Invention or Alter Ego?
Written by John Hutchinson, VJ Books, Tualatin, OR
I grew up in a home that didn’t read much. Oh my mom read trashy dime store romances and my dad did his best to get through the daily paper, but for the most part you couldn’t call us a literate household. So it comes as no surprise that I didn’t read. I got through school without much difficulty, not reading the required material, and had no concept of reading for pleasure.
That ended when I found myself in the USAF, stationed in Monterey, California. It was there that I found what was to be my first novel, the book that would launch me into a lifetime of reading. Lying in an activity room was an oft read, dog-eared copy of The Godfather by Mario Puzo. I picked it up and I read – yeah, I did know how to read.
I was immediately engaged, enthralled, and fascinated at the story that unfolded, as I followed the Corleone family through their trials and tribulations. As I read I was transported to their New York City home, and sat at the table as Don Vito, Sonny and Michael plotted their war against the five families. Across the table from me, with his back to the wall, sat Mario Puzo, and I knew from that moment that the best authors are more than scribes. It is their heart and soul that evolves in to the characters that jump from the page.
I never had the chance to meet Puzo, but am sure that somewhere in his persona was the very essence of Don Vito Corleone.
One of the profound privileges of our business is that I get to meet and know the authors than pen my favorite stories. It provides a whole new dimension to the work and a broad insight in the characters that grace the pages of their novels. One has to wonder how many authors find the idea for their most notable protagonists in their own alter ego.
Does John Sanford dream as Lucas Davenport? Does he drive around the twin cities in his own Porsche 911? As a long time fan of the series, I was very excited to meet the author back in 2001, during the release of Chosen Prey – the 12th book in the series. He told me then that he was about done with Davenport – he didn’t have many stories left to tell. Unfortunately, Lucas didn’t get the message, as we just saw the 25th book come out, Gathering Prey. Who’s calling the shots here?
When you look Jeff Deaver in the eye you see glimpses of Lincoln Rhyme, the Stephen Hawking of forensic investigators. While Deaver does not share the physical limitations of Rhyme, you cannot help but think that the genius of the detective’s insight resides behind those dark rimmed Elvis Costello glasses. Jeff Deaver sees the world through the eyes of Lincoln Rhyme, or did I get that backward?
Lee Child stands tall at 6’4”, while Jack Reacher is 6’5”. Standing side-by-side the difference would be hardly noticeable. Both have piercing wintery-blue eyes, and a serious intense face. When Jim Grant, a British television producer, saw his friends and colleagues fired and his career collapsing he became furious. Out of that rage emerged Lee Child and Jack Reacher. Both Child and Reacher share empathy for the little guy, taking their fight to those bullies who prey on the weak and helpless. Very simply put Reacher stories are stories of revenge, driven by the injustices experienced by Jim Grant, a.k.a Lee Child.
After a dozen years or so Cotton Malone left behind the Magellan Billet, where he was part of a twelve man team doing international investigations. Sharing legal skills is by no means the only connection between Malone and his creator Steve Berry. Both love history, and travel to exotic locales in search of answers to intriguing questions. To investigate mysteries about Alexander the Great, Columbus, Napoleon, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Elizabeth 1st, and FDR, Steve Berry travels the world in search of clues – clues that Cotton Malone uses to unlock the truth about the past.
When you meet Robert Crais you can’t help but see the reflection of Elvis Cole, a charming California fit guy, passionate and intelligent. Cole, the tough, unorthodox L.A. private detective, easily recognized in his Hawaiian shirt, with his Dan Wesson .38 just visible in the waistband of his shorts, is a man who deals with the world on his own terms. So does Robert Crais. After writing scripts for L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice, Crais skillfully crafted the Elvis Cole series. How much of Crais’ own sensitivities are portrayed in the Cole character is anyone’s guess. One can only wonder if Crais reserved his darker side for the man hidden behind the sunglasses – the cryptic and indestructible Joe Pike?
Phil Mercer is a friend of mine. I have known him since we met in Hawaii back in 1998, and ran into him again in Alaska the following year. Phil is trained as a consulting geologist and mining engineer, who lives in Arlington, Virginia. About a dozen years ago Phil introduced me to Jack Du Brul, and I was startled by the symmetry between the two men. As it turns out Phil Mercer was just an illusion expertly crafted by Du Brul himself. Jack and I have become friends over the years. In 2005 Jack joined up with Clive Cussler for a long voyage on the steamship Oregon. I was frustrated that Phil Mercer was stuck on a stool in Tiny’s Bar for nearly a decade while Jack was off wrestling with the character of Juan Cabrillo.
One stark difference between an author and the alter ego is that the character ages a lot more slowly, if at all. While the hands on Du Brul’s life clock continue to move, Mercer has maintained his youth. Even his octagarian sidekick, Harry White, hasn’t aged, or he would be crowding the century mark.
This is even more evident with the 85 year old Clive Cussler. His alter ego, Dirk Pitt, maintains his youthful prowess as he continues to save the world in his lively adventures. Now, with Cussler’s son Dirk (Pitt was named for him) doing the writing, the character moves at a much younger pace than Dirk Cussler’s 54 years.
As life continues to imitate art, the Cussler’s manage a real life version of the National Underwater & Marine Agency, globetrotting in search of famous shipwrecks, and Cussler’s car collection greatly outshines Pitt’s modest holdings, with many of the individual pieces appearing in the novels. Who is that behind the wheel of that dark blue 1936 Pierce Arrow?
Everyone has a second self within them. Authors give that second self life, exploring the nuances and complexities in the development of our favorite characters, showing not only what is – but what might be. They mold the alter ego, inventing immortal characters that are bigger-than-life, facing situations and challenges that would consume their mortal selves, and we are thrilled and mesmerized.
As I lock eyes with Mario Puzo one last time, I bid him a fond farewell, and a gracious goodbye to Don Corleone.