Friday, January 18, 2019

Between Tradecraft and Thrills: Johnny Wylde

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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Monday, January 14, 2019

Between Tradecraft and Thrills: The Brilliance Trilogy

Previously, I discussed Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X series and how the protagonist's poor tradecraft set up superior scenes. The series demonstrates that you don't need perfect tradecraft to create a superior story. However, if you throw authenticity out the window altogether, you won't have a believable story. Case in point: Marcus Sakey's Brilliance trilogy.
In the world of the Brilliance trilogy, a tiny percent of the population begins manifesting unexplained cognitive abilities in the 1980s. These savant-like skills run the gamut from reading subtle body language to pattern recognition to rapidly calculating huge numbers. Called brilliants, the gifted usher in a new age of unprecedented technological development.
But all is not well. The brilliants dominate everyday life, sparking fears that they will render ordinary humans obsolete. As anti-brilliant sentiment grows, the United States government establishes the Department of Analysis and Response to deal with brilliant-related crime -- including a campaign of terror perpetrated by John Smith, a brilliant strategist.
The Brilliance trilogy follows DAR agent Nick Cooper in his hunt for John Smith. As the USA spirals into chaos and civil war, he must maintain his moral compass, battle extremists on both sides, and prevent John Smith from tearing the country apart.
The Brilliance trilogy did many things right. The prose hits all the right emotional notes, from joy to despair and every emotion in between. The worldbuilding is fascinating, presenting a fresh take on functional superpowers and speculative technologies. The characters are sympathetic, even a few of the villains, which is no mean feat.
But the worldbuilding undermines the plot.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Between Tradecraft and Thrills: Orphan X

New York Times bestseller Gregg Hurwitz blew into the writing scene with his debut Minutes to Burn. With his Timothy Rackley series, Hurwitz hit his stride, solidifying his position as a top-shelf thriller author. In his latest series, Orphan X, he has reached new heights, producing a magnificent blend of pulse-pounding action, complex characterisation, powerful imagery, and beautiful prose.
Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, was once a deniable assassin for the US government. Trained as a child to become a living weapon, he is an operator par excellence, capable of reaching and killing any target anywhere on Earth. After a dozen years of service, he dropped off the grid and became the Nowhere Man, a Los Angeles-based vigilante who uses his skills to help victims of criminals.
Bottom line up front: the Orphan X series is incredible. If you love thrillers, Orphan X gets my wholehearted reservation. But this post is not a review. It is an analysis of Evan's tradecraft and how it influences the plot.
Evan is a human weapon. Trained in everything from infiltration to interrogation, marksmanship to martial arts, he is a deadly efficient manhunter. Give him a target and he won't rest until the target is erased. In his years of government service, he has acquired millions of dollars in operational funds and countless enemies. Now a freelancer, he uses his funds to support his lifestyle, maintaining a network of safehouses, a fleet of up-armored vehicles, and an arsenal of untraceable guns. He is the portrait of paranoia and professionalism.
Up until the first chapter of the first novel.
The Nowhere Man begins with Evan bleeding from a knife wound. It's not fatal, it's not even debilitating, but he's dripping everywhere. The wound continues to bleed until he returns to his primary safe house. It hints at violence, builds up tension, introduces the reader to the life of Evan Smoak... and is utterly unbelievable.
Evan was trained by America's finest trainers. In current tactical thought, operators and civilian self-defenders should always carry a medical kit on their persons. This doctrine has been around since the Moscow and Mumbai mass shootings. Further, Evan would know that dripping blood everywhere leaves a DNA trail. It's implausible to think than a man with his level of training and experience would not carry so much as a band-aid on him.
And yet...
On his way up to his home, Evan must deflect the suspicions of the civilians around him. No one notices the blood, except for an eight-year boy, the child of single mother Mia Hall. This incident is the start of a meaningful relationship between Evan and the Halls, with Evan trusting the boy to keep quiet about what he really does.
Evan's implausible operational tradecraft set up a tense scene and catalyses character development. It's a theme that runs throughout the story. Whenever Evan is wounded, he returns to his safe house to treat himself, which in turn sets up a scene that requires him to trust someone or display emotional vulnerability or otherwise drop his guard and develop his character.
Ironically, the inverse is true when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Evan is portrayed on-page as a martial arts exponent, capable of flawlessly executing an arsenal of techniques. These include empty hand limb destructions from Filipino martial arts, grappling techniques, and more. Evan is described as having workout stations set up in his apartment, but that's not enough. Limb destructions require exquisite timing, and grappling demands an intuitive understanding of leverage, angles and momentum. These are not the kind of skills you can hone solo. There are training aids that can help, but they are no substitutes for deploying them against live resisting opponents.
However, for Evan to properly train his techniques, he would have to find training partners. He would need a social life. This would significantly undercut his initial portrayal as a solitary man, friendless and alone in the world, living only for his mission, with nothing but an aloe vera plant for company. By making him so introverted that he only trains by himself, his interactions with other civilians become that much more significant to him and the reader.
This logic of poor tradecraft setting up superior scenes is also seen in the combat sequences. Halfway through Orphan X, Evan kits up for a frontal assault on an enemy strongpoint. But he doesn't wear body armour, never mind that he's outnumbered and up against trained threats armed with assault rifles, and his approach is simply to bust his way inside and mow down everyone in his path. At the climax of the novel, he runs his pistol dry, and is forced to go hand-to-hand with his enemy. In the start of The Nowhere Man, Evan's insistence on traveling without body armor comes back to bite him. Again.
These events, and others, do not gel with the portrayal of Evan Smoak. Evan is a multimillionnaire who treats ultra-high-end custom pistols worth thousands of dollars like disposable Saturday Night Specials. He has the contacts to obtain armor and specialist electronics for his vehicles and hideouts. He has gone through world-class tactical training. Obtaining body armour would be easy enough, and when running against top-tier threats, he should either wear armour or justify his decision not to wear it. Likewise, when up against an enemy organisation with dozens of gunmen and assassins among its ranks, carrying a single pistol with an eight-round magazine and no other weapons into a firefight is madness. He can easily afford to carry more weapons on his person -- and indeed, professionals do just that when they expect heavy work.
But this poor tradecraft creates moments of vulnerability and intensity. During the assault, Evan is severely wounded, and the following chapters force him to return home, open up to Mia and interact more deeply with his fellow residents. In the climax, after Evan predictably loses his pistol, the story flows into a long-running action scene with brutal hand-to-hand sequences, culminating in a confrontation whose resolution harkens back to a much earlier scene when Evan allows the Halls into his home -- and ties into the plot of The Nowhere Man. And the events of The Nowhere Man could not have occurred had he been wearing body armour. At least, not as easily.
Consciously or not, Gregg Hurwitz exchanged tradecraft for thrills in the Orphan X series. A keen-eyed reader with the right knowledge base would quickly identify Evan's many shortfalls in tradecraft. But these shortfalls serve to humanise the man, either by showing he isn't perfect or by setting up character development scenes, or to produce even more intense action sequences than if he had been more adequately prepared, or both. Through these thrills and spills, Hurwitz delights and entertains the reader -- and that counts for much more than simply writing a human Terminator.
In the thriller genre, writers grapple constantly with authenticity. The rule of thumb is always MOAR research, MOAR authenticity, MOAR better. Yet the success of the Orphan X series demonstrates that you don't have to write characters with perfect tradecraft to win reader acclaim. Up to a point, so long as the characters are believable to a civilian audience, and the story pulls the reader along for the ride, the story is a success.
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If you enjoy that marry tradecraft and thrills, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.
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