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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mark Mills vs Stephen King

The Information Officer by Mark Mills
Cell by Stephen King

I picked up Mark Mills' first book, Amagansett (The Whaleboat House in the UK) because I knew Amagansett -- a hamlet on Long Island -- and was curious to find out how well a British writer would capture the unique "feel" of the area, including the intense territoriality of the fishing community.   Mills did it superbly, with even more remarkably pictured flashbacks to WW2.  This was followed by Savage Garden, which had a most intriguing double mystery, one set in the past, where the clues lay in the statues and their siting in an old Italian garden.  So, when Mills' latest appeared on the shelves of Whitcoulls store here in Wellington, I bought it at once, and read it immediately.

The Information Officer is set in Malta, during the most intensive bombardments of the Second World War, 1942.  The Maltese people, placing what trust they can in the small British force defending the island, cower under daily bombardments from both the Italians and the Germans.  Max Chadwick, the British information officer, tries to keep up morale by choosing the right topic and tone for his bulletins to the local paper.  Then he learns that Maltese dance hostesses are being murdered, apparently by a British submarine officer, and despite advice and good sense, pursues the mystery.

It is an amazing setting, though the Maltese hang around the periphery of the story, which seems odd.  More distracting still, I could not keep track of most of the characters, and had to keep on turning back the pages to remember who was who -- very annoying, especially when I knew that one of them was the killer.  Most interesting for me was the insight into the murderer's mind, a flashback being appended to each segment, detailing the tortuous route that led to serial killing of women.  The denouement was disappointing, because the little I knew of the character of the man revealed to be the murderer did not seem to match the killer's profile that had been so carefully drawn.   While the book is well worth reading for its dramatic background, I felt that the characters let the reader down.  I just could not feel much interest in what happened to them.

While I was still wondering where the author had failed me (or I had failed the author), I picked up Stephen King's Cell.    I gave up on Stephen King some years ago, when his books became too convoluted and psychedelic for my taste, but I had been told that this is vintage King, evidently because he has "retired."  And boy, never was a truer word said -- it smacks you between the eyes from page one.

A virus known as "The Pulse" is broadcast to every cellphone in use, and the zombies who walk the streets with their mobiles pinned to their ears become just that -- zombies, with the difference that they are vicious and violent. The world as we know it lurches bloodily to a stop.  A small group of non-cellphone users known as the "normies" flees from the "phone-crazies," heading for the safety of cellphone dead zones, while the crazies evolve into something even scarier that involves telepathy and "flocking." 

As the blurb says, this book is utterly gripping.  After about ten pages it begins to sound a lot like a rewrite of Richard Matheson's classic, I am legend, but who cares?  As a page-turner, it is compulsive, and never feels like a waste of time, even if a little voice deep inside your head keeps on saying, "This is rubbish."  A long time ago, I read a review -- in the NYT, I think -- where it was observed that somewhere in Stephen King's computer is a great writer screaming to be let out, and Cell is an excellent demonstration of this. It is brilliantly written, so vividly described that one can hear the explosions, and smell the rot and gore, with readily identifiable characters who immediately command the reader's sympathy.

How did King manage this last, when Mills did not?  "Signposting" -- repeating a character's name, with a little reminder of his character -- helps.  A cute trick at the start was that the protagonist, Clay Riddell, had to keep correcting someone who insisted on calling him "Riddle."  Another was to give minor characters nicknames according to their appearance -- "the Power Suit woman."  Particularly evocative and clever is a detail that demonstrates vulnerability -- a "normie" girl, Alice, picks up a baby's sneaker, which becomes her talisman, her grip on reality.  Her panic when she mislays it is vivid and very comprehensible.

Has anyone ever analyzed Stephen King's writing for character delineation?  As an exercise for aspiring -- or even established -- writers, it could be most worthwhile.

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