The Best Stylist Writing Thrillers Today

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Book reviews for writers, other cool stuff

5 Responses to The Best Stylist Writing Thrillers Today

  1. Sue Bronson

    Larry, the second paragraph of the Harrison review reminded me of why I liked your books so much: for readers who love words; paragraphs that unflinchingly plumb psychological depths without judgment or pulled punches; 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; layered plotting, calculated pacing and the gritty realism of place, stories that unspool within a tableau of the unusual and the unexpected

  2. Thanks Sue. Your comment reminds me of why I’ve enjoyed working with you over the years. Your passion for writing is a source of energy for everyone.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation Larry. I picked up three Harrison books two days ago (along with two of yours: PRESSURE POINT and DARKNESS BOUND), and I started BREAK AND ENTER first. Although I’m normally turned off by courtroom thrillers, I quickly discovered that although the novel opens at the scene of a horrific murder trial it is not what I thought it was. I read the first 200 pages last night, and I am so glad I read this review. I’d been looking for a new writer — new to me, at least — who is as charmed by the rhythm of language itself as well as the ability to tell a good story, and Harrison fits that mold perfectly. So many novels classified as “suspense” and “thriller” do not live up to their genres, so I’ve been a bit disappointed in the authors whose work I’ve picked up over the last couple of years.

    All this to say, I’m excited to start your books and I’m forever in your debt for recommending this author. I’m working on my own first novel and I crave the inspiration of great storytelling and lyrical prose.

  4. @Laura — glad you like Harrison. My favorites of his are “Manhattan Nocturne”… “Afterburn”… and the “Havana Room”… and his latest, “Risk”… is also great, and much shorter. He hasn’t sold like he should sell, I think his stuff is too eloquent, edgy and smart for the mainstream thriller audience. Also — a tid-bit here — his wife is Kathryn Harrison, a very successful novelist in her own right. They’re sort of the ‘it couple’ in New York literary circles.

    Thanks, too, for picking up my books. I fear they pale in comparison to Harrison (no alliteration intended there), but then again, everybody does. It’s like an audition and you have to sing right after Celine Dion.

  5. Dude Andersone

    Like the octopus who inhabits depths stained by clouds of it dark ichor, so too are you in your art.