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The Creepiness of Strangers

Book #25 (August 11, 2010): The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

It’s hard to imagine something as drastically different from Lee Child’s novels as Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. Well, no, it really isn’t. Child’s suspense thrillers and McEwan’s macabre little horror novella do have certain things in common: People in the wrong place at the wrong time, the cruel things that one person can do to another, and very good-looking men. (I imagined Colin as being played by Jude Law. He’d be almost too perfect.) And both feature a certain quantity of blood, though on a pint-by-pint basis Child wins the bloodiness competition hands down. By the time you finish a Lee Child novel, you’ve become so familiar with blood that it becomes almost meaningless emotionally.

What McEwan knows about, or at least knows how to write about, that Child doesn’t is people. McEwan understands human beings and their relationships so uncannily well that he can write convincingly about what happens when his characters stray at some distance from normal human behavior. He also knows how to write a sentence that has a subject, a verb, several dependent clauses, and the ability to convey shades of meaning that would be completely lost in Child’s blunt weapon prose.

But enough about Child. I suspect Lee Child writes the way he writes because he understands what his audience wants and in most cases that probably wouldn’t be McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. This novella (which is barely long enough to qualify as one of my 52 books, though it’s published in book form) is the type of story, which I’ve encountered before, where people traveling abroad, in this case an unmarried couple, encounter someone from a different country who seems overeager to befriend them. Gradually that overeagerness becomes creepily predatory and you realize that something fairly dreadful is going to happen before the story’s over. John Fowle’s The Magus is a little like this; so is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least the film version; I haven’t read the book. And there’s Jude Law again!). Come to think of it, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much strays into this territory too.

Anyway, to describe the story further would pretty much ruin it, because it’s quite short and revolves around a single series of incidents. I liked it the way that I seem to like everything that McEwan writes — because his prose has a perfect jewel-like quality to it. And also because my tastes in fiction are a little warped.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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