Friday, April 10, 2009

Suspects by David Thomson

The premise of film critic David Thomson’s novel, Suspects (1985), is brilliant. He takes the characters from hundreds of classic Hollywood films and creates bios for them that extend beyond their lives in the movies. We learn of Jake Gittes’ (Jack Nicholson from Chinatown) childhood and his life after the botched case featured in the movie. Additionally, the lives of these classic characters begin to intersect. Noah Cross (John Huston from Chinatown) has an affair with and buys Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard) her swank mansion that is the setting for Sunset Boulevard. Desmond and Joe Gillis (William Holden from Sunset Boulevard) have a son who turns out to be Julian Kay (Richard Gere from American Gigolo). It’s all very cool…in theory. In actuality, I found it a pretty tough, slow going read. The interconnectedness between characters is great, but there’s not enough of that to be truly engaging. Also, there’s an overarching narrative that pushes the book forward (at least that’s what the dust jacket says), but after 60 pages, I was having trouble finding it. Ultimately what you’re left with is tons of very short bios (3-4 pages) about almost a hundred characters. The writing is good and engaging, and Thomson definitely channels the spirit of noir, of which he clearly is a fan. Unfortunately, the book is in need of a greater narrative through line. Without that, it reads like a fleshed out encyclopedia of short biographies. To be fair, Thomson’s knowledge of the movies is encyclopedic (hell, he writes encyclopedias for a living). There may be a lot more subtleties and narrative going on here than I was aware of simply because my knowledge of film and the characters contained in the book is not as robust as Thomson’s. Had I known all the characters going in, perhaps I’d be getting more out of the book. I certainly enjoyed the bios of the characters I was familiar with more than the ones I didn’t. I’d love to hear some other opinions on this book, because I love the theory behind it, but had to abandon ship 60 pages in.

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