Capitol Betrayal and Inside Out

Because I have such a large backlog of reading material, I often put print books and audiobooks on a queue; I get to them whenever I get to them. It could easily be months later, so I no longer remember what prompted the original ordering. Usually it’s nothing more subtle than the accidental timing of when I happened to read a review (which could be months or even years after it was written). Sometimes it’s a matter of availability at the library; I put in a request for a book, and it can easily be months before it’s available, especially if it’s very popular. As a result of these factors, it catches me by surprise when I read two books in a row that have similar themes. Were they reviewed in the same piece for this very reason? Or is it just a coincidence? I suppose I could do some research and find out, but I’d prefer to leave it a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, I recently listened to two mysteries — well, thrillers actually — that share certain themes. One was Capitol Betrayal, by William Bernhardt; the other was Inside Out, by Barry Eisler. Anyone who’s familiar with these two authors will expect the latter to be better written than the former, and indeed it is. It’s also more violent, as is no surprise to those familiar with Eisler’s writing.

Bernhardt’s book is a truly implausible tale of terrorism, treason, and misguided idealism. The author breaks the cardinal rule of plotting: if your story takes place in this world, the reader can suspend disbelief about at most one event or item. (This rule gets modified if the story is in another world. For example, the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings take place in fictional worlds, not our own, where the authors create entire systems of new “facts.” Even there it’s essential to stay true to the setup of the new world. If the author breaks that trust, suspension of disbelief is no longer possible.) Bernhardt piles implausibility upon implausibility, thoroughly spoiling the novel. I don’t think it could have been fixed, since the entire structure is flawed. Nevertheless it was entertaining enough for me to be willing to finish listening to it — barely.

Eisler’s book manages not to suffer the same fate. The reader has to accept a single implausibility, and that’s easy to do. The characters are more interesting, more believable, and more detailed. The author keeps the reader engaged, not merely entertained.

What do these books have in common? In both cases the authors have a mildly left-wing agenda that is reflected in their handling of internal plots against the United States, more usually the province of right-wing writers. In both cases the authors let the reader know that they’re opposed to torture. In both cases it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, except for the protagonists on the other hand and cardboard villains on the other. In both cases the authors present unflattering views of the U.S. government. Lawyers are portrayed more favorably by Bernhardt, the army more favorably by Eisler. There are, of course, many other differences, but the similarities are striking. Each book, by the way, is part of a series, so you may want to read earlier works in each series first. If you skip to these latest books, read Eisler if you can stomach the violence, but don’t bother with Bernhardt.

Categories: Books