Sunday, December 10, 2006

Book Break: Bestselling Writers

Writers: Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris
Another bookish memory (indulge me). It’s the summer of 1969. I’m working as a messenger for Quality Photo-Engraving on East 45th St., saving money for college, which begins in the fall. Unable to resist temptation, I stop after work at the E.J. Korvette’s on 45th St. near Grand Central (Korvette’s was a discount department store). They had a book section, and I was looking for a first novel by a doctor-turned-writer named Michael Crichton. His book, “The Andromeda Strain” had gotten a good review in The Times and I was intrigued. I bought it, started reading on the subway and finished at home that night. I became a Crichton fan.
No one would ever accuse Crichton of being much of a stylist. He writes in a flat, emotionless tone, almost like a lab report. His characters are thin. But his stories—fueled by whatever intriguing topic has bewitched Crichton’s intelligence—generally move quickly. In his best books, he entertains and educates.
In his latest, “Next,” Crichton tackles the ethical questions behind genetic engineering. There are so many issues here that the novel is overpopulated with bland characters who disappear for chapters, then pop up and challenge the reader to remember who the hell they were. The most memorable characters are a chimp and a parrot, both infused with human genes. They’re smart, particularly the parrot. The last 75 pages pick up a lagging narrative, but if you want to read Crichton at his best, try “The Great Train Robbery” or “Eaters of the Dead.”
Years ago, Thomas Harris wrote inventive thrillers with the precision of the AP reporter he was early in his career. “Black Sunday,” “Red Dragon,” and “The Silence of the Lambs” are superlative examples of their genre (pick up any of the many pale imitators of Harris and you’ll realize how good he once was). Hannibal Lecter was an inspired creation, and although he really has but extended cameos in “Dragon” and “Lambs,” he was the character who caught a reader’s attention. Seven years ago, Harris produced “Hannibal,” a black comedy peppered with Grand Guignol touches he obviously believed his fans wanted. The ending was so ridiculous and unsatisfying that the screenwriters actually came up with a much better climax. “Hannibal” wasn’t a very good novel, but it kept your attention.
Now Harris has returned to Lecter in a prequel titled “Hannibal Rising.” There’s not much I can add to Janet Maslin’s withering review in Friday’s Times. Except this: I haven’t thrown a book across a room in a long, long time, but I did halfway through “Hannibal Rising.” The beauty of Lecter as a character was we didn’t know what made him tick. He just was. “Hannibal Rising” wants us to know why he does the terrible things he does. This is so unnecessary, particularly since Harris already told us in the earlier “Hannibal.” Thomas Harris really needs to forget about Lecter—and he needs to get back to the AP stylebook, so pretentious is his current style. Don’t bother with this book—and don’t go to the movie version in February. Thomas Harris doesn’t need the money. He’s a bestselling writer.


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