Friday, January 18, 2019

Between Tradecraft and Thrills: Johnny Wylde

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It is accepted wisdom in the thriller community that highly-trained characters must display excellent tradecraft to thrill the reader. Yet this isn't always so. In my first post in this series, I explored the Orphan X series, in which the protagonist's poor tradecraft sets up superior scenes; in my previous post, I showed how taking this approach too far, coupled with poor worldbuilding, fatally undermined the logic of a story. In this last installment, I'm going to take a different approach and look at Marcus Wynne's Johnny Wylde trilogy -- a series that perfectly balances tradecraft and thrills.
Johnny Wylde, veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has settled into a comfortable life as a bouncer in a seedy bar in Minneapolis. Or that's what he wants the world to think. Living on the ragged edge, he is no stranger to the underground world of violence and crime. One evening, Deon Oosthuizen approaches him with a simple proposal: steal machine guns from the Kamarov family, the biggest arms dealers in town. Meanwhile, the Kamarovs import a thug from the Eastern Bloc to bolster their security, a rapist wanted for war crimes, who quickly catches the attention of Sergeant Nina Capushek.
What begins as a simple heist explodes into a bloody gang war with the cops caught in the middle, quickly complicated by a terrorist bombing campaign.
Johnny Wylde is chockful of gunfights, car fights, and the odd hand-to-hand fight. Adrenaline junkies will get their fix and then some. But this isn't some mere pulpy slaughterfest like the Executioner; Marcus Wynne has a lifetime of experience in the profession of violence, and it shows in every page.
Every major character acts in accordance with their training and personalities. The small unit principles of shoot, move and communicate are in full display. Overwhelming firepower and controlled aggression are the order of the day. Stealth, deception, social engineering, hacking, and other black arts are also employed appropriately and plausibly. Players dance around and sniff at each other, probing for weaknesses and information; they take pains to set up advantageous positions before they act; they scramble to react to ambushes and turn the tables. And once the bullets start flying, the fights take on a life of their own, oftentimes with unpredictable consequences.
A special note must be made of the female characters in the novels. Many creators aspire to write Strong Female Characters; Marcus Wynne does them right. While acknowledging that they are female, he emphasises their unique personalities and skillsets at every turn. Nina Capushek is the archetypal ball-busting gunwoman who bulls her way through problems, but she holds within her a deep wound; and when it comes time to throw down, she plays to her strengths, going straight to her pistol, while skipping hand-to-hand foreplay and handing off her carbine to other characters with more training than she. Likewise, other female characters have developed their own tactics to Get Things Done based on their objectives, training, and available gear. By emphasising both their feminity and their strength of will, Wynne's female characters are as unique and compelling as his males.
No discussion of a gunfighter novel is complete without talking about the guns, and Wynne doesn't disappoint. The description of the gear may border on fetishistic at times, but as a bona fide geardo myself, I don't mind. Don't expect a plethora custom high-end murder machines or rare guns here; Wynne's characters pick their gear to suit their needs, and every choice of gear is logically thought-out and justified.
A surprising amount of detail is packed into the gear descriptions, far more than what you would see from civilian writers. An ordinary writer may simply note that a character tucked her pistol into her holster; Wynne names a specific holster manufacturer as one of the few in the industry capable of cutting leather holsters to fit a woman's figure. Other writers may say a character uses a knife; Wynne has his characters employ Hideaway knives because the knife's unique design is perfect for the close quarters combat they find themselves in. In one particularly memorable scene, a gunsmith lists the parts he used to build a custom AR-15 -- it's overboard for an ordinary reader, but to someone in the know, it emphasises that the gunsmith truly knows his trade.
Going beyond what the characters carry, Wynne delves into the how and why. This reinforces their personalities as trained, experienced pros -- and it teaches the reader useful information that might one day save a life. Or at least avoid all kinds of trouble.
Johnny Wylde shows how excellent tradecraft sets up intense action scenes and fleshes out characters. Wynne also explores the consequences of each gunfight and explosion, with every faction involved trying to outthink and outplay each other. The killing and the scheming also prompts moments of character development, with characters confronting their fears and hidden histories, and taking moments to bond with others.
This is not to say the book is perfect. Johnny Wylde is actually a compilation of three books, two previously published novel plus a final capstone novel. The first novel was published in 2011(!) and it shows its age. Originally it began with a reference to George W. Bush; now it starts with a reference to Donald Trump. But the rest of the story wasn't updated to reflect the shift in timeline -- the characters retain their age, the technology is now dated -- so it's best to just ignore the Trump reference altogether and assume the story takes place in an alternate 2011/2012. Further, while Wynne added fresh (and often humorous) chapter titles to the original manuscript of the first novel, he kept the old titles for the second novel -- which, being simply the names of the POV character(s) in the scene, is awfully boring in comparison.
Less facetiously, the novel needs an editor. The titular protagonist's scenes are written in the first person while everybody else is written in third person. Until Johnny Wylde meets another character, at which point the POV shifts to third person omniscient and back -- sometimes in the space of a paragraph. These POV shifts are jarring and should have been erased.
Wynne mentioned on his blog that the series was supposed to have been a five-book epic, but he wrapped it up in three books. While the ending was satisfying, it left many plot threads dangling, the most important one being, Who is behind the conspiracy in the second book, and why do they want to kill Johnny Wylde? The answers to those questions are never revealed, and the ending of Book Three renders the questions moot. (In a good way.) Nonetheless, I wish Wynne could deliver on his original vision of a five-book saga, and use the last two books to wrap up the hanging plot threads.
Johnny Wylde is a magnificent neo-noir crime story of gunfighters, rogue operators and hardened criminals. It isn't perfect, but it's a masterclass in writing top-tier heroes and villains, their gear and tactics, and how to use tradecraft to set up thrills and spills.
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If you love intense gunfights mixed with intricate worldbuilding, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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