Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Severance Package -- Duane Swierczynski

My copy of this one finally arrived the other day, so I started it almost immediately. It's hard to resist a book that begins with a woman poisoning her husband with his favorite potato salad, and the rest of the book more than lives up to the promise of the beginning.

The deal is that all the employees of a shady espionage agency have to be killed. Their chief plans to do the job and then kill himself. But you know what people say about the best-laid plans. One of his employees has different ideas. And so do some others. Things go wrong, and it all gets complicated. It's bang-bang action from start to finish, and I enjoyed it immensely, even if I never did quite figure out exactly what precipitated the plan of everybody in the office having to die.

There are several little touches to let you know how much fun Swierczynski was having as he wrote the book. Part of it's set in Scotland, and as one of the characters (Keene) walks to work he sees a man and his dog:

"Wee thing -- the dog, that was. It had only three legs. The owner had only two, but looked haggard, if finely muscled.

"'Sorry, mate,' Keen said.

"The man smiled at him, and not in a particularly warm way."

I suspect that some of you can even guess the man's name. And then there's Charles Lee Vincent, from The Blonde. He's got another security job. You talk about a guy who has bad luck with security jobs, you're talking Charlie.

If you've read my earlier reviews of Swierczynski's work, you know I'm a fan. I think you will be to after reading this one, if you're not already.


Paul Bishop said...

I've just finished reading both The Wheelman and The Blond in anticipation of Severence Package, and perhaps that wasn't a good idea.

While I admit Swierczynski's novels are like a Stark/Westlake Parker book on speed, there just isn't anything there at the end of the book -- they are a bit like the literary equivalent of empty calories.

It's not that Swierczynski is a bad writier -- he isn't. He hooks me into wanting to know how the characters will get out of whatever convoluted complication he has just thrown at them, so I keep turning the pages. That said, however, there is not enough characterization to make me care.

The ending of The Wheelman in particular left me cold -- I hated it. So, while I will probably read Severence Package, I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I was when I first heard the premise.

mybillcrider said...

Let us know what you think when you're done with it.

Lee Goldberg said...

I am in agreement with my good buddy Paul Bishop. His take on Duane's books pretty much sums up my reaction to SEVERANCE PACKAGE. It read like a novelization of a screenplay based on a video game. It's a high concept idea that ultimately has no substance beyond that. It never really pays off in terms of character or plot...instead, what we get is one violent fight sequence after another which, I suspect, would play much better on screen than it does on the page (all leading to a unsatisfying ending). On paper, it's monotonous rather than thrilling. All the fights tend to blend into one another after awhile, even though Duane keeps dialing up the gore.
Overall, the book reads like a martial arts/espionage twist on the familiar FRIDAY THE 13th/HALLOWEEN slasher movie formula...with a bunch of victims up against an unstoppable, almost superhuman, killer.
It's obvious that that Duane is a wonderfully imaginative, highly skilled writer...but, in my opinion, he's skating on flash alone...he's taking the easy way and not using his considerable talent to its full potential. He could be writing great books...noir classics...but instead he's going for gimmicks, in-jokes, and fights. It's as if in every scene he's trying to impress his friends, as if he's saying "hey, look at this guys, isn't this cool?" instead of trying to create characters and tell a compelling story. It made reading the book frustrating...I kept asking myself why is he wasting himself on this when he could be writing something with substance and staying power? This would have worked much better as a comic book...which it, essentially, is (the cover and the artwork interspersed throughout the book make that comparison inevitable).
As hip and edgy as the book wants to be, there's actually a real dated feel to it all...like you're watching the fifth sequel to BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER.
I think I said this when he wrote WHEELMAN...he's got a great book in him, but this isn't it.
To me, SEVERANCE PACKAGE reflects the weaknesses of THE WHEELMAN instead of its many strengths. THE WHEELMAN, in my mind, is a much better book...at least, 3/4s of it is.

Anonymous said...

I tried The Wheelman ad never finished it. It just didn't engage me--not the writing, not the story, and not the character. That's 0-3.I'm not willing to spend any more money onhis books. I've heard him compared to Charlie Huston, anther author I don't get. In fact, I'm not a big supporter of the new crop of writers that have come along over the past few years. I really don't like undeserved hype. I thinkMichael Connelly and Walter Mosely deserve theirs but beyond that I don't know many who do. I'm a big Wallace Stroby fan, though, and wonder when his third book is coming out.


Anonymous said...

I love Duane's books. I think he is a true original and is writing entertaining and highly original books, and he has his own take on the universe. His style is smart, fun and fast. I can't wait for the next one. They are easy to read, and that shouldn't be held against them. They have a lot more sneaky craft than a hundred books twice the size with less the meat. Joe Lansdale

Anonymous said...

Another post. What I like best about Duane is he isn't like the old guys. There's always a new crop, and he's one of them, and he's one of the best. My favorite of the new guys coming along. Joe

Ray Banks said...

On the "undeserved hype" thing, neither Charlie Huston or Duane Swierczynski received, to my knowledge, a fraction of the hype normally accorded to the Next Big Thing. The reason they've garnered such a good "buzz" is purely word-of-mouth. And they're both - much like Mr Lansdale - hitting readers who wouldn't normally pick up novels because of their comic work.

Personally, I'd much rather be entertained by a book that's lean and ostensibly frivolous, than the kind of doorstop airport entertainments that have proliferated in recent years. And regardless of Duane's "potential" (an undefinable quantity, and the discussion of which carries condescending overtones), the fact remains that there are very few people out there marrying genres with such success.

I'll keep buying 'em as long as he keeps writing 'em.

Anonymous said...

RAy, you the man. But, alas, my comic work came later, though I know it's brought some readers to me work. Whatever works. Joe Lansdale

Lee Goldberg said...


For what it's worth, I love your books. And I love Bill's work, too (and greatly respect his opinion, thanks to him I discovered Harry Whittington and Dan Marlowe, two of my favorite writers). But when I read Duane, what I see is enormous talent being wasted. It's not the easy readability of his books that bothers me -- I love that about about his writing -- it's the superficial, unsatisfying plotting and thinly drawn characters. (The plotting of WHEELMAN an SEVERANCE PACKAGE felt identical to me...even though the plots, on the surface, seem wildly difference. They both end, essentially, the same way). He seems more interested in "action" than actually creating any depth. To me, action is always better when it's an expression of character and conflict rather than simply being there to be cool or move the plot along. The plots of WHEELMAN and SEVERANCE PACKAGE just petered out into nothing...like a balloon that's that's propelled in a crazy, loud spin by leaking helium, then just collapses when the gas is gone. It was a race to no finish line. I truly believe he is great writer, which is why I find his books so frustrating (and why, even so, I keep reading them). It's like Gordon Ramsey working at McDonalds.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words, Lee. It's what makes horse races. I believe this guy in an innovator and will only get better and better. So many of the old guys wrote the same book over and over, and though there's a similarity in style and method of attack, this boy is something. I feel like it's kind of like looking at a fine modern painting and not liking it because it's not a fine old painting. But I do appreciate your good words about my work and about my buddy Bill's work. We love the old guys, I just think Duane is doing exactly what he means to do and well. But again, what makes them horse races.

Todd Mason said...

FWIW, Joe, if you hit the Name/URL button rather than the Anon button, you can put your name, and even if you please the Drive-In address or what have you, on your comments.

Otherwise, since I've been meaning to get around to Duane's novels but haven't yet, this is pretty fascinating.

Anonymous said...

There's hype and there's hype. I should have made my post two posts. But I've been seeing a lot of stuff on line about Duane's work--here, from Ed Gorman, Sarah Weinman and others--and I'm sorry, I don't get it.


Sarah Weinman said...

Ironically perhaps, I think this wild polarization is exactly why Duane's work will be read for a long time to come. Because any book that manages to be akin to Titus Adronicus or a comic book in prose format means there's actually much more going on than either pole (er, haha?) is willing to recognize.

Anonymous said...

Sara, you got it. Joe

Anonymous said...

Those who know me well know that I more or less broke up with the Internet -- stopped reading almost all bogs, limit my online time to utility, which boils down to research and booking travel. But someone alerted me to this post and, as someone who blurbed Duane's previous book, I want to put in my two cents.

Severance Package arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. Now, at any given time, I have five books waiting for blurbs and books I just plain want to read and, right now, two books to write and also, allegedly, this thing called A Life. But I sat down with SP that night and raced through it.

I wouldn't dream of arguing with anyone who didn't like it; ultimately, this is pretty subjective stuff. But, although I've been out of the corporate world for seven years, I think Duane really caught the zeitgeist on this one. For me, SP is simply the exaggerated version of what's happening in, say, newspapers across the country. The mission has changed, we don't need most of you anymore, but we need those few left standing to do a lot more.

Clearly, this isn't a generational thing, given that Bill, Joe and I are huge fans. As Duane so cheerfully told the world, I was the oldest woman in his Damn Near Dead collection. By a lot. (Thanks, Duane!) Do I like Duane's novel because he's a personable guy who's been a good friend to me? No. Do I tell my friends when I don't like their novels? No. But I don't go out of my way to sing their praises in public, either. There are not enough drinks or back-slaps or compliments on this planet to get me to endorse a book I don't truly admire. I loved Severance Package.

Charlieopera said...

I’m one of the guys who “trashed” Lee Goldberg back when he publicly pissed on The Guards a few years ago. Back then I wondered why a writer would knock a book publicly (rather than share his thoughts with the writer personally--I’ll get back to that in a moment). I understand the free speech angle; the right to go public with a denunciation, but something tells me it would be harder to do one-on-one (to the writer him or herself). For my money it’s a tough enough game for any writer to survive without the extra doses of bullshit (whether they be from cliques, popularity contests, real or fugazy awards ... or established associations and their real or fugazy awards). In the end, it’ll be sales numbers that count and I doubt anything within the parenthesis above will make or break a career over the long haul.

That said, none of us should ever feel compelled to not go against any popular grain ... if any one of us sets themselves up as a book reviewer (for newspapers, crime fiction blogging sites, etc. {as opposed to personal ones--unless you do it regularly}), the rest of us are required to live with the negative reviews, as they are simply part of the game.

I exited what I once called the mutual circle jerk (or whatever I had called it) a few years back, because after one Bouchercon, I’d had enough. Between guys reaching for wallets they couldn’t find when it came time to anti-up for drinks, the politics, cliques, the frat night atmosphere (something I had lived through in the form of football camaraderie 30+ years ago in college as a confirmed GDI), the you blurb/vote for me and I’ll blurb/vote for you, etc., ... I found it a lot less honorable than the dishonest life I had spent most of my adult life pursuing. When I finally realized one personal dream (getting published), I wanted it to go forward as legit as my prior life wasn’t. That said, I started off by being as guilty as the next (or every other) new sucker to the game, but fortunately (for myself), I regrouped fairly early on (by book 3) and jumped off the creampuff carousel.

I stopped writing fugazy reviews/blurbs, but had I been guilty of overhyping something for guys I had met early on? You bet ... and it bothered me enough to stop the practice. Was I guilty of voting for guys I knew? Yep ... and it’s why I dissociated myself with all things “clique” (for lack of a better word). I left the MWA and the other Thriller thing. I no longer go to conventions, etc., but all of the above has been a personal choice. I prefer spending the little free time (and money) I have with my wife and I had always believed (and still do) that when all the smoke clears (and the smoke comes in all forms) the cream (as in talent) will rise to the top (and obviously, the cream already there, will stay there).

That may or may not be naïve, depending on what you’re looking for as a writer. Obviously, it isn’t restricted to book sale numbers or colleges would teach Danielle Steel rather than Fyodor Dostoevsky and/or John Updike.

And yes, I’m a Dostoevsky/Updike sycophant.

If I “trashed” Lee Goldberg back then it was because I didn’t get the point of the public knock. I still don’t ... but mostly because I didn’t get then (and still don’t get now) who Lee Goldberg was/is to suggest someone else write up to what he believes might have “real substance and staying power”. Does he mean like Crime and Punishment or something like Diagnosis Murder Series and/or Mr. Monk Goes To Germany?

I haven’t read any of Lee Goldberg’s books, but that has more to do with personal tastes and the type of reader his work seems to appeal to (I prefer reading darker material, whether they be in the form of verismo opera, drama, fiction/comedy). Lee Goldberg appears to be financially successful at what he does. God bless him. My argument back then had to do with the level of critical acclaim Ken Bruen had received across the board (not just from bloggers, sycophants and/or bullshit blurbs). The industry reviews (the 3 starred reviews The Guards had garnered--which has only been surpassed, since I’m paying attention, by James Sallis’ 4 starred reviews for Cripple Creek (or was it Drive?)), etc. Bruen’s style was something very new (to me). His Jack Taylor character had an interesting flaw I’d never seen (or read) before (the closeness to his father/distance from his mother) as well as a literary background I could learn from (as in I sought out and read some of what Taylor had read). There have been a lot of stylistic copycats since. Some do a good enough job at it; others fail miserably, but the fact there are copycats suggests Ken hit on something special.

I don’t get the point in publicly knocking writers for various reasons, but (as stated above) mostly because it’s a tough enough business without the extra doses of bullshit. I guess what I found offensive in Lee Goldberg’s knock on The Guards wasn’t his audacity to invoke his right of free speech, but who the hell was he to knock Bruen’s work (i.e., the glass house effect). Apparently Lee Goldberg has as many sycophants as does the clique Duane (I have no intention of trying to spell his last name) has been accused of belonging to, so I may well be wrong to suggest Lee Goldberg shouldn’t go public with negative reviews. In the end, back then I was defending a friend’s work (not just the friend). Lee Goldberg has every right in the world to spew negative reviews. Unless he’s a book reviewer (as in he reviews book on a regular basis), I don’t understand why he does it.

On the flip side, and this is perhaps more important, the writing world would be a much less diluted (and better place) if the were a lot less blow job reviews/blurbs/awards, but how one sorts those out (the genuine from fugazy) is a much tougher problem to resolve. A couple of months ago, I nearly engaged this virtual world (I swore off a few years back) after reading my own quote (the circle jerk thing) and how Andrew Vachss seemed to agree (in his own way and much more forcefully). Some “blogger” who wasn’t picked by him as one of the greatest crime writers in the history of crime writing had been offended enough to trash one of his books (and since the same thing had happened to me, minus the book trashing--it was just profound discontent aimed at me), I found it pretty interesting. The bigger theme had to do with one writer not ass kissing a book that was widely supported by the blogosphere crowd. I wrote the writer personally and lent my support because it was part of a book reviewing process for a website. If Lee Goldberg does that on a regular basis, while I don’t agree with it, I support his right to do so (and apologize forthwith).

About writing the writer personally. As it turns out, I had written Duane (the troublemaker in all this, eh?) after first reading The Wheel Man. I thought the first chapter (the bank robbery scene) was one of the best hooks I’d ever read; something having the credibility factor (George V. Higgins-like) I most often require when reading anything crime related. I also wrote Duane (in the same e-mail) that I felt somewhat let down (I don’t remember the exact words I used) when the thing turned more comic than real (especially the body count). I hope I told him that “it” (my opinion) was my two cents and probably worth a lot less ... In any event, Duane was decent enough to either accept or ignore my comments with grace. I assume so because he didn’t tell me to fuck off. I chose not to go public with what I felt about The Wheel Man because I just didn’t (still don’t) see the point in sharing what I believe should be notes to a fellow author rather than a public disavowal.

The point being, it was a tough email for me to write (preface about my 2 cents being worthless and “I’m just one reader” aside), but I had thought that’s what writers would prefer to hear from other writers rather than a public knock. However, if Lee Goldberg is a book reviewer, then that is a different can of worms and I’m wrong to have issues with his negative commentary; one has to hope that book reviewers are doing the right thing and being honest. If the man is a book reviewer and didn’t like the book, Duane (and his “clique”) have to live with it. If he’s not a book reviewer, I continue to question why he went public. Does the public (or blogging public?) really crave his opinion so much he feels compelled to share? If so, more power to him/them; he’s well within his right to post a negative review.

Second Duane point: When I read Duane’s The Blonde I knew early on it was a spoof and I had no trouble going along with it. In fact, I liked it so much I bought copies from Joe & Bonnie (Black Orchid) for my brats (all three of whom seemed to enjoy it as well--one I think wrote Duane he liked it so much). I haven’t yet read Severance Package but I will (even though you bastards now spoiled the drama for me), although I understand its more spoof than reality. It’ll be good timing, since I’m reading The 900 Days about the siege of Leningrad after reading The Madonnas of Leningrad (a wonderful, wonderful book--and I’m not one of the author’s sycophants). After those two books, I’ll certainly need something to make me smile again.

Third Duane point: I read his first one (Secret Dead Men), which was obviously not meant to be the docudrama I prefer, but it was a masterful nostalgic trip (for me). So, I guess Duane was 1-1; then 1-2, and now 2-3 (for this reader). I’ll be reading Severance Package when I get the chance (but definitely behind something much more somber). Whether I like Severance Package or not, none of you will know ... unless a) you ask, or b) Duane feels compelled to share.

I’m going to post this on Bill Crider’s blog, Lee Goldberg’s blog and Duane’s blog, but I’m ducking out after that. If you want a response, please write my personal email but you’ll have to forgive any delayed comebacks. I really do work 7 days a week ...

A note to the anonymous crowd—get over it and grow a pair. You made some valid points. Yes, there are cliques and yes, they have some small level of influence (reviews and/or otherwise), but they are a virtual world unto themselves (for Christ’s fucking sake). If bad writing is being published/well reviewed and/or honored because bloggers/reviewers have influence, don’t kid yourself, the buying/reading public will be able discern the good from the bad over the long haul. All fame (in whatever form it comes and however it comes) is truly fleeting (or some of the published/well reviewed and/or honored wouldn’t have taken such hard falls). More importantly, who cares what (or who) “they” promote (whether in the form of authors, reviews and/or awards)? In the end, it’s always the same number of people paying attention (count them). You (the anonymous) just might find some valuable relief in avoiding offending all the cliques out there. Life is way too short to go through with that (apparently constant) level of apprehension. What the fuck good is “your career” unless it’s yours?

I’m sure I’ll regret writing this tomorrow, but none of you should get wood (or whatever) over that. Trust me, I fear no blog, reviewer, or man (aren’t I a tough guy?) ... but I do hate giving in to my better judgment ... and this stuff, all of it (including my 3+ single-spaced pages), in the end, is just another form of farting; a catharsis much better served blown out of the back of my ass.

It’s what I get for being in between books and having no work in the word processing center today.

That said, here's to discourse.

mybillcrider said...

All I can say is that I've gotten more and better comments on this post than on any other one so far. I think that tells us something.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Charlie said better than I could have exactly what was behind my post today (June 23) about Lehane and the push for authors to be celebrities.

What my publisher was able to do for me was worth more than any kissing ass, sucking up, blurb-exchanging or blogging.

And whether or not I survive in the business will not be because of doing those things. It will come down to whether or not readers find merit in the work.

It's nice to have friends. It's nice to have some public support for your work. It's not nice if you're excluded from the cliques because you try to be honest or fair.... but that is life. We're all still in high school.

While I don't understand the need to publicly trash for the sake of trashing, I do understand two things about expressing criticism. One is, if you have a personality like mine you vent about just about anything. And if I see a terrible movie I usually just want to rant to get it out of my system. It isn't surprising some people do that about books, is it? We've all complained about poor customer service in a store or about a faulty product we've bought or something along the way, right?

The only other thing I understand about it is the reason I chose to write a negative review on a popular book that I really wanted to like, but felt fell short for me. It cost me friends, including people I'd previously gone to the mat for and defended publicly in the past. But as long as I'm going to review, readers need to understand that I will only sign my endorsement to what I truly believe in, whether it's popular or not. And they need to understand what doesn't work for me as a reader if my positive reviews are to be any help to them when deciding whether or not to pick up the book themselves.

It takes no guts at all to run around tossing empty praise, but it does take a lot of nerve to stand up and say a book doesn't work for you, and here's why.

The reality is, I don't get along with Lee Goldberg, but I think his point here is misunderstood. It's perhaps his fault for expressing it the way he did, but his comments come off more as personal criticism, and that's the problem. Separate the wonderful person Duane is from the equation, and really what Lee is saying is he thinks this is an extremely talented writer who has so much more in him to put into a great book, and he just wants to see Duane put out that book. I essentially said the same thing myself in a review once, about Barry Eisler, when I said I saw he had it in him to write a great political thriller but the book I was reviewing wasn't it. It shouldn't be a knock about that book, because that book wasn't intended to be a political thriller on that scale, but I regretted saying it later, because TLA should have been reviewed on its own merits and what it was trying to be, not what it wasn't based off of what I wanted to see from the author... even if I really meant it as a compliment. What I meant was, "Barry's a great writer and I could see him doing an excellent job writing a political thriller." Instead, it came off as, "Barry could do better than he did with this one."

Truly, I think Lee isn't meaning to knock Duane, and you've got to know for the number of times Lee has pissed me off I'd never be arm-twisted into publicly defending him if I didn't really think this. What he said comes off bad, but I really think he's meaning to say Duane is a fantastic writer, and he really wants to see Duane move in different directions with his writing.

Sure, it's a subjective opinion, what makes a classic, what makes a book important or great. I think Lee's saying he wants to see Duane's name on the Edgar ballet with a book people will still be recommending 50 years from now. That, in itself, isn't a bad sentiment to be expressing.

Sometimes, I want fruit for breakfast and other times I'm sneaking a chocolate cookie. Here's to books that meet all our needs, whether it be lighthearted entertainment, a serious, intense offering or something profound and life-changing.

And perhaps... just perhaps... here's to remembering we're writers and occasionally not spouting off too quickly so that we don't express our thoughts clearly. I've got to tape that to my monitor...