Friday, July 31, 2009

Gabriel Hunt to the rescue!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Ah, the slow summer afternoons of adolescence, my twelve-year-old self whiling away the hours with an adventure novel and desperately wishing that my life was more like this:
He had a vintage Zippo lighter in his jacket pocket. He didn't smoke, but he'd found it handy to carry a lighter anyway. There was always a chance you might come across a beautiful woman who needed a light--or a Molotov cocktail.
That's from Hunt at the Well of Eternity, the first volume in a new series edited by Charles Ardai. Five years ago, Ardai started Hard Case Crime, with the aim of revitalizing the pulp crime novel; now he's launched a new series of adventure novels starring swashbuckling adventurer Gabriel Hunt, who, supported by the vast funds of the Hunt Foundation, travels the globe to keep mysterious artifacts--and beautiful women--out of the clutches of a gallery of evildoers.

Seemingly inspired in equal parts by Indiana Jones, Doc Savage, and Allan Quatermain, the books are aimed squarely at that summer afternoon kid in all of us; this sort of moment is typical:
For an instant, as he fell through the air, Gabriel found himself thinking about how much of his adult life he'd spent jumping from high places with people who wanted to kill him close behind. It was a topic, he decided, that might reward reflection sometime, when he could think about it at his leisure.
Reading these novels makes clear how far the adventure genre is from noir. A true hard-boiled novel is usually at least as much about the conditions of life that drive people to desperate acts as it is about the desperate actors themselves; it's a commentary, social and moral, on our times and the mess we've made of them. A true adventure novel, on the other hand, is interested in none of that; it's interested in the girl and the treasure, period, though not always in that order. In serious crime novels, killing always has consequences, not the least of them emotional, while in Gabriel Hunt's world, bad guys are dispatched without a second thought. From noir we may learn, and we may even emerge changed; from an adventure novel, we simply get a few hours of relatively mindless pleasure. I wouldn't want my whole library to be like that, but at times that sort of escapism is just what's called for.

As in the new novels he's selected over the years to go alongside his reprints at Hard Case Crime, Ardai isn't approaching the genre with irony--no winking or playing with genre conventions here. These are true adventure novels, not ironic updatings, and they're retro only insofar as they reflect new steps in an old tradition--here, swords and ziplines exist side-by-side with GPS devices and laptops. As with noir, Ardai takes his genre seriously, and it pays off; we're never worried that our investment in an action scene will be undercut by a lapse into parody.

That's not to say that these books are always serious: Hunt, like Indiana Jones (and some incarnations of James Bond), is fully willing to acknowledge the absurdity of the situations in which he frequently finds himself--though that doesn't lessen his determination to come through them alive despite. (That humor is a stark contrast to the grim determination of Doc Savage, one of the reasons that Indiana Jones has always felt more like an immortal character than Savage does--and one of the reasons that Philip Jose Farmer's odd biography of Savage, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, is so much fun: by pretending to take Savage fully seriously, Farmer reveals just how bizarre and even unsettling his relentless pursuit of perfection can be.) Gabriel Hunt is, after all, the good guy, and if we can't count on the good guy to have a way with a quip, what kind of world are we living in?

The first two installments are out now, both credited to Gabriel Hunt himself: Hunt at the Well of Eternity, ghosted by James Reasoner, and Hunt through the Cradle of Fear, by Ardai. They're a good start, revealing key bits of Hunt's complicated back story amid the action and surprises, as well as quests of sufficient scope to hold our interest. The Reasoner volume starts off strong, with a party straight out of Bruce Wayne's nightlife, and features nice nods to Doc Savage (a Mayan connection) and Indiana Jones (bullwhips), though it flags a bit later on, the prose sometimes slipping into a pedestrianism that seems inadequate to the action being described.

Hunt through the Cradle of Fear
, however, is written with exactly the brio and panache that Hunt's adventures should have: you get the sense that Hunt is having just as good a time as we are as his adventure hurtles along to a final showdown of unexpectedly breathtaking stakes. If that's the standard for the series, this is going to be a lot of fun, and the quarterly publication schedule seems about right: who couldn't use a perfect popcorn book every three months?

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