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Episode 312

Literary Lone Wolves

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Posted by Mary Ann

One thing that has struck me over and over as I have read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels is this: this guy is the ultimate lone wolf. He works alone. He lives in obscure places. He doesn’t have a family. And, of course, he is very smart, lethally strong and with one or two exceptions, doesn’t rely on anyone but himself. And, of course, he always wins the battle against implacable evil.

So I felt pretty smart when you and Lee talked about Jack Reacher’s appeal: “We all want to do the right thing, and the point is….we can’t. He solves a problem, then he rides into the sunset.”

This sort of person is popular in storytelling, fiction, films, you name it – he’s virtually an archetype, and he’s usually a man. This kind of individualism can be lonely, but something in our makeup longs for it. It got me thinking about the lone wolves of literature that I love. Most of them are involved in solving crimes.

Of course, the precursor to all lone wolves was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the first book, 1887 “A Study in Scarlet,” forward, Holmes was a lone wolf. He’s brilliant and eccentric, and of Holmes’ fascinating qualities is that he really doesn’t like other people very much. He puts up with and relies on Doctor Watson (a much more normal kind of person!), and he allows Mrs. Hudson to dither over him, but he basically doesn’t have much use for other people’s company – they distract him, unless they come to his doorstep pleading for help in solving crimes or righting wrongs. Even his pursuits are solitary – playing the violin, shooting cocaine. Holmes was the lone wolf archetype against which all others are measaured.

Moving forward in time, I want to call out John le Carre’s George Smiley.

The story of George Smiley’s creation is so fascinating, I could take up the whole time talking about it. John le Carre worked in the British Secret Service after World War II during the time when a “mole,” a Soviet spy named Kim Philby, was discovered working for the service.

When le Carre set about to fictionalize this chain of events, he created Smiley, a brilliant man of incorruptible integrity who has retired from (edged out of) the service – then he’s brought back in to find out who the mole is. George is the ultimate outsider, and he sees through everybody’s deceptions, hypocrisies and lies in the service of finding the mole. He is also utterly alone – even his wife betrays him.

Le Carre wrote what’s become known as the Smiley trilogy, starting with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and ending with “Smiley’s People.” These books are so good I reread them every few years. The television version, produced by the BBC and starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, is a classic.

Another wonderful outsider-cop is P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh. Starting in 1962 with the book “Cover Her Face,” Dalgliesh solves crimes – like Holmes, he is able to slice through the stratifications of English society and find violence and corruption even in the highest ranks of society. Dalgliesh is a copper who also a published poet. You can’t get much more “outsider” than that.

P.D. James got her start as a writer after years of working for an English hospital board and later in the criminal section of the Home Office. She has a very astute eye for both crime and the way bureaucracies can distort human behavior. She also loves to set her books in “closed” societies, such as the Anglican Church, publishing, or a lawyer’s office – everybody has something to hide, until Dalgliesh comes in and cuts through the murk.

One of my absolute favorite “outsider” heroes in fiction is Arkado Renko, the Moscow police detective who’s the hero of a series of books by Martin Cruz Smith, starting with “Gorky Park.” This book came out in 1981, when the Cold War was still very cold and the Soviet Union was still intact. It was a tour de force of writing and imagination; Smith was only able to spend a couple of weeks in Moscow to do research, but he created an utterly believeable story of Renko, a man of principles who works in the Moscow city police. When he starts to investigate the death of three young people in Moscow’s Gorky Park, all hell breaks loose, as everyone from his own superiors to the KGB tries to keep him from solving the crime.

Amazingly, Renko has persisted through many books – even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Smith has woven wonderful stories featuring him, because, you know? Russia is never going to be a boring place, and talk about double-dealing bureaucracies! One of my favorite Renko novels published after the Soviet Union broke up is “Wolves Eat Dogs,” which is set in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. His new one, out this fall, is about a Russian woman journalist in the New Russia who is killed for investigating corruption and conspiracy. This has happened to any number of journalists in Russia, including Anna Politkovskaya, a woman who was murdered after writing about a number of horrors, including the war between Russia and Chechnya. In the wheels within wheels society of Russia, Renko will never run out of things to investigate.

I could go on, and on, and on, but I want to briefly mention one more lone wolf.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Connelly was a crime reporter who after working for a number of years in Los Angeles, created Bosch, a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department (another notable bureaucracy). He’s another lone wolf who has a hard time cooperating, hates bureaucracy and really doesn’t care about anything but solving murders. He really does believe he is a defender of the dead, that he won’t let murder victims be forgotten or justice for their crimes be denied.

The first Harry Bosch novel was 1992’s “The Black Echo,” and he’s written 19 in all. Interestingly, in the last couple of books Bosch has become a little less of a lone wolf – he’s a single parent, raising his teenaged daughter after her mother dies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Harry’s daughter gets her own series one of these days…..she is one tough nut, not falling far from her father’s tree.

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