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Hero sum game

Most bestsellers today lack these larger-than-print life characters. Oh, there is a lot of action ? in every sense of the word ? but to no significant purpose, writes Amitabh Pandey.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2006 03:50 IST

In the days when writers were writers and not word processors operated by editorial advisors, heroes were men. Take my old friend Philip Marlowe. A hard-boiled private eye with a soft centre, he is determined, brave and intelligent but a human above all. Remember the one-night stand in Playback? No? Then there’s need for a re-cap.

Marlowe was the creation of Raymond Chandler, master of the Forties noir novel. In Marlowe, Chandler created a hero in the classical sense. I re-read all Chandler novels every few years. And I end up lamenting: where have all the writers gone?

This is not to insist that the fictional hero has to be a tough guy like Marlowe. Consider a short, fat, near-sighted scholar of medieval German poetry who is another hero of 20th century fiction: George Smiley. John Le Carré’s  creation is dedicated, brave, cunning and ruthless; he is also capable of complete commitment, both to his unfaithful wife and in his mission to thwart the evil designs of the enemy.

Another hero from the same stable is Alec Leamas, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In the double-dealing world of Cold War espionage and counter-espionage and counter-counter-espionage, he remains committed to his vocation: espionage. But when his love is betrayed and sacrificed by his own side, he refuses to jump to safety and steps down from the escape ladder back to the waiting guns on the Soviet side of the Wall. 

Most bestsellers today lack these larger-than-print life characters. Oh, there is a lot of action — in every sense of the word — but to no significant purpose.

Sure, the plots are clever and elaborate, but remain unconvincing once the book ends. There is a great deal of spice in the stew, but very little meat. Most unfortunately, there are lots of highly strung mannequins making high-decibel noise. So here’s the bottom-line: where has the hero gone? Surely, Dashiell Hammett would understand what I’m moping about?