The Godfather: Peter Corris on retrospectives
A good number of authors who’ve employed series characters have written what are called in the business retrospectives – that is, stories that hark back to earlier events in their characters’ careers. John le Carré did so with Smiley’s People (1979), tracing previous strands in his main characters’ professional and personal lives, and again in A Legacy of Spies (2017), which is essentially a memoir by Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s colleagues in the secret service.
Ian Rankin has done the same with John Rebus. I did it twice with Matrimonial Causes (1993) and That Empty Feeling (2016).
The 2016 book, my second-last, gave me the welcome chance to write about my interest in boxing. I don’t remember much about the earlier book except that Cliff Hardy’s then girlfriend asked him to tell her about an early case, which he did. I was pleased with myself for coining the term ‘box Brownie and bed sheets’ in describing the activities of private detectives in that benighted time. I cannibalised a short story to produce the novel, a procedure for which Raymond Chandler was notorious. I have to admit that neither of the two retrospectives were as popular as the standard here-and-now books, perhaps partly because people didn’t want to be reminded of the old divorce laws and partly because of the widespread hostility to boxing.
A recent book by Michael Connelly, Two Kinds of Truth (2017), provides an interesting further example. Connelly is a bold writer who takes risks. Not only has he brought in characters from other books – Mickey Haller from The Lincoln Lawyer (2005) has teamed with Connelly’s main man Harry Bosch in several books (this has been done before, by Tony Hillerman with Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and Ian Rankin with Rebus and Malcolm Fox) – but in a dangerous bit of post-modernism Connelly goes so far as to mention the film of The Lincoln Lawyer, and he runs his contemporary story parallel with his retrospective case, giving them more or less equal emotional and narrative weight. This is a first as far as I know.
One of the appeals of the standard here-and-now double-plot novel is the tension set up between the two strands. Will the two stories come together and if so, how? This adds to the reader’s interest. Inevitably they do.
In the case of Two Kinds of Truth, the stories were so disparate – one a 30-year-old case involving legal manoeuvres and the other an intensely contemporary matter concerning opium addiction and the Russian mafia – that it was difficult to see how they could fuse. This was constantly on my mind as I listened to the audio version. They did fuse in a highly dramatic fashion to my complete satisfaction.
I found a couple of the recent Bosch novels a bit below par but this one delivers the goods. Not that it smells of the lamp, but an immense amount of research must have gone into its substance and considerable craft into its construction. To my mind, although I don’t know the entire field (who could?) Connelly is the prince of American crime writers.