The genres of popular fiction—crime, sci-fi, thriller, horror, romance—are too readily dismissed as a realm in which lightly talented novelists thrive by producing potboilers that tax neither writer nor reader overmuch. Dan Brown, John Grisham, Kate Mosse, James Patterson, Robert James Waller, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel. The mind boggles at the hundreds of millions of books collectively sold by this cohort of mediocrity.
But we ignore these popular genres at peril of missing some of the best writing being done today. Take Colin Harrison. Blessed with impressive literary gifts, he could no doubt pursue a distinguished career as a “serious” novelist by simply smudging a plot point here or there, by guiding his narratives to an unresolved conclusion. But like the equally talented Stephen King, Elmore Leonard or George Pelecanos, Harrison remains committed to what Graham Greene called “entertainments”.
Harrison begins his sixth novel, The Finder, with murder of such baroque complexity as to strain believability—were it not rendered with uncommon skill and attention to detail. A pair of young Mexican women, illegal immigrants, drive their beat-up Toyota to the beach, relaxing after a hard midnight shift cleaning an office building in Manhattan. With them is their slightly older boss, a beautiful Chinese woman named Jin Li.
Jin Li leaves the car to take a bathroom break in the littered dunes just beyond the parking lot, giving her a sheltered view as two trucks, one of them a big sewage hauler, block the Toyota. Men jump out, and in quick order break the sunroof, swing a pipe over from the sewage truck and drown the poor women in human waste. The men beat a hasty retreat.
At once Jin Li knows she was the intended victim. The real business of the company she runs is not to clean offices, but to purloin insider information from the desks of unwary business elites, sending it back to her brother in Shanghai, where he uses it to make stock-market millions for himself and a group of other high-powered criminals-cum-businessmen. Jin Li goes to ground, hiding from everyone—her clients, her brother and the lover she recently dumped, a man of extraordinary capabilities named Ray Grant.
Thus Harrison sets in motion an ensemble thriller that reaches from the pinnacle of New York power—an executive at an upstart pharmaceutical company; an elderly investor with a $1 million investment at risk—to the depths of Brooklyn’s sanitation industry, where one a small businessman who happens to be a sociopath schemes to better himself.
Harrison displays a depth of reportorial knowledge to awe Tom Wolfe. He describes what it’s like to sit in the power seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, what it’s like to burn to death in the rubble of the World Trade Center, what it’s like to be a shallow but good-hearted trophy wife living in ludicrous luxury, what it’s like to be a Manhattan internist with a failing marriage. In this book, as in Manhattan Nocturne and The Havana Room, Harrison not only knows New York, he seems to own it, with firsthand familiarity of every street, every room, from Wall Street to Harlem, Central Park West to Rockaway Beach.
The Finder tells a complicated story, yet never lags. Harrison deftly subverts certain genre expectations while also exploiting them to good effect. For a long time, the capable Ray Grant is taken—by readers and other characters alike—as that thriller standby, the retired, highly trained spy or commando with a guilty conscience.
Grant turns out to be a former firefighter, a survivor of 9/11. His overseas service came not in the military, but as a relief worker in Africa and Asia, rescuing children or recovering bodies from tsunamis and revolutions.
Some reviewers of Richard Price’s recent masterpiece, Lush Life, have lamented his allegiance to the police procedural form, claiming it suppresses the literary possibilities of the story. I strongly disagree—like a poet writing a sonnet, the restrictions of the genre liberate Price’s genius. But the same cannot be said of Harrison, who, though perhaps the equal of Price in ability, aims lower.
Ray, for all his nicely shaded complexities, is a bit of a superhero, capable of physical strength, moral sympathy and mental discipline beyond the ken of mortal men. Likewise, his antagonist is something of a supervillain, driven by a bloodthirsty greed abetted by charisma and cunning.
As the narrative angles toward the climax Harrison relies increasingly on coincidence, and a creaking of machinery can be heard. And the final, fiery confrontation indulges at last in such garish, over-the-top violence that it seems to come from a cheaper novel altogether.
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