Higgins' 'Midnight Runner': Where did complexity go?

On Books

March 10, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Vast multitudes are going to buy and read Midnight Runner, by Jack Higgins (Putnam, 304 pages $29.95). Publishing history has proved that the quality of the prose, the originality of the plot, the effectiveness of its suspense will have virtually nothing to do with the book's success. Most of Higgins' previous 33 books have been high best sellers. His name is a trademark. What book critics may write about this book probably won't change its sales by a single percentage point.

So why bother? For me, simply because he is prolific and popular, and I have never read one of his books before.

The title comes from a quoted Arab proverb: "Death is the Midnight Runner." Before it's over, the book lavishly lives up -- dies up? -- to that. From the outset, death dominates.

Daniel Quinn is a fourth-generation Irish-American, out of hard-fighting but not entirely law-abiding stock that has made the family millionaires. A Vietnam veteran, Quinn was in the Special Forces on a second combat tour, a sergeant despite bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard. Sister Sarah Palmer is a nun he spots from a helicopter trying to save a crowd of kids from Viet Cong. He lands, fights off the assault, saves the kids and the nun, hides with them in the bush for four days and gets everybody out. For this he gets the Medal of Honor and legend stature. He goes back for more graduate school, joins the family conglomerate, gets bored, runs for Congress, wins twice and is elected to the Senate. Offended by the pettiness of politics, he resigns his seat and goes to work as a troubleshooter, "a sort of roving ambassador," for the president of the United States, Jake Cazalet. Quinn's wife dies of leukemia; his daughter, Helen, who is at Harvard, wins a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

That all happens in the first chapter.

In the first 14 pages!

Chapter 2 has Quinn leaving the Hay-Adams hotel to walk to the White House. En route, two thugs attack him, but Quinn dismantles them in hand-to-hand combat. They turn out to be working for Rupert Dauncey, the American partner and third cousin of Lady Kate Rashid, the countess of Loch Dhu, who is half Scottish and half Arab, in her early 30s, and controls one third of the oil reserves in the Middle East, making her the richest woman in the world.

Quinn reports directly to the president, part of a White House operation called "the Basement" a super-secret sort of private intelligence / espionage group unknown to the CIA or the Defense Department.

Lady Kate has lost three brothers, killed in the course of attempts to assassinate President Cazalet. The motive, as far as I could figure out, is simply because the Bad Guys are very bad and the Good Guys, who include Cazalet, are very, very good.

With extravagant subsidies, Lady Kate controls a number of subversive organizations, including Act of Class Warfare, an anti-capitalist student group that Quinn and the other Good Guys discover operates a terrorist training school at the old family castle in remote Scotland. Believe it or not, Quinn's daughter is a member of the Oxford University chapter.

British intelligence high-ups and gunmen are brought into play, as well as other Americans who aid Quinn. On Lady Kate's and her cousin's side are a disparate mob of Islamicists, hired thugs and silly, misanthropic visionaries.

There is lots and lots of killing, back and forth. At the very end -- surprise of surprises -- more Good Guys than Bad Guys are still alive.

The narrative vantage point gyrates. So does the story line. Single-paragraph or one- or two-page passages move with lightning swiftness. The whole thing is spread transparently thin, though not without almost continual suspense. There is no complexity; all is black and white, except for grayish turncoats here and there. But it moves like a spring waterfall.

Higgins pushes the story along swiftly by having every major figure explain background events, motivation and context in simplistic conversations. A 12- or 15-line paragraph can explain matters as complex as a new international energy crisis or the inner anxieties of characters who are described as being smart, experienced, mature -- and implicitly intricate. The cost is that a great deal of dialogue is somewhere between implausible and absurd.

Taken together, all these devices add up to entertainment -- but only in the shallowest sense of that term.

Here, for example, is an ex-IRA, now loyally British, killer, explaining human complexity to a major London mobster who's also signed on a Good Guy: " 'You know what they say, Harry. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It gives some people the idea they can do anything and get away with it. Kate Rashid's like that, but what happens when you find out you can't get what you want, can't have your own way? It's enough to drive you mad, if you're not mad already.' " This is as deep as it gets.

This superficiality casually kisses off a core question of what all the plotting and killing is about. Lady Kate's motivations seem explicable only as insanity. She, with her cousin's collaboration, undertakes evil for evil's sake alone. The potential results include destruction of her own financial empire.

Fairly late in the book, Quinn rediscovers the nun whose life he saved in Vietnam more than 20 years before. She is now head of her order, in London, and they talk in the convent's chapel. The good sister counsels Quinn against yearning for retribution, and recommends seeking God's support.

" 'Instead of seeking revenge?' Quinn shook his head. 'But that's all I feel. It's a strange thing, suffering. I've discovered there is the possibility of solace in making the other person suffer. It's as if nothing is enough. ...'

"Such thoughts will destroy you," the nun admonishes.

They don't. Quinn lives on -- as does the feeble story line of this abysmal book.

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