Name Recognition

An appreciation and critique of “brand” books


Summer vacation is when I depart from the heavy stuff that is my professional special interest — the Supreme Court, the Constitution, biographies of legal stars and villains — and turn to my favorite reads for pure enjoyment. Recently, this practice has included Daniel Silva, Alan Furst, and Michael Connelly (his latest wasn’t out this summer), all of whom have created “brand” characters.

This season, I thought Furst's latest was his worst, and Silva's his best. They made me think about the idea of authors going back to their favorite milieus and characters repeatedly, knowing their fans will buy their books, assured that they are about to have a good read.

*****

I looked forward to reading Furst’s new book, A Hero of France, his 14th novel, most of them dealing with the period just before and during World War II, often set in Paris and then moving to other European cities.

Furst’s plots are not his central talent; his gift is taking readers into that redolent time and those exotic places. Readers find they are there, experiencing the characters’ moods and fears about the evolving dangers of their new and changing wartime lives. There were always love affairs with no place to go and adventurous action that moved to colorful cities.

But Furst’s latest novel — about French partisans and networks of resistance — is so weak that this reader got bored. I kept wanting to get involved — with the characters or the story action — but never did.

The opposite is true of Silva’s latest in his series about the clique of adventurous Israeli secret intelligence service characters who appear in his bestselling books. Their charismatic leader — an art restorer drawn reluctantly into challenging assignments — clashes with international villains and collaborates with his intelligence counterparts in the U.S., U.K., and France. While the past few Silva books left me thinking that the sweet was disappearing from his literary gum, this one, The Black Widow, showcases his skills at their best.

In addition to his interesting cast of regular characters and their worldly escapades, Silva adds to each story a serious subject drawn from historic events: the avenging of the Munich Olympics attack that killed Israeli athletes; the recovery of stolen art during the Nazi regime; and, in Black Widow, the deadly fallout from the continuing misadventures in Iraq that led to the creation of ISIS.

Silva describes the perplexity of the geopolitical challenges unique to Israel sympathetically but not apologetically. He describes “life in the twice-Promised Land,” where “the past was inescapable. Arab and Jew were bound together by hatred, blood and victimhood. And in their punishment they would be forced to live together as feuding neighbors for all eternity.”

Silva captures the chaos in Europe (Paris and Belgium in particular), where impressionable young terrorists are recruited by cadres of professional maniacal killers, and terrorism casts a shadow over civil societies. Readers learn something serious in Silva thrillers while also being entertained.

A former resident of Washington, DC, and now a Miamian, Silva also includes local scenery in his tales, from the professional offices in Langley to the bar at Café Milano, so Washingtonians will recognize the action.

*****

Authors who write repeatedly about a cast of characters, as Silva does, or a time and place, as Furst does, do well by their readers and are publishing successes as a result. Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch series, and his recent Lincoln Lawyer character Mickey Haller, are classic examples I read regularly.

The modern “brand” thriller has historic forerunners — Agatha Christie and her dated but still popular Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple books. Other modern writers also in the thriller class — such as Sue Grafton and James Patterson — are followed by their fans for different reasons having to do with their past successes. But whoever the author, the subject of literary brands is worth further consideration, and I will return to it in later commentaries.

Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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