latitude.”).
Vidal’s writing is witty while it reveals how much—and how little—America has changed in 200 years.
Breakfast of Champions has nothing to do with breakfast or champions. It has a lot to do with what it means to be human. More precisely, it has to do with what it means to be Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a human and a writer.
For his fiftieth birthday Vonnegut decided to clear his head of all the junk that was in it, including setting free the characters in his previous novels.
Discussing his plot with readers and appearing in his own book have been done before but Vonnegut makes them integral to his story. Vonnegut’s drawings have that same sense of belonging.
Writing in the first person, Vonnegut tells only one of his characters of his new freedom: Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer whose voluminous writings had been published, with no remuneration to him, wrapped around pornographic photographs.
The other characters from in Breakfast don’t know they have been freed or that they were once characters. That’s because humans other than Kilgore Trout are really just machines.
If this sounds nonsensical, maybe it is. But if it’s nonsense, what accounts for the lack of humanity people exhibit?
I can’t decide if Breakfast is brilliant or just quirky, but I’ll definitely read it again.
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
with drawings by the author
Delaworte Press/Seymour Lawrence, Book Club ed. 304 p.
1973 bestseller #3. My grade: B
The night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, German free-lance journalist Peter Miller followed an ambulance hoping to find a story at its destination.
What he found was Solomon Tauber, 56, dead from suicide.
Beside the body was a diary of Tauber’s experiences in the SS extermination camp run by SS Captain Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga.”
After reading the diary, Peter feels compelled to find out what happened to Roschmann. He learns Tauber had seen Roschmann alive just a month before right in Hamburg.
Peter starts hunting for Roschmann.
Soon his snooping is noticed by Odessa, the secret organization of ex-SS officers living under new identifies, and by spies for Israel’s Intelligence Service who don’t want amateurs messing up their efforts to stop the development in Germany of a guidance system for Egyptian missiles.
Frederick Forsyth’s spins a suspenseful tale drawing on his career as an investigative reporter in Europe. He weaves actual names and events into his fiction so seamlessly that story feels both real and important.
Forsyth’s invented characters feel real, too. He gets the details right.
Best of all, Forsyth quietly raises questions about human motivation and whether citizens should be held guilty for actions of their government.