Friday, December 18, 2009

5 Trilogies Worth Re-reading

The short days and cold nights put me in the mood for longer, more involved storytelling. I just finished Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played with Fire," the middle volume of the Milllennium Trilogy, bookended by "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and the forthcoming "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest." (Larsson planned 10 volumes in the thriller saga but died after turning in only the first three.)

These books are clever and absorbing, with a dynamic female protagonist. But I doubt I'll ever want to re-read them, no matter how good the final book turns out to be. Their clumsy translations, eye-glazing info dumps and the ridiculousness of the male protagonist's irresistibility to the opposite sex are likely to prevent me from picking up the books for a second go-round.

There are some trilogies, however, that, at various intervals, spur me to re-read up to 2,000 pages. I've made it through three of the following multiple times, and the other two are on my One of These Days, Soon list. Only one is an out-and-out fantasy, and it's not very well known, even within the genre.

1. The Quest for Karla by John Le Carre
These may be the best three espionage novels of the last quarter of the 2oth century. (The first volume was published in 1974, but close enough.) I could read again and again "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the story of George Smiley's search for the Russian mole within British intelligence. "The Honourable Schoolboy" takes an entirely different tack and takes some getting used to, but it has its deep pleasures, especially the scenes in Asia. The overly talky "Smiley's People" is in some way the least successful of the three, but it does bring everything to an extremely fitting, and moving, end.

2. Game, Set, Match by Len Deighton
Deighton made his name with the "unnamed spy/Harry Palmer" books, beginning with "The Ipcress File" in 1962. As good as those swinging-Sixties novels are, I believe they are eclipsed by "Berlin Game," "Mexico Set" and "London Match," from the Reagan-era Cold War. Old Berlin hand Bernard Samson is pulled away from his desk job and back into the field when Brahms Four, one of his informants on the other side of the Wall, wants out. Samson's investigation brings to light the presence of, what do you know?, another mole. Only this time the betrayal is intensely personal for Bernard.

Deighton takes a cheekier, more working class attitude toward the spy novel than does Le Carre. He's also more slippery in his narrative. Samson is not a reliable narrator, over-confident in his own talents and too quick to dismiss his blue-blooded superiors.

These books constitute the first of three trilogies, the other two being "Spy Hook, Line and Sinker" and "Faith, Hope and Charity." The sequence, published well past the dismantling of the Soviet Union, runs out of steam before the end, but all of the books have their interesting bits, and there's a huge reversal in "Spy Line."

3. The Blue Rose Sequence by Peter Straub
Straub didn't intend for "Koko" and "Mystery" to be part of a trilogy, not until he dreamed up "The Throat" and saw how the third book could swallow the other two whole.

"Koko" follows a group of Vietnam veterans as they discover that one of their former platoon-mates has become a serial killer, hunting journalists who have written about a massacre that occurred in a village called Ia Thuc. "Mystery" is set on a Caribbean island and in the Midwest, where a young man nearly killed in a car accident investigates two sets of murders. In "The Throat," Tim Underhill, the secret hero of "Koko," reveals his connection to the characters in "Mystery" and then solves, once and for all, what have come to be known as the Blue Rose murders.

You can read an extended interview with Straub that I conducted during his tour for "The Throat." In it, he discusses the origins of the books and of the short stories that are peripheral to them.

4. The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
I haven't read "Fifth Business," in nearly 25 years, so perhaps it's time to go to the garage and dig it out, along with "The Manticore" and "World of Wonders."

A boy throws a rock-filled snowball at this friend/rival. The friend ducks, and the missile strikes a pregnant woman, causing her to give birth prematurely. Out from that simple set of actions spirals a saga that comes to span decades and continents, touching on subjects as diverse as Jungian psychoanalysis and stage magic.

Davies -- journalist, academic, playwright -- was particular fond of three-book sequences. Also of interest are the Salterton Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy.

5. The Chronicle of the King's Tramp by Tom DeHaven
DeHaven is the author of a trilogy about the history of comics, consisting of "Funny Papers," "Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies" and "Dugan Under Ground," of which I've read only the middle volume. (It stands well enough on its own.)

"Walker of Worlds," "The End of Everything Man" and "The Last Human" make up DeHaven's other trilogy, an out-and-out multiversal fantasy that rivals Zelazny at his best. I'm not sure I can begin to give a decent summary of it. It features sentient dogs, evil monks, mud monsters, homeless savants and whole bunch of weird stuff. It's a kick from start to finish.

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