- The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
- Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas
- The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Alexandre Dumas
- Ten Years Later, Alexandre Dumas
- Louise de la Valliere, Alexandre Dumas
- The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexandre Dumas
- Ark, Charles McCarry
- The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, M. R. James
- The Tree of Hands, Ruth Rendell
- A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin
tl;dr – Dumas remains a phenomenal storyteller; James, Levin and Rendell are masters of careful, inevitable construction; McCarry goes way out of his comfort zone with reasonable success.
As a storyteller, I aspire to be Dumas. He does wonderful adventure, combined with clever politics and social satire. I also really enjoy his take on history, where he uses historical elements as the motivation for his characters’ adventures, but also uses his characters invented actions to explain historical events. Don’t judge the series by the first book, though. In The Three Musketeers, the musketeers succeed, gloriously and heroically! Later books get more and more tragic, and it’s usually Aramis’s fault. Oops.
I love McCarry’s spy novels, which are smart and heartbreaking and mean. I had no idea what he’d do with a disaster novel, though. It turns out he focuses on the preparations people make for a disaster, which in turn involve lots of quasi-spy activities and government posturing – exactly his specialty. McCarry makes the interesting choice to have the point of view character be a writer, who collaborates with the billionaire genius trying to save the world from disaster. I liked that she isn’t a scientist herself, but she has creative insight that helps solve scientific problems. It’s a nice way of keeping the reader’s point of view limited and creating suspense. Unfortunately I rather hate what McCarry does with her in the last chapter, but you’ll have to read it yourself to find out what that is.
James’ ghost stories are little gems, each of them carefully constructed out of common ghost-story material to create something far beyond the common. “O Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is the most famous, and it contains many of the characteristic James elements: an artifact from an ancient time, a growing sense of dread, a ghostly figure that can neither be pinned down nor explained. I might not read them all at once, like I did, unless you’re interested in exploring variations on the classic ghost-story themes. I feel like I learned a lot about how to construct an effective story of this type, and I’m considering whether I want to try my hand at one of my own.
Levin does some equally tight construction, but in the service of suspense rather than eeriness. The book is structured around a young sociopath’s attempt to inherit the Kingship fortune by marrying one of the Kingship girls – one section for each of the daughters. The daughters are likable and distinct, and each section has its own compelling mini-story that links into the larger narrative. I can’t tell you more because the pleasure of reading the book for the first time is delightful, and you should be surprised at how the story plays out. This was my second read, and it’s even more satisfying if you know what’s coming. Highly recommended.
Rendell also builds tight little interlocking stories, in which one mistake sets off a chain of reactions that change many people’s lives. In this case, a young boy is left unattended and disappears – and changes the lives of those he’s lost, and of those who’ve found him. I find Rendell hard to read sometimes, because her characters are universally flawed, and half the time they do stupid things that cause their own problems to get much worse. If you like self-destructive, horrible people, you’ll love Rendell. If you don’t, you may enjoy her anyhow, but you’ll sometimes have to grit your teeth and watch people shoot themselves in the foot. Repeatedly. For chapters on end. I guess that’s its own kind of fun?