Saturday 28 March 2020

Private Paris by James Patterson (and Mark Sullivan)

What follows first appeared as a blog in April 2016. I recycle it here to prove that I don't confine my reading to brilliantly innovative and original literary fictions published by plucky independent presses and am no snob (although clearly there are still some things worth being snobbish about). Here we go:

On James Patterson, authors

How best to express it? 'James Patterson are a writer'? 'James Patterson is writers'?

In any consideration of the work of this spectacularly successful American author (born 1947), Rimbaud's Je est un autre ('I is another') comes to mind because Patterson is not so much a writer but a brand - he contains multitudes. He published his first book in 1976 and over the past forty years has published, alarmingly, 147 novels, although that number is likely to have risen by the time you read this. Sales to date are well over 300 million. Three. Hundred. Million.

His approach is collaborative. Patterson works with a cohort of co-authors including Maxine Paetro, Andrew Gross, Mark Sullivan, Ashwin Sanghi, Michael Ledwidge and Peter De Jonge, all of whom I am sure make a good living from their second billingPatterson admits, with bracing candour, that he is "simply more proficient at dreaming up plots than crafting sentence after sentence." 

Fair enough. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst don't hand-craft their artworks, leaving such afterthoughts to studio assistants; David Beckham doesn't distil and bottle and distribute his male fragrance; actors have stunt doubles. We all of us need a hand to do whatever it is we do.

The reason for this blog is that I've just read my first Patterson, which was co-written with (or by?) Mark Sullivan. The book was left behind by an American guest on her way to Paris and (surely no coincidence, as she clearly wanted to read up on her destination) it's called Private Paris. I'm sure I'm not the only reader to mistake that title for Private Parts. Glance at the cover and you'll see what I mean:

Image © Little, Brown and Company

The first American edition was published on March 14th this year. Private Rio - trailed at the end of Private Paris - has appeared since, and there's no shortage of cities yet to appear in a series that already includes Private London (2011), Private Berlin, Private L.A. (both 2013), Private Sydney, Private Vegas (both 2015) as well as many other 'Private'-prefixed titles (including 2014's snigger-inducing Private Down Under). The series (one of many bearing the Patterson brand) is unlikely to run out of steam any time soon, although it will be a few years before we get to Private Hull

I approached Private Paris without preconceptions or prejudice. Really. I  suppose I expected, and indeed looked forward to, the literary equivalent of 'a major motion picture event'. Nothing too demanding, intellectual, formally ground-breaking or even particularly credible. I wanted entertainment, diversion, distraction. What did I get?

Here's the blurb:

When Jack Morgan stops by Private's Paris office, he envisions a quick hello during an otherwise relaxing trip filled with fine food and sightseeing. But Jack is quickly pressed into duty after a call from his client Sherman Wilkerson, asking Jack to track down his young granddaughter who is on the run from a brutal drug dealer.

Jack's envisioning proves unreliable in this instance and fine food takes a back seat. One thing leads to another and the Wilkerson case elides into a sinister plot to destroy French society as we know it (or at least as Patterson knows it) with an apparently Islamist group known only by the graffiti tag AB-16 picking off the nation's 'cultural elite": the director of the Paris Opera is strangled by a stage curtain rope; Rene Picus 'arguably the greatest chef in all of France' is drowned in his own chicken stock; Lourdes Latrelle, 'one of France's foremost intellectuals and best-known writers' is smothered by a pillow in an orgiastic night club; a famous fashion designer stabbed in the heart with a six-inch leather awl. The French culture minister gets off lightly and is merely shot. Their corpses are left hanging upside-down, as inverted crucifixions. 

This, let's agree, is a terrific idea for a Houellbecquian satire with lashings of Guignol. But Patterson and Sullivan are no Houellbecqs and what we get is what I expect the publishers would call 'a white knuckle ride'. In fact a theme park roller coaster has a lot in common with this novel, and is about as susceptible to criticism. Roller coasters have a superficial texture of danger and excitement but are (theoretically) safe, offering punters a controlled, stylised sense of achievement, a quick thrill and an adrenaline rush.  Nothing wrong with that, and if EuroDisney is your idea of France then Private Paris will certainly melt your butter.

Patterson and/or his co-writer Mark Sullivan make it easy for a new reader to join a long-running series that already runs to more than a dozen novels. The hero, Alex Morgan, ('athletic, blond, hazel-eyed') runs an international security agency called simply Private - 'the Pinkerton's of the 21st century' - and has a combat background, having served with the US marines in Afghanistan. His training kicks in at appropriate moments and these moments come thick and fast, then thicker and faster. Confusingly Morgan's ability to speak and understand French  comes and goes as the plot requires, although it hardly matters as there's barely a word in French throughout. Morgan, who has the cultural gaucheness of Donald Trump turned down to 11, is astonished to meet a bilingual woman ('I shook her hand, wondering bow she could speak both languages with such perfect accents'). An art professor and graffiti expert, Michele Herbert is 'beyond-belief good-looking and off-the-charts smart and creative. And yet she didn't seem to take herself too seriously'. She has a chic bob and a tiny mole. They exchange no more than a chaste kiss in the final chapter (admittedly she's coming round from surgery after being shot in the stomach), but if the novel contains one surprise it's the fact that she and Morgan don't become an item. 

At other times he is more self-assured. 'This is the school for artists in France, correct?'. Morgan's brisk interrogation tells us all we need to know - and all we'll ever know - about L'Académie des beaux-arts. I wish I could write this badly so well. 

Although there are unlimited Private resources at his disposal, Morgan is never happier then when chasing baddies on foot between bouts of supernatural intuition. Alternate chapters cut between his first-person narrative and third person accounts of the bad guys (Major Sauvage and Captain Mfune, two French soldiers who are the real villains behind the AB-16 campaign). Morgan doesn't know the names of these two so he calls them respectively 'Whitey' and 'Big Nose'.

All this unravels in a Paris made navigable for American readers by a process of rigorous demystification - a city with sidewalks not trottoirs and consisting of no more than a handful of iconic locations. Morgan's surprising familiarity with French-set Broadway musicals (Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) also gives the reader entry level access to culture, and even stretching a point to French culture, but most of what happens might just as well take place in Manchester, Detroit or Bucharest.  

At moments of exposition Morgan's employee and sidekick Louis Langlois speaks fluent Wikipedian, as when he introduces Morgan to the Institut de France:

'On a practical level, the institute oversees about ten thousand different foundations concerned with everything from French historical sites to museums and castles,' Louis said. 'The five academies within the institute were formed back in the days of Louis XIV, and designed to preserve and celebrate the French culture, language , arts, sciences , and our systems of law and politics, The members represent the best of France, and must be voted in.'

Here's the original Wikipedia entry, by way of comparison:

The Institut de France […] is a French learned society, grouping five académies, the most famous of which is the Académie Française. The Institute, located in Paris, manages approximately 1,000 foundations, as well as museums and châteaux open for visit. 

Patterson, or Mason, or perhaps Langlois himself, subtly increases the number of foundations managed by the Institute by a factor of ten - those European republics with their centralised governments and spendthrift socialist economies! 

But enough already. Private Paris cannot be criticised as a novel because it really isn't a novel at all. It's a wordy storyboard for that aforementioned 'major motion picture event'. It's a relentlessly headlong, painstakingly chronological
 narrative with most chapters given a precise location and time of day (MONTFERMEIL, EASTERN SUBURBS OF PARIS, 10 P.M.). The action consists largely  of breathless those chases punctuated by lurid murders, shoot-outs, snatched naps, shaving, litres of strong black  coffee, showers (lots and lots of showers). Between showers the continuity is perfunctory, the twists and turns preposterous. Nothing makes any sense, and nobody involved - including the Parisian police, especially the Parisian police - seems to have the faintest understanding of anything procedural. Langlois, who never amounts to more than a device and is seldom even that, has an unlimited cohort of specialists on tap who serve to keep things bowling along. When he injures his knee he admits, almost bashfully: 'I have an old friend, Megam, who specialises in knees'.

I suppose a defence of this approach is that at great speed one doesn't feel the bumps, and to be fair the plotting is so erratic and slapdash that it attains a serene meaninglessness, keeping itself afloat in an ocean of random coincidence and happenstance. But when, as here, the plot is all bumps then speed is no longer an option, and we are presented with the dogged but inconsistent disposal of logic, character or plausibility. The chase scenes repeatedly reminded me of that endless corridor along which the Scooby-doo characters run, passing the same chest of drawers and lampshade every few yards. In fact the whole novel, in its fragmented incoherence, has a cartoon feel.

Patterson adds to this a shrewd top-dressing of current political and social malaise - the Charlie Hebdo murders are referenced, and there's a good deal of anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by a number of the French characters (though not by Morgan). The tough eastern banlieus where young migrants eke out impoverished and marginalised lives are evoked with a degree of sympathetic understanding that passes in a flash as the real business of running around and letting off firearms takes over.

Is it a page turner? Oh yes, and very much so. The chapters (of which there are no fewer than 111, spread over 410 pages) rarely exceed four pages in length and it's difficult to resist the temptation to read just one more, then another, and another. In this respect and no other Private Paris has something in common with Melville's Moby-Dick. 

The prose is brisk and utile with only a few oddities: 'Startle' as an intransitive verb ("I startled awake") occurs three times, at each use of which I startled too. There's the new (to me) adverb 'hostilely'. The dialogue aims at a laconic, world weary tone but is never more than merely weary. Morgan is no Philip Marlowe because Patterson is no Raymond Chandler. After staying awake for more than thirty hours Morgan unsurprisingly needs some sleep or, as he puts it, 'some much needed sack time'. This is typical of Patterson's approach, which never really amounts to anything as distinctive as a style: the mundane gets the fancy treatment (cellphones are constantly 'punched' and 'stabbed' and, while you or I might simply pull a gun from our pocket, Louis Langlois 'yanks a Glock'), while the dramatic is presented in a downbeat, off-hand manner:

"Merde!" Louis shouted at one point. "Hold on!"
    Cars skidded and honked all around us.
    Cars crashed all around us.

I admired that (and we can leave it to the movie people to flesh out the details, at great expense and inconvenience to residents in the Paris quarter where the thing is perpetrated). 

Would I read another Patterson, or Patterson? Yeah, sure; but when to find the time? Would I re-read Private Paris? Of course not. Would I watch a movie based on the novel? Hell yes. But only in a hotel, or on a plane. Not at home and certainly not at the cinema. And ideally with Jack Morgan played by a woman. And the setting changed to Vancouver or Sydney or anywhere but Paris. And the whole thing played for laughs.

As a boy I gobbled up the novels of Alistair Maclean - he of Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles dare, When Eight Bells Toll, The Guns of Navarone and many more. He doesn't have a dedicated website - surely now the only sign of literary afterlife. Is he even in print now? Patterson sees himself, with good reason, as a brand and is happy for books by other writers to appear under his name What will endure of Patterson's huge oeuvre isn't likely to be any individual novel but his ability to oversee, to endorse, a steady supply of the kind of thing that the people who enjoy this kind of thing like. 

Quotations © James Patterson / Mark Sullivan / Little, Brown and Company.

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