Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

12 Mar

Book snobs will be the first to tell you that quality novels are those filled with interesting people who discuss interesting topics and interesting people, over their interesting cups of tea while the sun shines interestingly on their interesting little town. Plot-driven novels are low brow, cheap, fed to the squealing masses who couldn’t tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dickens if they were slapped by the Greats themselves. There’s always a big debate between plot and character in the writing world. Which makes for a better experience? Which makes for a more solid, timeless story?

Disclaimer: I will be stepping on some toes in terms of literature. Probably. Maybe.

I despise this book. Seriously, don't even get me started. I watched the recent movie with that girl from Alice in Wonderland, hoping that maybe I could enjoy this cherished classic. But no. No. I want this book to burn in hell.

I had to read Jane Eyre in high school and it was awful. At one point, about 150 pages in, I threw the book across the room, screaming, “Oh my God. Do something. Anything! Please something happen already!” I had the same experience in Russian over the summer, when we read Anna Karenina (in its original Russian, by the way).

Plot, to the book snobs, might be “low brow,” but plot is what makes me turn the page and not commit suicide via pencil-to-eye-stabbing. I could be reading about the most interesting people in the world, with really troubling back stories and fascinating thoughts on life and the purpose of it, but if all they’re doing is staring out the window, thinking those amazing thoughts, well…I’m going to throw the book across the room.

That being said, there is such thing as too much plot. One of my book series is by Vince Flynn. The main character’s name is Mitch Rapp and one of the books is entitled American Assassin. Let’s be honest. These are not books. These are summer popcorn movies in written form (which actually makes a lot of sense, considering Flynn used to be a consultant for the show 24). Rapp almost never learns anything. He doesn’t have to because any decision he makes turns out to be the right one, no matter how controversial it is. In every. Single. Book. And I think that’s why I’m hesitating to read the latest book. I don’t have to. I know exactly what’s going to happen.

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith, however, is a lovely little gem that perfectly straddles the line between plot and character. Instead of 400 pages of “interesting people doing interesting things,” or a written summer blockbuster, what we have is a made-for-TV-mini-series. There’s just enough time to flesh everyone out, and there’s something always happening to keep the interest of audiences up. There are very discernible acts, good places for commercial breaks or tune-in-next-time-s.

Plot, to the book snobs, might be “low brow,” but plot is what makes me turn the page and not commit suicide via pencil-to-eye-stabbing.

We’re with the main character, Leo Demidov, for over twenty years. When we meet him, in 1950s Moscow, he’s a secret policeman who does not take any crap from any one. Leo is not a happy man, though. After some miss-communications at work spell lethal trouble for his protegé, Leo is constantly living in regret. He marries, hoping this will assuage his guilt. It does…sort of. Leo always says that Raisa is the only one who’s really loves him despite of all the harm he’s caused. The couple can’t have children of their own and adopt. With a family to consider, Lev refuses an assignment, quitting, and is given a much lower-paying job. The former secret policeman is essentially blacklisted and can’t travel anywhere outside the Soviet Union because of this refusal.

But this isn’t the last time Mr. Demidov gets blacklisted and gets in trouble with the government.

Smith constantly ups the stakes by increasing the amount of guilt Leo bears: towards his fellow countrymen, towards his family for not being a proper provider, towards himself. No spoilers here, it’s on the cover–his family is invited to a tour in New York in the name of peace, and, like I said, Leo can’t accompany them. Then shit happens. And it doesn’t let up until the last two pages. Smith makes Demidov go through hell. But the wonderful character arc that happens among these tragedies, is that Leo is forced to face each one of his demons.

What’s kind of ironic though, Agent 6 isn’t really in the book named after him very long. He’s barely a cameo.

The major complaint I have about this story is Act II, when Leo is still going through hell, because it drives the plot of Act I and III into the ground. I wasn’t kidding when I said the Acts could be standalone books. Throughout this Act, I was constantly aware that there were other things to be done. I kept wondering when we were going to get back to the Sherlock Holmesian mystery/Taken-esque revenge story. But I can’t say it was unnecessary. Smith sets up Act II, gives you a reason for it to happen and gives it a proper exit. But it drags.

In charge of this investigation was Agent Leo Demidov, twenty-seven years old, a decorated soldier recruited to the ranks of the secret police after the Great Patriotic War. He’d flourished in the MGB through a combination of uncomplicated obedience, a belief in the State he was serving, and rigorous attention to detail. His zeal was underpinned not by ambition but by earnest adoration of his homeland, the country that had defeated Fascism. As handsome as he was serious-minded, he had the face and the spirit of a propaganda poster, a square jaw with angular lips, ever ready with a slogan. (Page 2)

Character development and plot aside, another thing I really liked about this book was the way Smith does details. He writes very plainly. There’s an effortless feel to what he delivers to the readers. He doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of physical descriptions like David Benioff in City of Theives, but what he does give provides a solid image and mood. Sometimes (ok, nearly all the time), when I’m writing, I feel that, because I’ve never been to St. Petersburg, I have to throw every bit of research I do on the page. I’m almost always on Google Earth, trying to find pictures of places where scenes can take place, and like a movie scene, I try to construct it for my readers exactly. And this isn’t wrong, but trust me, the way I’m doing it…it’s very, very wrong. I’m only keeping it in because you have to write the first draft first.

I won’t be able to take any research away from Smith, partly because there’s not a lot to extract, partly because it’s the wrong time period. But I can take this: be confident in your characters and your research. Let the research shine through the players, rather than sets. If you need to describe a building, have a character walk through it, up to it, mention it while giving directions to a minor character.

I have a how-to book called “Plot vs. Character” that poses the same question I’ve posed here and gives writers tips on crafting well-rounded characters and solid, engaging plots, from which they can bounce off. I’ll definitely be consulting it again in lieu of finishing this novel.

Agent 6 is a solid story with great characters, what-just-happened-there twists and is handled with gritty realism and a lot of heart. It was written by Tom Rob Smith, author of Child 44, another New York Times bestseller. It was published by Grand Central Publishing out of New York in 2012. Check it out on Amazon, or buy it at your local Barnes and Nobel. It’s definitely worth the read.

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