Falling off the mountain
I get somewhat embarrassed when I'm on panels at fantasy/sci-fi cons, because as I've mentioned before, unlike most of my fellow urban fantasy writers, I didn't read much fantasy, horror, and science fiction during my formative years. Most of the other panelists recite lists of their favorites and I nod, pretending that I'm in the know.
My fiction reading back then was split between the pulps I bought at the used book store and the pot-boiler thrillers my dad brought home. My father would treat himself to a new book and he'd spend the weekend crashed on the couch devouring the latest by Follet, Forsyth, Clavell, Crichton, etc.,
I look back on all the books I've read and can pick off the few that really touched me. Now I have to acknowledge one novel--largely forgotten--that did key into me when I first read it. The Eiger Sanction
by Trevanian.Art professor and collector Dr. Jonathan Hemlock moonlights as an assassin for CII, a supersecret cell within the CIA. His job is carry out sanctions, killings to avenge the murders of friendly spies. A "retired" mountain climber, Hemlock is blackmailed into scaling the treacherous Eiger mountain and sanctioning one of his fellow climbers...unless he's murdered first.
As a young man in my early twenties, chomping at the bit for manly adventure, this book engaged me with its thrills, sophisticated patter and exotic tone. My best friend Ron and I would grab rope and carabiners to climb and rappel the local hills, all the time arguing which of us would make the better Jonathan Hemlock, outfoxing the bad guys and bedding femme fatales. What gave the book its cultured tone were the offhanded references to things it sometimes took years to discover what the author meant. Such as café au lait. That was in the prehistoric days before the Internet and Starbucks. (Back then, coffee was either regular or decaf--or Sanka bleah! ) Even the humongous dictionaries in the libraries were of no help. After weeks of searching, I stumbled upon a reference to café au lait and mystery solved.
Laphroaig was another challenge. It was Hemlock's choice of hootch and he asked for it frequently. Even Hemlock's enemies knew he drank Laphroaig. But no one I knew had a clue about Laphroaig. It took me two decades before I learned it was a peaty, single malt scotch. About that time I had moved to Denver from Fresno and my first priority in civilization was to find said beverage. Which I did, and I bought several miniatures to send to Ron for his 40th.
Many years (and bottles of hootch) later, I've come to revisit The Eiger Sanction. Why this book? I didn't even bother to keep a copy and there have been other books that I've continually endorsed.
I was curious to find out if Eiger retained its magic. Right before I was first published, I thumbed through a library copy and thought the style seemed dated. Then recently, I decided to give the book another read to see what had made it a bestselling sensation back in the 70s.
Here at Biting-Edge we do a lot of things, all of them consensual and mostly legal, but what we don't do is review books. We do, however, pass along recommendations for books that we enjoyed. I don't feel comfortable offering public critiques on the works of my fellow writers. Bad karma. You want to read negative press then pop on over to Amazon and get your fill of ignoramuses thinking they're being erudite and clever.
We writers of long fiction get a lot of shall not rules. Thy shall not start a book with the weather. Thy shall not deviate from a single Point-of-View and least of all, ever ever use authorial POV. Thy shall not touch backstory info dumps with a ten foot pole. Thy shall not use big words. And on and on.
Trevanian stomped all over these rules.
The Eiger Sanction, blockbuster commercial megaseller, starts with...the weather. Fitting as to mountain climber Jonathan Hemlock, the capriciousness of the elements could turn a jaunt up the slope from pleasant to miserable to deadly.
Trevanian weaves in and out of third person POVs and even slips into the royal we.
He drops backstory info dumps by the ton, which explain the why behind the story and stoke the drama.
Big words? We're taught that a reader's attention is so fragile that any mental bump will turn into a yawning excuse to toss the book and play with razors. So keep the vocabulary at mid-grade or below. Obtuse or unusual words will kill your story (though that hasn't hurt the career of China Miéville). Trevanian treats us to Laphroaig, scrofulous, abacination, lepidote, morganatic, and more.
Then what works? Everything. Trevanian hews to a clear story question. He is a master at setting. Pacing. Descriptions. Internalisations. All of his characters are motivated and layered. The emotional and physical stakes are sharpened on every page. Every passage of dialog is a tug of war.
Moreover, the book is a harvest of fresh writing.
*** Jonathan simply opened his eyes, and he was awake. Calm and happy. For the first time in years there was no blurred and viscous interphase between sleeping and waking. He stretched luxuriously, arching his back and extending his limbs until every muscle danced with strain. He felt like shouting, like making a living noise. His leg touched a damp place on the sheet, and he smiled. Jemima was not in bed, but her place was still warm and her pillow was scented lightly with her perfume, and with the perfume of her.
*** He looked across the up-tilted meadow to the gloomy north face of the Eiger. The unstable warmth of the weightless mountain sunlight was puffed away time and again by wisps of crisp highland air.
Touched only once a day and briefly by the sun, the dark concave face hovered malignantly above him, looking as though it had been scooped out of the body of the mountain by some olympian shovel, its brittle gray-black crescent rim cutting into the glittering blue of the sky.
*** Even after the crack petered out and progress slowed, Jonathan's feeling of indomitability persisted. Each square meter of face was a gameboard of tactics, a combat against the unrelenting, mindless opposition of gravity in which the rock was a Turkish ally, ready to change sides if the going got rough.
What was refreshing is that the story lacks the strained earnestness of most modern thrillers--must stop and waterboard al Queda, eco-terrorists, rogue liberals, zombie fascists. Adding to the appeal of the book was the mystery behind the author, Trevanian, the pen name of the secretive writer and film scholar Rodney William Whittaker (1931-2005). As the word processor hadn't been invented yet, I can see Trevanian banging out his many manuscripts on a Selectric. As much as I appreciated Eiger, I can't say the same for all his later works. The Loo Sanction seemed a rushed sequel. Shibumi, his most acclaimed book, I couldn't get into. The Main I did enjoy as a superb mystery and I'll have to reread it.
PS Avoid the movie version starring Clint Eastwood. It's a casserole of 70's cheese.
Labels: 70s cheese, Clint Eastwood, The Eiger Sanction, Trevanian