Heroine Addict 03: Tara Chace’s Last Run
Continuing a look at a series of thrillers I’ve read lately, written by men, featuring women protagonists: The 2010 novel The Final Run is a marvel of lean writing and tight pacing. The guy knows how to maintain tension. I was forced to read the book mostly in twenty-minute bursts, so a chapter or two at a time, and putting it down for such mundane reasons as earning a living was a small-scale torture.
It’s Rucka’s third novel starring British agent Tara Chace, and it follows a series of about three dozen comics. As with Modesty Blaise, I like the novels more than the comics, though comics are the character’s home. Plot, and particularly character, are just better served in prose. Where comics excel is in distilling what might be a page of prose into a single image. Even today’s superhero comics, with their “decompressed” storytelling, are still shrinking down ideas that would take pages to express and rendering them in a panel or two. For me, though, unless the artist doing it is Jaime Hernandez or, I dunno, a small handful of people working the pulpier genres, I’d rather read the prose.
Particularly in the case of an international thriller set against a background of politics and espionage—Rucka creates a very detailed world that feels like an extremely accurate look at life inside the British intelligence service and in Iran. His Queen & Country comics series that first brought us Tara had a similar ring of reality, but couldn’t convey as much of it in the graphic format.
The book also makes an interesting contrast to Kennedy’s Brain. Where Mankell’s story was heavy on the internal life of his main character and light on actual plot, this book is nearly all action—not necessarily fighting, but characters are always doing things, with tremendous stakes. While we get a lot of action and imagery and politics, we don’t spend a lot of time contemplating Tara’s soul. But then again, neither does she.
If there’s a lesson to be taken from the writing style, it’s in the way Rucka maintains tension and moves plot by jumping through time and shaving out the unnecessary. It’s basic that one formats a story to leave out the unnecessary stuff. But Rucka also manages to rearrange the necessary-but-boring stuff. Well, boring in the sense that it undercuts the tension.
In real life, and in many a novel, a man would get yelled at by his boss, the argument rising until he tells her he quits. Then he’d awkwardly pack up his stuff, perhaps say a few goodbyes, maybe turn over his keys, pass card or other company property to someone in HR, who might give him some paperwork, and then he’d drive home in pre-rush traffic, wait around for his pregnant wife to get home from her part-time, and then tell her he’s out of a job, meaning they’re out of insurance at a critical time, and she’d be furious and frightened.
In all of that, there’s two really key moments. Here’s how Rucka would’ve structured it in The Last Run: First chapter is the fight, ending with the man’s resignation, the crescendo of the argument. The next chapter would begin with him facing his wife, telling her what he’d done. Just as she expressed her dismay, but before answering the reader’s question of whether she’d be supportive or resentful, courageous or panicky, the scene would cut away to a flashback that would detail the significant moments between the resignation and the talk with the wife. Just enough of that to fill you in, while at the back of your head, you’re wondering what the hell his wife is gonna do, before bringing you back to find out.
Rucka does this over and over in the book, and the only times it fails is, two or three moments when the jumping around feels awkward, the cross-time progressions becoming a little confusing. But in all, it works, and it works really well.
I’ve read the previous Chace novel, A Private War, it was also quite good. I’ll have to track down the first, A Gentleman’s Game. And I’ve pulled out the 30-odd issues of the comic series for a reread. Rucka knows what he’s doing (I’ll have to talk about more of his work soon), and it’s good for both entertainment and to consider from a technical point of view.
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