In a world dominated by “news” reports of the O.J. Simpson trial, the publication of another thriller novel doesn’t warrant much attention. And, to be honest, James Thayer’s “White Star” is just another in a long line of novels that offers armchair secret agents the opportunity to fantasize about high-powered rifles, psychopathic Russian killers and climactic meetings on remote mountaintops.
But two things set it apart.
One, it contains well-crafted prose that is unusual for genre fiction.
Two, it was written by the senior class president of Lewis and Clark High School, class of 1967.
And Thayer, whatever his other accomplishments, still recalls his LC years with joy.
“I have great memories of the school,” said Thayer, who will read from “White Star” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington.
During a phone interview Tuesday from his Seattle office, Thayer said he began enjoying his LC experience “especially in my sophomore year when I finally got braces on and I grew a few inches.”
Even with his growth spurt, however, he never did prove to be a star athlete.
“I turned out for wrestling and track, but in track I was too slow and wrestling I was weak.” Still, he did excel at something. “I couldn’t make varsity wrestling,” he said with a laugh, “but I made varsity debate.”
Interesting that a guy who spends half his days writing action thrillers with such titles as “Pursuit,” “The Earhart Betrayal” and “S-Day: A Memoir of the Invasion of England” should be more academic than athletic.
“I wish I could tell you that I was a 12-year veteran of the French Foreign Legion,” Thayer said, “but I’m not. I’m just a guy in Seattle trying to make a living.”
Then again, that’s the point exactly. Fiction writing is a craft that demands brains, not brawn. Before he writes even a word, Thayer - who is working on his eighth book - spends as much as five months doing research.
That’s how an attorney who works in the mornings for a law firm specializing in maritime law can spend his afternoons creating fiction about men and experiences that he has little or no personal knowledge of.
“White Star,” for example, is the story of Owen Gray. A prosecuting attorney in New York, Gray has a secret life: He was the most renowned sniper of the Vietnam War. Boasting 96 kills to his credit, he marked each death with his trademark - a white star folded from paper.
But men on such missions tend to attract enemies, and Gray is no different. His life, which has evolved far beyond the jungles of Vietnam, is drawn back to that killing time when people around him start getting their heads shot off. Gray gradually realizes that he is being stalked, actually being herded toward an isolated spot in Idaho where he will then be forced to duel mano-a-mano with an old enemy.
Taken as a two-minute movie pitch - and since it was optioned by Columbia Pictures before it was sold to Simon & Schuster publishers, the comparison is appropriate - “White Star” sounds a bit hokey. But Thayer’s knowledge of weapons seems, to the layman at least, to be authentic.
And his ability to keep the story moving does the rest. Taking a farfetched idea and making it believable is the key, he says. “To have the audience make that leap, then it will become something that the reader will follow along. I hope, anyway.”
Those readers who do follow have two well-known authors to thank: Alistair Maclean (“The Guns of Naverone”) and John D. MacDonald of the Travis McGee series.
“I wish that I could say that my influences are Dr. Johnson and Shakespeare,” Thayer said, “but in fact it’s MacLean and MacDonald. These are writers who cut away the fluff and get right to the story. I think that reading those people got me going, taught me their cadences and their timing.”
Thayer had a lot of time to read during his childhood. His father, like Thayer a graduate of Washington State University, worked a farm in Almira during the week and spent weekends with his family in Spokane. During the summer, Thayer, his three younger brothers and sister moved to Almira and worked the land, too.
“He didn’t have a television,” Thayer said, “so we read incessantly. And we’d read thrillers, which is what I write. Adventure stories. And we’d chat about them.”
These days, Thayer’s reading runs more to history and biography. But he defends the genre in which he works, even given the weird occurrences in recent years such as terrorist kidnappings, bombings and various other activities that seem drawn straight from the pages of such novels as “White Star.”
For one thing, he shies away from what he terms the anti-government type of “paranoid thriller.” For another, he always creates protagonists who are noble in some aspect of their life.
Most of all, though, he just tries to create what for him is merely an exciting diversion.
“I think there is always room for entertainment,” Thayer said. “I’m not trying to educate or make the world better. I would just like someone to read my book and have an interesting time with it.”
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