I’ve been working my way through Mark Dawson’s John Milton series of thrillers. As you may recall, I was a little disappointed with the first one, and liked the second better.
I began the third, The Driver, and have now officially dumped the series.
In The Driver, John Milton is now living in San Francisco, drawn into a search for a young prostitute who has disappeared.
I quit reading where I got to the part (I should have seen it coming, but I was optimistic) where he gets into American politics, which for him are pretty simple. On the Left, the good guys, on the Right, the bigots.
Author Dawson appears to have learned his American politics from CNN, where he apparently also learned about guns. Defectively in both cases.
I do not need John Milton in my reading life. He is barely distinguishable from a half dozen other thriller heroes available. And most of the other heroes’ creators have the sense not to insult half their prospective readership.
Yesterday I left you in breathless suspense, waiting to learn whether the second John Milton book by Mark Dawson was more satisfying that the first one.
I’m pleased to say that I liked this one, Saint Death, better, though I still have quibbles.
As you may recall, John Milton is one of those thriller heroes (the field’s getting a little crowded) who used to be an elite operative for a super-secret government agency. But his conscience overcame him, and he dropped out of sight. His old bosses do not accept this – the only way out of Group Fifteen is feet first. John, for his part, is on a personal quest to atone for his sins.
As Saint Death begins, John has successfully fled England, and is now in Juarez, Mexico, working as a cook. One day, some cartel gangsters walk into the restaurant and open fire at a group of three young people. John intervenes, saving the life of one young woman, and also of a couple cops who happen to be present.
With the (somewhat skeptical) help of one of the policemen he saved, John takes on the job of protecting the woman survivor, a journalist who has been operating a blog devoted to exposing the cartels. She is being hunted by a legendary assassin known as Santa Muerta – Saint Death. He’s the best, and his drug dealing bosses are sparing no expense to eliminate this woman. John has his work cut out for him.
But that’s not all. John’s old bosses have picked up his trail again, and they’re on their way to Mexico to bring him in.
The thing I liked about Saint Death, in contrast to the last book, The Cleaner, is that John is allowed a little more success. Most of the good and innocent people around him aren’t injured or killed this time. And courage and generosity are rewarded a little more. The writing, as before, is professional and good.
My main complaint is that the author bought the Accepted Wisdom that it’s possible to walk into an American gun show and just buy a firearm without a background check. People who believe that should try it sometime.
If you believe violence never solves anything, writing a thriller is probably not the best use of your time. You need to write a quiet, tragic story about the necessity of always submitting to bullies.
I’m not sure that’s author Mark Dawson’s actual problem. But it’s my only real objection to his The Cleaner, the first novel in his John Milton series.
John Milton is, like so many thriller heroes these days, a professional assassin, part of a super-secret British Government operation, this one called Group Fifteen. John is their Number One, their top operative. But he’s burned out. In his last assignment, he allowed mercy to outweigh professionalism, and so was suspended.
Instead of facing discipline, he simply disappears, something he’s very good at. One day in London, he saves a young woman, Sharon, from suicide on the Underground. She confides her story at last. She’s a single mother. She’s already lost her oldest son to drug addiction; now her younger boy, Elijah, is flirting with involvement in a street gang. She doesn’t know how she can face it all.
John is immediately fascinated. This, he thinks, is a situation he can do something about. He has (and he actually uses these words) “a particular set of skills.” If he can help to save this boy, he imagines, get the villains off his back, it might help to ease his own karmic debt, get him some peace from his nightmares.
But even for John, who has faced some of the most remorseless terrorists in the world, it will be a challenge to face off against the inhuman brutality of London gang leaders and drug dealers.
If that wasn’t challenge enough, Group Fifteen is close on his heels now. Once they pinpoint his location, they will apply their own ruthless coercive tactics to the task of silencing John Milton forever.
The Cleaner is a very competent entry in the expanding field of thrillers about benevolent ex-operatives. The writing is good, the characters engaging. My problem with it was that the story’s resolution involves so much collateral damage that it left this reader wondering whether the whole effort was worth the price.
Well, I’ll see how the next book works. I actually bought The Cleaner some time back, and didn’t finish it. But then I bought the next book in the series (on a bargain deal) and figured I’d better read The Cleaner first. I’ll read Saint Death now and let you know how it goes with that one.
After Shakespeare’s death his works were collected into a folio and printed. Two hundred thirty-three editions out of the seven hundred fifty originally printed still exist, and some of them have notes and marking from early readers. Now a Cambridge fellow believes he has compiled enough evidence to identify one annotator’s handwriting as belonging to the great John Milton.
Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren made the discovery in response to research conducted by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Naturally he hesitated to suggest this, because it’s too easy to see what you want to see.
But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”
Milton, as much as Shakespeare, remains our contemporary. As Wordsworth put it in a sonnet from 1802, ‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee.’ One half of a nation almost as bitterly — if not as bloodily — divided as in his day needs to understand how the blind, scorned radical, ‘though fallen on evil days… In darkness, and with dangers compassed round’, channelled his dismay at the failure of England’s revolution and the restoration of monarchy into a masterpiece that finds salvation through despair. In 1660, Milton was arrested, imprisoned and might have gone to his death as an impenitent regicide without a few well-placed admirers. His epic, with its aim to ‘assert eternal providence/ And justify the ways of God to men’, climbs from his pit of disillusion to find meaning and hope in calamity. A hero for Remainers, then.
Boyd Tonkin urges us to read Milton today, because he will speak to us if we will listen. April is the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost‘s publication. (via Prufrock News)
Is the literary mash-up a passing fad or a fertile new genre? The art of mashing up involves putting together two completely incongruous genres, only to discover that something in the high-cultural original matches the low material with which it is mixed. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the Bennet girls prepare themselves for encounters with the undead just as enthusiastically as they prepare themselves for husband-hunting in the original.
John Milton was surely a super-hero bard avant la lettre. All those angels tumbling from heaven’s crystal battlements, flying across the universe to visit Earth. Think of the war in heaven, where the fallen angels pit “their engines and their balls / Of missive ruin” against the less well-armed Cherubim. It could surely have profited from the involvement of Wolverine and Gambit, while Satan’s concordat with Magneto would challenge the Archangel Michael, even with his sword that “felled / Squadrons at once, with huge two-handed sway”.
The great John Milton lived in Berkyn Manor (known later as the Bull Manor), a house in Horton near Slough, Berkshire, for about three years (1636-1638). He was out of Cambridge, apparently due to a conflict with his tutor, and was living with his parents. He didn’t write his greatest works there. Paradise Lost was published in 1667. He worked on it at his cottage, which is open to literary tourists.
Photographers have drawn attention to the Berkyn Manor by distributing their shots of the dilapidated interior, which has been sitting empty since it’s last owner died in 1987.