"A LOT OF thrillers these days are written by people who've never been shot at," muses 56-year-old novelist Chuck Logan. "They write them for people who've never been shot at. They're romances, love stories about male mastery."
Taking time out from a deer-hunting trip in Wisconsin, Logan reflects on his own growing reputation as a master of the genre. The Stillwater native has published three novels in the last three years, and has won acclaim in some circles as the next Tom Clancy. Nevertheless, Logan is quick to point out the differences between his work and that of the maestro of the techno-potboiler. "Those books," he says, "are full of lantern-jawed men. Plans that always work. Machines that always work. Weapons that always work. I was in Vietnam, and I know that nothing ever works."
If Logan's new novel, The Big Law (HarperCollins), is any evidence, human beings are the least functional of all machines--and the most dangerous. Set in the St. Croix Valley and the dismal winter wasteland of northern Minnesota, The Big Law catches up with Logan's traditional protagonist, rough-and-ready former St. Paul cop Phil Broker. Though Broker has given up a life of crime-fighting to raise an infant daughter while his soldiering wife is off cleaning up Bosnia, his domestic idyll is shattered by a chain of unwelcome surprises: a drowned ex-wife, a homicidal cop buddy who is accused of the murder, and Tom James, a weaselly hack reporter from a certain St. Paul newspaper who has the scoop on the location of $2 million in mob money. Like any good father, Broker sets off, baby in one arm, shotgun in the other, to clear his friend and uncover James's sordid secret.
The Big Law certainly has all the trappings of a pulp bestseller. Broker and his partner in crime prevention, hard-boiled FBI agent Lorn Garrison, might have stepped out of a particularly grim episode of Hunter. There's a twisting plot, shadowy government conspiracies, and vicious mafiosos who favor power tools to polite conversation. Women appear only to get naked or get killed.
Logan began sharpening his prose sensibilities 10 years ago with a novel about Vietnam, which he couldn't get published. "People didn't want to hear about it," he explains. "In America, there's an F-word, an N-word, and a V-word. Younger people think Vietnam is something from Star Wars. Older people, people my age, mostly had the experience of Bill Clinton rather than someone like Jesse Ventura or myself."
Though not addressed explicitly, Vietnam also casts a shadow over Logan's more recent writing. Nearly all of his characters are vets, and his second novel, The Price of Blood, follows Phil Broker back to 'Nam, where he solves the mystery of an ignominiously slain American soldier and uncovers a treasure in gold bullion. Although he returned to Vietnam to research The Price of Blood, Logan insists that writing about the war is not necessarily a means of dealing with the psychological fallout. "I went, I came back, I grew up," he explains. "I'm not trying to purge it now in my writing."
What sets Logan's writing apart from that of other writers in the boys-with-guns genre is that it is driven not by glorified gadgetry and convoluted scenarios, but by his quirky, flawed characters. Phil Broker, for instance, is not a particularly likable hero. In The Big Law, he watches Barney with his daughter, and muses that "the corpulent reptile was a fitting mascot for America at the end of the 20th century. Like half the country, the lizard was an overweight blimp; he mouthed the kissy-ass victim-speak that was smothering the culture like a cancer." As edification for the infant, he adds: "Right now life looks like all fun and games with Grover and Elmo. But what they don't tell you on Sesame Street is it can get rough out there. People who don't eat their oats grow up weak. Listen to Daddy: The weak die."
Even more complex than Broker is Tom James, a weakling who makes a deal with the devil and manages to squeal his way into the Witness Protection Program. "The villain sort of ran away with the story," admits Logan. "Changing lives is a fantasy most people have. It's such a big part of the dream life of our culture. The big score. A lot of us dream about it."
For Logan, the big score meant a big leap of faith. After 22 years as an artist with the Pioneer Press, he went part-time at the newspaper, moved with his wife to the sleepy town of Stillwater, and set about writing a book. The result was Hunter's Moon, a debut novel about booze, sex, murder, and deer hunting. Ten years and three books later, he is beginning to see the payoff for his risk. There's talk of a movie deal, and The Big Law is receiving considerable attention from the press. Nevertheless, Logan remains cautious about the future. "I'm quite happy being me," he explains. "I try to write simple, accessible stories. The best stories are the oldest: love, betrayal, murder."
"Obviously," he adds "the good guy wins in the end...sort of."
Chuck Logan will read at Once Upon a Crime December 13; 870-3785.
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