A mosaic of intros

Face Off 
David Baldacci
Hachette 2014, pp 367
Rs 499

So, you want to publish a book with contributions from a large set of writers. The simple way is to create an anthology, ask each writer for a short story, and publish them together. You could play with this idea by creating constraints: write about a specific theme, or use a shared universe. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such anthologies.

Then there’s the harder way: write one long story, and involve everyone by getting them to write a chapter each, or discuss the whole thing and come up with a consensus on the story, turning the book into a homogeneous mass. There have been several instances of this, too, Naked Came the Stranger and The Floating Admiral being two most popular examples. Of course, with this second approach, the individual voices of the authors are suppressed, and the final product can only sell itself if it’s good — it can’t promote other work by the contributors. What other ways to build up an anthology? ITW (International Thriller Writers ) thought of one.

ITW is a group of, well, writers of thriller novels. It sustains itself not by taking a membership fee (you become a member if you’re published in the genre), but by publishing anthologies by its members and taking in the royalties. Previously it has published anthologies edited by Lee Child and James Patterson. This year’s anthology was to be edited by David Baldacci and features 22 thriller writers. And the approach they took was a novel one: Each of these writers has one or more recurring characters with their own fan following. Why not pair off these writers and have a story where their respective creations meet — either as rivals or partners? This would introduce both the similarities and the contrasts between their respective worlds.

The result is Face Off.

Face Off is an anthology consisting 11 stories, featuring the forementioned 22 writers, and their popular characters. Few readers will have read books by all these 22 writers — my personal count was maybe seven, though I’d heard of most of them. 

The pairing is pretty good — characters are already in similar milieus, and they meet each other naturally. So, for example, you have Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, and Peter James’s Roy Grace, both stars in police procedurals, meeting up to solve a cold case in Brighton. Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme and John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, both of whom specialise in twisty, brutal, serial-killer-type cases, come together in the longest story in this book to chase an artist who might be killing his models. Supernatural-type hero meets another supernatural-type hero, and two-fisted action hero meets another two-fisted action hero, and so on. Contrary to the title, the characters are usually partners and not actually “facing off”. 

One of the most unusual collaborations in the collection is between an ‘albino FBI agent from New Orleans’ (as Baldacci describes Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, the star of a series by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, and Slappy, a living ventriloquist’s dummy created by R L Stine. Slappy stars in several books in the YA horror series, Goosebumps, and is completely unrelated to the ‘normal’ thriller-writing world. But somehow the writers manage to make this story work, even if it’s a bit gimmicky. 

Because the stories are limited to maybe 30 pages each, they need to keep things simple. Further, a lot of space is devoted to introducing the characters from each other’s point of view. Remember, the purpose of this anthology is to introduce a lot of popular series characters. The plot itself serves as a prop to set up the characters right. You know how a lot of action films start with the character in the middle of a smaller problem that he solves in the first few minutes (Indiana Jones in that initial temple comes to mind)? These stories are a lot like those initial five minutes of films.

The worst example is Lee Child and Joseph Finder’s story. Child’s books normally include lots of background and description, creating a slow burn of tension while the main plot ticks away. In the short story, the writers have opted to have the same amount of description and set-up, with hardly a page of real story and development. The result reads like the first chapter of a longer novel.

Don’t pick up this book if you just want to read excellent short stories — you’re likely to get annoyed at how much time is spent introducing people who never appear again. Instead, read this if you want to expand your reading beyond your current favourites. You’re likely to find some new writers to follow.

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