Friday, November 04, 2005

Almost Exciting

The Icon, by Neil Olson, Read by Lewis Grenville, BBC Audiobooks America, 2005

In the latter half of the twentieth century and to this day as the twenty-first marches ever bleakly along, World War Two exists as the Genesis story for almost all spy novels. There is primeval darkness (Nazism), The Fall (American and Soviet defense and intelligence bureaus taking in German rocket scientists with Nazi affiliations), and the eternal struggle of good versus evil (the Cold War) in which these stories take place. The utility of this has lead to a proliferation of scenarios as it is purely open in terms of where the story can go, what major moments on the stage can be framed and reframed through the refracting prism of counterintelligence, what smaller, less publicized backwaters can be dredged.

Neil Olson’s debut novel, The Icon, is itself fruit of this genre, the seeds of the story born from the Greek involvement in World War Two and the Nazi attempts to conquer the country. As a very amateur history buff, I can’t say much about that period or place in the history of war (outside of some sketchy learning regarding The Peloponnesian War, Thermopylae, Sparta, Athens, the Trojan War, and all the rest), distracted and seduced as I am by Casablanca-tinged notions of the French resistance as well as English stolidity during the Blitz and so forth. I couldn’t, with any absolute certainty have told you which side Greece was on in WWII, though I would have guessed factionally riven/leaning Allied.

The Icon opens with a mysterious guerilla band’s attempt in a small Grecian village of Katarini to break into a burning church and rescue a revered icon of the Virgin Mary while engaged in a gun battle with Nazis. Before we find out what that’s all about, we’re in New York in the present day. We meet a family involved with icon over generations, we meet many groups and collectives interested in obtaining the icon including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Greek Orthodox Church, and we meet con-artists, ex-Nazis in hiding, and elderly Greeks and Israelis who can’t quite let go of the past. What gives the book it’s slightly different feel is how many of these characters are at least in their 70s, not the sexy spies and Bond Girl types normally associated with the genre.

However, even though the novel also does feature a less obvious McGuffin than many others (a pre-iconoclastic Virgin Mary icon with possible healing powers that simply everyone’s mad for) and does feature Eastern art history, another uncommon ingredient, we do get a number of spy/thriller cliches. For starters, you can’t write a book of this kind with zero youth appeal. And so we meet Ana Kessler, the young heir to the last owner of the icon, beautiful, rich, single (of course) who finds herself attracted to handsome, young, single (yes, yes) Matthew Spears the Met’s resident expert on early Byzantine art. It’s a good break for all of us that they are neither ugly nor significantly differently aged nor otherwise committed. Who wants to read spicy sexagenarian sex scenes?

Then there are the rather contrived and artificial jumps back and forth from the past to the present (the past here meaning that one fateful day in Katarini, the function of which only slightly altered the outcome of the book and only barely gave us illumination into various character motivations). This is the pause in suspense to explain how we got to where we are, another genre staple. Add to that the Nazi hunting subplot, which proves to be a rather humongous red herring, only not quite, the proliferation of minor characters who advance the plot but seem to be rather ponderously space-taking before their eventual demises, and the various twists that read not like organic plot complications but like calculated padding.

Ultimately, Neil Olson, a longtime agent who decided to write a novel, has turned in a perfunctory first attempt that has just enough suspense, just enough romance, just enough intrigue to be categorized as successful. But there’s no heart to the book, everything is just a bit too studied, too mannered, too planned out. It’s as if Olson were writing a book by numbers, expecting all his colleagues, all the budding novelist he’s sent “We’re sorry but at this time your novel doesn’t meet” letters to, all the critics who’ve known his name for years to pile on him, so he’s played it safe. There’s enough novelty so the book isn’t accused of being a derivative pastiche, but there’s enough derivative pastiche so that the book isn’t reinventing the wheel with novel ideas and arrangements.

Reader Lewis Grenville is a bit of a bust too, taking no chances, delivering the goods but barely, and reading a bit on the laconic side. His voice is slow, paced, deliberate, but never once takes any risks or betrays any great emotion. He reads as if auditioning for the part of not-quite-uptight straight man, the buttoned down mind in the spy thriller. It’s a good match, but one not good for the listener necessarily.

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