Here are a few notes I made to myself about how not to write a thriller while reading Lou Berney’s new thriller, Whiplash River.
Not that I’m planning to write a thriller. And not that if I wrote one it would as entertaining as Berney’s a bit overstuffed but generally fun, cheerfully and unabashedly Elmore Leonard-influenced story of a former car thief and wheelman turned restauranteur dragged into a long con by a dapper old man of mystery while on the run from three separate sets of killers intent on making him dead in the most unpleasant ways possible.
It’s just that I couldn’t help reading Whiplash River with a divided mind.Seemed like every time Berney was just getting a scene up to speed, he slammed on the brakes and brought things to a screeching halt for some unnecessary exposition and then, without warning, he’d punch the accelerator and off we’d go again, nose practically in the air, only to skid to another stop a page later for another expository pit stop. It gave me a case of critical whiplash, particularly in the early going. Being jarred in and out of the story like that caused me to keep taking my eyes off the road and all that time at the pumps for plot fill-ups gave me too much time to think about the driving instead of looking forward to the trip ahead.
And then, halfway through, the story breaks itself rather neatly in two and Berney effectively starts over with a new novel with some of the same characters, the first part of the book reduced to a very long prologue.
At any rate, here are my notes:
If your first scene is several pages of exposition mainly explaining how your hero got his nickname and your second scene is your hero breaking up a knife fight in a restaurant kitchen between the prep chef and a waiter while putting out a grease fire at the same time, then your second scene is your first scene and your first scene is a few lines of dialog in your fifth or sixth scene.
If your hero is spending his time after something violent or threatening or comic or baffling that just happened to him thinking about what just happened to him in a way that pretty much just recaps what just happened, hit the backspace key and hold it down until you’ve deleted at least three sentences and then start in on making the next violent, threatening, comic, or baffling thing happen.
If you’re not planning to introduce your love interest until halfway through the novel, work her backstory in as you write your way towards her entrance or else you’re going to have to interrupt yourself in the middle of the chase to spend several pages telling us what is most likely an old, old story: They met, they were in love, it ended badly, they both still carry a torch.
While you’re at it, don’t fall in love with your leading female character.
Don’t introduce a second female character and fall in love with her too.
Don’t let on you’re having fun picturing which actresses you’d like to play your female leads and imagining them speaking your dialog. It’s distracting not least because it will cause your readers to start playing the casting game along with you, and, by the way, Emma Stone and Angelina Jolie.
Also, if you’re holding off on revealing the MacGuffin that’s driving your plot, make sure it’s a truly weird and unique item or a completely understandable one, like a painting, a diamond, a top secret soft drink recipe, either way, something your readers might be tempted to steal as opposed to something you have to keep reminding them is worth a lot of money to the right sort of buyer. Don’t make it a banal piece of historical trivia that happens to be A.) real and easily Googled and B.) currently on display in a museum in New York City and not in the condition it’s going to be when you’re through with it. If you insist on using that particular artifact, think about what the National Treasure movies did with similar artifacts, which was not make them ends in themselves.
Now, obviously, it sounds like I only learned negative lessons from Whiplash River. Even if that was the case, though, please don’t get the idea I only have negative things to say. The Elmore Leonard influence is a very good thing, as are the comparisons coming up to Carl Hiaasen and Donald Westlake. But, as it happens, I drew one very important positive lesson from the book. It’s actually not something new. It’s just something I like being reminded of.
There are three ways to go with a thriller. You can write what’s essentially a horror story. You can tell a morality tale. You can make it a comedy. It seems like most contemporary thrillers---books and movies---are horror stories. The bad guys are monsters, inhumanly evil, irresistible, relentless, and possessed of an almost supernatural ability to cause harm and get away with it. John D. McDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Robert B. Parker told morality tales. Most of the crimes in their novels arise from decent people’s moral failings rather than from the intrusion of an outside evil. Whiplash River is a comedy, cheerfully amoral and with a cast of lunatics, not sinners or monsters. Issues of right and wrong, good and evil are left out of the mix or pushed into the background by characters’ more immediate concerns, like “How did I get myself into this mess and how am I going to get out of it.” Characters aren’t motivated by their vices so much as by their obsessions and manias. Troubles don’t come because of moral lapses but because human beings just have a natural tendency to goof up.
Elmore Leonard is Berney’s obvious influence, but there’s more than a nod towards Carl Hiaasen here too. Berney’s humor, though, isn’t as mordant or borderline sadistic as Leonard’s can be or as blackly farcical as Hiaasen’s. Actually, in its more screwball comedy, Whiplash River reminded me of Donald Westlake’s comic crime novels, particularly the Dortmunder series. Berney’s protagonist, Shake Bouchon, is not as smart as Dortmunder and he lacks Dortmunder’s instinct for self-preservation, but like Dortmunder he is, to paraphrase Westlake himself, a man upon whom the sun shines only when he needs complete darkness.
Shake---and as I hinted up top, Berney spends too much time in his first scene explaining how Shake came to be called Shake, and it turns out not to be an interesting or important story---is having a bad week.
His beachside restaurant in Belize isn’t doing a landmark business. The boss of the local drug cartel who loaned Shake the money to open the place is not happy that Shake has fallen behind in his payments. An FBI agent has flown down from the States intent on coercing Shake into testifying against some Armenian mobsters Shake did a few jobs for back in California. And to top off his troubles, a ski-masked thug shows up during what passes for the dinner rush and tries to kill one of Shake’s few customers, shooting up the dining room in the process.
Since dead customers tend to bring down the ratings in the online travel guides, Shake reflexively tackles the thug and after a less than heroic struggle chases him from the scene with a broken nose.
The thug turns out to be part of a team of rookie killers for hire on their first hit, and his partner is his ferocious, vindictive, psychopathic, and fiercely loyal freckle-faced girlfriend who immediately decides that Shake has to pay for breaking her beloved’s nose and, incidentally, getting in the way of their doing the job they were paid to do. For the sake of love and professional pride, Shake has to die, painfully.
It’s a question, though, who’s going to cause Shake the more trouble, the freckle-faced assassin or the customer whose life Shake has saved.
Harry Quinn is, he claims, a semi-retired CIA operative who, if he’s to be believed, had a hand in every important Agency mission from the Nixon Administration on up into George W. Bush’s first term and who, take his word for it, still gets called in from time to time to help out his old colleagues and even, and this Shake is willing to believe, old enemies. The grateful Quinn, feeling he owes Shake a life-debt, wants to repay him by bringing him in on a scheme Quinn promises will pay off in millions of dollars. Shake is inclined to say thanks, but no thanks, wisely figuring that Quinn is not someone to trust with his physical or financial well-being.
But then Shake’s restaurant blows up. The freckle-faced assassin tries to shoot him dead on the beach. The drug kingpin decides to write of his losses and Shake along with them. And the FBI agent gives Shake a choice: rat on the Armenians or…well, actually, there isn’t an or.
Shake needs to get out of Belize in a hurry. But his only ride is Quinn and Quinn demands Shake’s help with his scheme as the price of the ticket.
That’s a lot going on for one novel, and we’re still only halfway through.
Shake realizes he and Quinn are going to need some help. He doesn’t feel smart enough or ruthless enough himself and even if the money Quinn expects his scheme to net is real, Quinn himself doesn’t seem wholly grounded in reality. Shake decides to enlist an ex-girlfriend, a brilliant and ruthless grifter turned brilliant and ruthless hedge-fund manager.
Berney doesn’t get heavy handed with the irony. He leaves it up to us to decide if managing a hedge fund is a legalized con game. It’s simply the case that skills and talents are neutral attributes. Gina Clement has skills and talents that make her very good at manipulating people and playing the odds, and she’s decided to use her powers for (a relative and more lucrative) good and not for (life and limb-risking) evil anymore. But when Shake and Quinn show up at her office with their proposition, she isn’t in the mood to hear it. She’s mad at Shake. Their relationship ended badly. Gina had a longstanding rule regarding her love life. Men don’t dump Gina Clement. Gina Clement dumps them. Shake broke the rule.
Then it occurs to her that, besides offering her the chance to have more fun than she’s had in a long time, throwing in with Shake and Quinn will give her ample opportunities to punish Shake for his sins.
From here, the scene shifts to Cairo and Whiplash River II gets underway.
Berney’s dialog is sharp, clever, and idiolectic---everybody talks like themselves and not like extensions of the narrator, although I have one more note for myself here: Don’t have your characters think what they could and would just as likely have said out loud. The action scenes are clean, neat, coherent, exciting, and funny. Shake is a congenial and likeable protagonist. Gina is appealing in her criminal brilliance, romantic perversity, and, predictable, soft-heartedness. She and Shake make a sexy couple, a felonious Beatrice and Benedick expending as much mental effort on trying to con each other about their feelings as on conning their mark out of the MacGuffin. Quinn is a hoot and a half, and there are a number of standout supporting and minor characters, my favorite being Meg, the freckle-faced assassin, a little Tasmanian devil with a gun spinning in and out of scenes on the strength of pure, vengeful rage.
I said Whiplash River breaks in half, turning itself into its own prequel and sequel. But another way to look at it is it’s as if Berney has given us back to back episodes of a TV series with an ongoing story arc that carries through the stand-alone plots of individual episodes, like Justified, or Leverage, or Burn Notice. In fact, and I mean this as a major compliment, Whiplash River is a lot like Burn Notice, with Shake as Michael Westen’s less together, less driven, less dangerous but at heart just as romantic cousin and Gina as Fi’s more cerebral, cooler-headed, less pyromaniacal but just as emotionally and sexually manipulative little sister.
Sadly, there isn't a character comparable to Sam Axe.
Read an excerpt.