Wednesday, March 14, 2012

'The Great Leader' - A Review

I like cop books.  I read a lot of them, Sandford and Connelly and even Cornwell. At it's most simple, Jim Harrison's 'The Great Leader' is a cop book. A retired state police detective from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the hunt for a cult leader who takes advantage of his young female followers.

But the pursuit of the criminal is only a single thread in the cloth of this novel, which weaves together sex, fishing, history, alcohol, reading, aging, family, longing, nature and travel in a compelling 288 pages.  Author of 'Legends of the Fall' and 'The English Major,' Harrison certainly knows how to build characters who resonate.

The protagonist in this book, Simon Sunderson, seems more than a bit autobiographical and as a reader I wondered throughout the story how much of what Sunderson was thinking and feeling was actually coming directly from Harrison's life experience and how much of it was part of the character creation.  The emotions seem so deeply considered, so strongly felt and vividly conveyed that it seems almost impossible to believe that they could be constructs and not drawn from real life.

Sunderson is a horny old dog, staggering though the early days of his retirement, often in a drunken stupor, lusting after virtually every woman he meets and reading history until he passes out every night.  Trailing the suspect to the desert Southwest, he gradually falls under the spell of the harsh and unfamiliar landscape.  His interactions with the other minor characters of the novel are well-scripted but the supporting cast is pretty one-dimensional. 

A 16 year old next-door Lolita is the best-developed of the characters, but we never really find out what makes her tick.  Sunderson's ex-wife, sisters, love interest and best friend all seem to be merely creations to further the plot incrementally and give things for Sunderson to think about.  None really develop into someone memorable after the book is put down.

The outdoors scenes are particularly well-described.  The cold, wet piney scent of the Upper Peninsula practically leaps off the page when you read the passages.  I even imagined what it would be like to have the patience to actually fish. Harrison's imagery of Arizona and New Mexico easily called to mind my visits to that area. The descriptions of Sunderson healing from an injury were sharp enough to make me wince a few times.

Ultimately the book gives us a peek into the mind of a man at a crossroads.  His professional life complete and his family life a shambles, what is there to live for at 65 years old? Harrison gives us a long look at our own mortality while also creating a solid cop story.

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