Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Lawrence Sanders

Lawrence Sanders is the kind of writer sometimes charitably called a journeyman, sometimes not so charitably called a hack. Maybe a nicer midpoint would be “professional”. A shorthand description of a “professional”: someone with some writing talent who applies it to the popular genres of his day, in the interest of making some $$$.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making money, of course. But there’s a difference between hoping your books sell, or trying to market them so that they sell, and writing for markets. It’s a difference in emphasis, subtle but real, and it involves the market dictating to you. Time travel romances hot this year? Better grind out a couple. No, wait, it’s women PIs and a bit of sex. No, wait, horror’s back. Etc. And a dedicated, er, “professional” will fill any gap out there he’s told to fill.

This is the Writer’s Digest school of writing, and Lawrence Sanders is the logical endpoint of what that kind of school will produce: slickly made, occasionally diverting, but mostly empty books. All of the authors we’ve talked about before, good bad and indifferent, meant it. (Even Arthur Hailey believed in what he was doing – his books certainly have, for better and worse, conviction. )

With Sanders, no. The books all have a curious facelessness: the faux downbeat style of First Deadly Sin is nothing like the faux giggles of the McNally series, which is nothing like the faux hb stuff in Sixth Commandment. Read a lot of Sanders and you’ll have the impression of a man wearing a lot of masks. The man underneath seems unknowable.

Now, that doesn’t mean Sanders books are without interest: some of them are fairly enjoyable. It just seems kind of sad to me, like Sanders in some sense just missed the point of the thing. I suspect his books will be forgotten fairly quickly, and probably properly so, because they don’t really offer the reader anything new. They just fill existing needs. And there’s always “professionals” out there to do that for the new season, and the new needs.

Sanders came to prominence in the early Seventies with The Anderson Tapes, a half-interesting/half-routine caper novel most notable for its oddball structure: it’s an epistolary novel, told in (mostly) surreptitious tape recordings. This structure does nothing for the plot and just sort of sits there as an irritating overlay on the whole text. But, well, it was the early Seventies, and paranoia was hot.

The First Deadly Sin is quite a different thing, a big brooding police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer. It’s alternately suspenseful and dreary, insightful and banal, moving and crass. Not really a good book, but an intermittently fascinating one that’s worth a look, especially to fans of the sub-genre. (In particular it showcases an odd gift of Sanders’, a knack for making the most outlandish situations plausible. I think his popularity is mostly attributable to that.) I also like The Sixth Commandment, which has an extremely pulpy plot about mad scientists, dangerous experiments, cowed townspeople, brooding henchmen, and sexy femme fatales. It’s made about as plausible as these kind of things ever get: in fact if anything it’s a little too plausible – the books suffers mainly from a surprising stifled sneeze of a climax.

Sanders is now probably best known for the execrable McNally series, the popularity of which I would someday like someone to sit down and explain to me. I tried McNally’s Secret and had a compelling urge to punch the protagonist hard in the mouth.

Those are probably his most famous books. There are other Sanders books out there – he wrote a lot, as professionals are wont to do – but I haven’t been interested enough to check them out.

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