No, it’s not me. His name is Colin Harrison.
There’s great value in studying the work of others. This goes for good books, great books and lousy books — there’s always something to learn. But to learn it, you need to understand the criteria of a well written story. And if you’re a writer, that criteria is much more detailed than that of the average reader.
Book reviews help, because they highlight what works and what doesn’t. I’ve written a truckload, and they’ll appear here from time to time in the name of illuminating the great mystery of writing a great book. This is the first of them.
“The Havana Room”
by Colin Harrison
a book review by Larry Brooks
Copyright 2004, The Oregonian Newspaper
The novels of Colin Harrison are not for everybody. If you’re the “easy read” type who buys paperbacks to kill time on airplanes, you’d do well to stick to your legal thrillers and serial homicide whodunits. If you’re a glutton for the details of pathology and the minutia of technology, then by all means keep the latest Cornwell, Crichton or Clancy handy. And if you’re into the latest “chick-lit,” or saucy formulaic romances, or “literary fiction” that gets mentioned in the same breath with names such as Pulitzer, Nobel and Oprah, then Harrison just might scare you to death. But know this, straight from the takes-one-to-know-one file: chances are the authors who write your favorite books read Colin Harrison in their spare time.
Colin Harrison is for readers who love words. Who delight in colorful sentences that meander into metaphor, who lose themselves in paragraphs that unflinchingly plumb psychological depths without judgment or pulled punches, all with the rhythm and witty nuance of a noir poet. Harrison is also for people who revel in exquisite storytelling, who relish immersion into a world populated with characters who reflect our dreams and terrors and, perhaps most unsettling of all, our interpersonal demons. His novels are studies in layered plotting, calculated pacing and the gritty realism of place, stories that unspool within a tableau of the unusual and the unexpected.
But do not be fooled by the rhetoric of praise. His novels are, to revert to a grand cliché, the kind you simply cannot put down.
With The Havana Room, Colin Harrison once again justifies that rhetoric. Like his previous novels (Afterburn, which was on nearly every list of best books of 2000; and 1997’s elegant Manhattan Nocturne), this new tale once again peels back the skin of life and death in the streets and tenements and cafes of New York like a gleeful forensic surgeon, introducing us to our worst nightmare of how quickly and completely a seemingly happy urban existence can detonate. When the world of budding legal eagle Bill Wyeth implodes through no fault of his own – a sequence that will have you rethinking all facets of domestic nonchalance – he takes refuge in a dark and smoky mid-town steakhouse, managed by an equally dark and smoky woman with more on her mind than employee turnover. Downstairs is a very private and, we all soon learn, bizarre lounge called The Havana Room. It is here were our hero encounters the ultimate test of his mettle, disguised as unwanted opportunity and soon chasing after him with guns and lawsuits and hallucinogenic seafood. He is sucked into a dark abyss of deception simply because he is “a good guy,” and he must cling to the connective tissue of his integrity in order to survive some very adept efforts to destroy him.
In typical Harrison fashion, the story at a glance defies compelling description – none of the basic tenets of crime fiction are here, no burned-out detectives, no grumpy lieutenants, no brilliant criminal masterminds, just a real estate deal from hell and a moving fraternal morality play – in part because of its off-the-wall originality, and in part because it unfolds like a reality television series in which each test is more twisted and bizarre than the last. And because Wyeth has so much at stake – career, family, health, self-respect, survival… indeed, because we are Wyeth – we hang on every new torment thrown at him, rendered in scenes so vivid you may find yourself re-reading them before moving on, just to be sure you got it all, just to again experience the melody of the words.