Saturday, February 03, 2007

Master of the Game: The Novels of Sidney Sheldon

Sidney Sheldon passed away on 31st Jan. For me and countless millions of my generation, he was the original Pied Piper, exposing us to an unseen world of sex, lies and goggle-eyed fun! This appeared in DesiCritics - somewhat like a tribute from a fan!

The first Sidney Sheldon novel I read was The Windmills of the Gods, in 1987. I must have finished it in about 6 hours, which is about the longest I have taken to finish a Sidney Sheldon novel. Blame it on my slower reading speed!
Mary Ashley, a political science professor from Kansas is chosen by the new American President to be the US Ambassador to Romania. There is widespread resentment over the appointment. When she reaches Romania for the assignment, she meets two men (and falls in love with one) – and learns the fact that there is world-class assassin out to kill her. It was a breathtaking read – pacy and sexy – quite unsuitable for Class VIII students. And it was loaded with all the standard Sheldon signature tunes, which hooked me for the rest of his novels as well.
Except for A Stranger In the Mirror (which was based on a male Hollywood star) and The Doomsday Conspiracy (which was based on a crash landed UFO), each one of his novels followed the life of a woman and his pet themes religiously. And boy, did we devour them?
The period between 1988 and 1992 was dedicated to Sheldon’s roller coasters and we went through them as if our life depended on them. A counterfeit novel – The Pavid Pavilion – also did brisk business at the height of this craze, though 5 pages into the novel, we could make out that it had neither the pace nor the inventiveness of the original.
It was only from Nothing Lasts Forever that the speed slackened a bit and our interest waned. And that is evident from the fact that I don’t even remember the plot, let alone the names of the main characters from any of his later novels. I read them more out of habit than anything else.
Probably from his background as a screenwriter for primarily television, Sidney Sheldon wrote in episodes and with a battery of contrasting leads. Each one of his novels explored the professional and personal lives of the protagonists through a series of tightly paced events.

So, what went into a Sidney Sheldon novel?

Firstly, a heroine who looks certain to fail in an unfamiliar job.
Tracy Whitney was a super-intelligent bank executive with a flair for acting. She ended up being a con-woman with her capers across the world (If Tomorrow Comes). Jennifer Parker was a lawyer, whose first assignment was a complete disaster and the district attorney himself was out to get her. She ended up being one of the most successful lawyers of the country (Rage of Angels). Noel Page was a small-town French girl, who wanted to act. She became an international star and the mistress of a Greek tycoon (The Other Side of Midnight). Kate Blackwell used her acumen and intelligence to inherit one of the largest corporations of the world (Master of the Game). Elizabeth Roffe is fresh out of college, when he father dies to leave her in control of a crumbling pharmaceutical company (Bloodline).
Several times, the morality of the lead characters became ambiguous. Tracy Whitney was a thief and the ‘villain’ was an investigator (and the Interpol). Jennifer Parker fought cases for the mafia. In The Sands of Time, the ‘villain’ is the general who was chasing the Basque terrorists. But then, if the stories had been morality tales, they wouldn’t have been half as readable!

Two contrasting male characters – one insolent (iconoclastic) and the other sensitive (traditional).
The second recurring theme of the novels. Maybe, I am generalizing too much about their characteristics but most of them did have these two characters.
Rage of Angels had Adam Warner, who deserts Jennifer to become the President of USA. It also had Micheal Moretti as a ruthless Mafia boss, who becomes her saviour, lover and employer (in that order).
The Other Side of Midnight had Larry Douglas, who is a Casanova of a RAF pilot and deserts all the women he beds. It also had Constantin Demiris as one of the richest men in the world. Somebody told me the character was based on Aristotle Onasis but then, how many other Greek tycoons are there anyway?
The Windmills of the Gods had Mike Slade, a CIA operative in Romania who openly antagonized Mary Ashley. There was also a French doctor called Louis Deforges, with whom the heroine falls in love.
Master of the Game had a whole lot of them. The father, husband and son of Kate Blackwell were all characters of great charisma and ruthlessness. Some of them left her, some got betrayed by her.

The third twist in the tale is that usually one betrays/deserts the heroine. The other doesn’t.
Examples of these are best avoided!

Then, there is this nerd/wimp of a male character who is secretly in love with the heroine. Or, close.
Memories of Midnight had this genius (called Wim, I think) who was a bit of a recluse and a bit autistic. If Tomorrow Comes had this brilliant insurance investigator called Daniel Cooper, who trailed Tracy to catch her red-handed during her capers. Rage of Angels’ Jennifer had a gay investigative assistant, who also acts as her conscience in the book. Master of the Game had Banda – but in this case, I think the heroine was a little bit in love with him! Of course, Master of the Game also had this talented plastic surgeon, who was in love with one of the twins (the evil one of Eve & Alexandra Blackwell) in the last part of the novel.

And then there was the episodic narration. In exotic locales, peppered with local trivia and phrases / slangs.
This was probably the biggest draw. Each one of his novels is a series of events pulled off by the heroine. Rage of Angels had at least 20 very clever court cases, fought successfully by Jennifer. If Tomorrow Comes rattles off a series of heists – involving paintings, gemstones and millionaires – all of which were so ingenous that as a teenager, one inevitably had the feeling of why-didn’t-I-think-of-it-before! Ditto for The Sands of Time, where a Basque terrorist (Jaime Miro) and the four nuns (all of whom are not nuns!) escape the brutal police looking for them. Nothing Lasts Forever was the story of four lady doctors and again, there was a plethora of funny, racy, pacy medical adventures they were involved in.
As teenagers, we were left gasping for breath as the protagonists went from one episode to another, from the ‘bedroom to the boardroom’ (to quote the blurbs!) and nobody dared to put down the book without finishing. In fact, whenever the titles got circulated in class, about 14 of us managed to read it in as many days – one night being enough to gulp down the 400-pagers!
What places these happened! Spain. Cote D’Azure. South African diamond mines. Private Greek islands. Hollywood studios. Swiss villas. Luxury cruise liners. Even a New York courtroom felt like an amphitheatre!
And what characters! US fighter pilots. Russian chess masters. Belgian art dealers. African tribal leaders. Colombian assassins.
All these fascinating characters spoke affected English, with a smattering of their own tongue. I marveled at the research, till I came across an Indian patient (in Nothing Lasts Forever) called Pandit Jawaha (!), whose supposedly Hindi sentences were almost gibberish!

And always, a quote at the beginning of the book – usually, one from which the title is taken.
Longfellow’s lines kicked off The Sands of Time. Ditto for A Stranger in the Mirror. The formula for an Egyptian medicinal mixture kicked off Bloodline (which was about a pharmaceutical company). The eponymous nursery rhyme kicked off The Sky is Falling.
And my favourite – “We are all victims, Anselmo. Our destinies are decided by the whims of the stars, a cosmic roll of the dice and the vagrant breezes of fortune that blow from the windmills of the gods.”

Sidney Sheldon’s last few books hardly matched up to the reputation of his earlier ones. Either the episodes were not gripping enough, or they did not come fast enough. Or, the heroines were just not strong enough. But as far his best are concerned, when an old fan tries to write down a few thoughts, the memories come in a torrent – and with no checking of references, one manages to remember most of the names, locales and sequence of events. If one has to judge an author by the best of his output, then Sidney Sheldon ranks right up there in the league of page-tuners!

If you haven’t read it already, pick up If Tomorrow Comes the next time you are in an airport bookshop. Chances are they will have to page you to get you into the flight!

4 comments:

The Mad Momma said...

I was also hooked on him pretty young... but then lost interest somewhere... but yes, his loss will be felt. now where is the food post?

bluespriite said...

i stumbled onto this accidentally. But SS is still a favourite of mine.. for the page-turning variety. I totally love his books and forever am finding incidents lifted from books and used in good ol' hindi movies. :) sigh am gonna miss him.

P said...

Sheldon was one of my favorites too until college and 'The Windmills of the Gods' was my first too! Now it seems just too filmy. :)

JaiSiyaRam said...

I loved reading Sheldon's books. It was just a matter of chance that I got hold of "Windmills of the Gods", at my maternal uncle's bookshelf during a holiday in June 1988, when I had just passed out of Class VII, marking the start of a long association with his books. The same bookshelf had "Master of the Game". My uncle remarked, "Oh! so you are reading an adult book." Three months later I read "Rage of Angels". By June 1989 when I passed Class VIII, I had also read the "Other Side of Midnight" and "Bloodline". After reading these five novels, there was a five-year gap, before I started reading Sheldon again, and this time I read the books, which are among my favorites, "Sands of Time", "The Doomsday Conspiracy" and "Memories at Midnight". The male protagonists that Sheldon created are my favorites - Robert Bellamy and Constantin Demeris. Who can forget the starting lines of "Sands of Time" - "this is a work of fiction but...." and the lengthy conversations Megan had with Jaime Miro. In 1999 I read his first novel, "The Naked Face" and earlier works, "Stranger in the Mirror" and "If Tomorrow Comes". By the time, he came out with his autobiography, I had read all his works. I always kept thinking that I will write him a letter, requesting him to work on a novel in the Indian context, say, the Emergency of 1975-77 as the background, but that was not to be. I think, "Nothing Lasts Forever" has reference to the Taj Mahal. Jaime Miro discusses Gandhi with Megan in "Sands of Time". The doctor, who saves Miro, settles down in Bangladesh. Of course the Gods in "Windmills...." are from the Hindu pantheon. I liked the suspense around the character Neusa Munez in "Windmills..."