The Art and Science of the Thriller Part II: A review of The Icon Thief

The Icon Thief

by Alec Nevala-Lee

Signet, 407 pages, 2012

A bricklayer tours the acropolis at Athens.  He walks up to the Parthenon, looks at it for a few seconds, turns his back and says: “I see they never got past post and lintel construction.”

Well, perhaps yes; but surely that is not the point.

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, I don’t know for sure.  I do know that it can be damned inconvenient.  I am not a writer.  I have published a few things, but that does not make me a writer.  I have read books on writing, and Strunk and White (pdf here, go get it now) but that does not make me a writer.  What it does is give me enough knowledge to get in my own way.  I read once that in fiction one should avoid the passive voice.  This means my stories are full of ‘The man loomed above him’ rather than ‘The man was tall’ on the grounds that ‘was’ is passive.  I am not sure ‘loomed’ is an improvement.  It also means that when I read fiction my eyeballs trip up on the word ‘was’.  Seeing as ‘was’ is only a little less common than ‘the’ or ‘said’ in the average novel, this can get in the way of a good read.  I still enjoy reading, but a little spy inside my head keeps looking to see how the book works, and inhibits my getting swept up in the story.  For example, I was (was) recently listening to an audio book of Ulysses (James Joyce, not Homer).  I was listening because I have tried to read the damned thing three or four times and I invariably lose interest.  Anyway, I listened and I quickly became aware that the opening scene, with Stephen and Buck Mulligan and so on, hardly uses the word ‘was’.  I think it appears only in dialogue.  So what did I do?  I listened to the story but I mainly listened for passive sentences.  The result: I was distanced from the story itself.  A little knowledge can be damned inconvenient.

And I’m not a writer.  I can only imagine what someone with finely tuned auctorial sensibilities must make of much of the writing around them.  This blog would probably give them nausea.

In recent post I reviewed The Icon Thief by Alec Nevala-Lee.  Or I tried to.  Alec said some nice things (This may be the most thoughtful review my work has ever received. From @DarrenGoossens:— Alec Nevala-Lee (@nevalalee) October 24, 2013) about my review.  But I wonder to what extent I was reviewing his blog rather than the novel.  Alec put together a lengthy series of blog posts on the book.  I did not read the series since I intended to read the book itself.  I still have not decided whether I will read these posts, since I intend to (eventually) read the rest of The Icon Thief trilogy.  (Note, I am not sure if the trilogy has a name as a trilogy.  The Scythian Trilogy?  Wolfe?  I guess we’ll wait for the omnibus edition.)

Why have I not read these posts?

Well, I’ve read plenty of his other posts.  I’ve read his 10 rules for writing, in particular, and his quotes of the day, many of which pertain to writing or other story-telling activities — usually movie-making.

So, like it or not, when I sat down to read The Icon Thief a bit of my brain was whispering to the bit that was doing the reading:
–Is he jumping from middle to middle to middle?
–How much back-story is he giving us?
–Are his minor characters ‘types’ so that we are not distracted by unnecessary complexity


–Isn’t he using ‘was’ rather a lot?

(The last one does not grow out of his blog posts.)

Further, character names started to swirl in my thoughts.  In a novel where art is important, he has a minor character called Kandinsky.  (Coincidentally, one of my better stories is called ‘Kandinsky’s Mistakes‘, so I know the name.)  I know from his website he likes movies.  I hear the character name Powell and I wait for someone called Pressburger to show up, because of Alec’s comments on movies.  A character is called Wolfe.  For Thomas?  Reynard is a name with a literary pedigree.  Maddy Blume — is it a re-spelling of Bloom?  If so, Harold, Leopold or Molly?  Someone is called Onegina.  Eugene Onegin?

It’s all foolishness on my part, but it all made it harder for me to forget that the novel was a thing constructed for a purpose.  Now, all novels are lies.  They are long and careful lies, told with craft and artistry.  The big trick is to make these lies matter even though they are lies and we know they are lies.  They can matter for many reasons.  The literal stories may be fiction but they embody truths.  The story may be a delightful puzzle that challenges and entertains, like a locked-room mystery.  Though fictions, stories may explore a skilfully depicted world we are interested in (a period of history, a possible future, the world of espionage or fine art, anything).  And if I, as the audience, am too busy watching the valves open and close and the hammers go up and down, I might fail to appreciate that the trumpets and the piano are combining to play a lovely tune.

I might appreciate the craft of what I am seeing, but miss what it is all actually about.

Reading Alec’s blog is fun.  I make comments wherein I attempt to seem erudite and clever (this is not easy).  I read lots of interesting material.  It is one of the things the interweb is good for, the two way dialogue and the pleasure of serendipity.  Meeting people on the other side of the world via interests rather than random acts of geography.

Yet I can’t help wonder.  I liked The Icon Thief.  I read it in a couple of weeks, which for me these days is very fast (I read Stand on Zanzibar earlier this year.  Roughly from February to June).  Yet I can’t help wonder whether I would have liked it more if I knew less about it.  I would not have been looking to see the pieces meshing — I would not have thought to look nor been able to see.  I would not have been wondering how the author’s personal interests manifest in the story.  I might have been more immersed in the story itself.  I very much doubt I would be perceptive enough to make out these ‘mechanical’ aspects of the book without the heads-up his blog provides.  He kindly described my review as thoughtful, yet is that thoughtfulness really reflecting the fact that I was looking for things because of foreknowledge?

Can there be too much communication?  Is it better to make a book stand on its own, to give the reader the fewest preconceptions possible?  I think these are reasonable questions for an author to ask themselves.

I suspect that in pragmatic terms engaging with the audience sells books.  I bought one; I’ll buy more.  I hope it has rewards for the author beyond that.  It clearly does for the reader, and perhaps that is the answer.  Maybe knowing too much does take something away (certainly makes it harder to write an objective review), but hopefully it gives more than it takes.

I may have found The Icon Thief a few percent more ‘entertaining’ if I had not read its author’s blog.  But I would have got less out of reading the book in isolation than I have got out of reading the book and the blog.  Against my instincts, I guess I conclude that the new way is for the best.

Never thought I’d say that…


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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