Remember the cheap vicarious thrill that came from watching the adventures of J. R. Ewing and the rest of the gang on the hit TV show, Dallas? You knew J.R. was as smarmy as they come, and ethics were nothing more than an obstacle to success. But there was something irresistible about peeking in on the lives of the rich and powerful. You knew you'd hate yourself in the morning, but you couldn't help it.
The mystery-thrillers of Stuart Woods hold that same kind of attraction. Most of the characters are filthy rich - they jet across the Atlantic as if it were a cross-town subway ride - and many have scruples that would fit inside a thimble. But their antics keep the pages turning and keep readers coming back for more.
"I think the average reader isn't much interested in reading about themselves," Woods says. "The rich and famous are much more interesting. [Readers] don't want to read about the indigent."
If John Steinbeck were here today, he might debate that last point, but Woods has certainly achieved success with his formula; his newest novel, The Short Forever, sits in the No. 8 position on the New York Times bestseller list just two weeks after its release.
Imagine for a moment the lifestyle of an attractive, affluent male ex-cop-turned-attorney from New York who takes on cases of mystery and political intrigue. He's not exactly James Bond, but neither is he Perry Mason. No, Stone Barrington ("Sounds like an investment bank," one character quips) has some of Bond's charisma and charm, but he's much more likely to stumble into trouble and need rescuing by his former NYPD partner, Dino Bacchetti.
"Stone is in over his head most of the time," Woods says fondly of his recurring main character. "But Dino is a very practical guy. He keeps Stone's feet on the ground if Stone starts getting above himself."
And what about Stone's love life? Well, he's rejected by one lover at the novel's start, but by the end he has renewed the acquaintance of two old flames and set more sparks a-flyin' along the way. Still, compared to Bond, he's more often the acted-upon than the actor.
"The females are often the aggressors," Woods points out. "And they're the ones who dump him. It's not the other way around." Stone has a weakness for women who take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and those are just the kinds of women who fill Woods' novels. "Stone's an attractive man. He earns a good living, and women are drawn to men like that, I think."
Woods will be in Spokane on Saturday night for a reading and book-signing at Auntie's. He's on an 18-city tour to promote the book, flying his own turboprop airplane from city to city before returning to his home in New York City. Or his home on an island in Maine. Or his home in Florida. Or to a yacht somewhere on the high seas. In fact, the publicity information about Woods seems to resemble the backstory for one of his characters, and it's hard not to wonder about his carefully crafted persona.
He began his writing career in advertising, and it's easy to see the imprint of Madison Avenue -- or Hollywood -- in his novels. Conspicuous consumption is at the heart of his stories, along with the desire for more. Everyone drives a fancy car, lives at the most exclusive address, dines only at the best restaurants. No one would think of buying clothing off the shelf. Stone is not of this upscale world, but he moves easily within it, often getting caught up in the glories of the elite life. Only his buddy Dino, grounded in the mundane middle-class world, shows how ridiculous the rich and famous can sometimes be.
For these are not people who think deep thoughts. In fact, they seem to have no interior life whatsoever, save for planning the next sexual encounter. But if you ignore its male fantasy aspects, The Short Forever is good escapist fun. It's fast-paced, with enough plot twists and surprises to keep the most avid mystery hound guessing. I found myself turning the pages and reading several more chapters than I had planned at a sitting. Of course, when chapters run no longer than seven pages each, and those pages are mostly filled with single-sentence dialogue exchanges, zipping through chapters is much easier. The scenes don't contain a lot of descriptive narrative, and that's just the way Woods likes it.
"As a reader, I often ignored long passages of descriptive prose and made up my own descriptions of characters and places," says Woods. "I prefer to let the action and the dialogue tell the story. I think of each chapter as a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle and an ending."