Arthur Hailey Critical Essays

Hailey, Arthur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hailey, Arthur 1920–

Hailey, an English-born Canadian novelist and playwright, has won enormous popularity with his slick and engrossing formula fiction. The Final Diagnosis, Hotel, Airport, and Wheels are among the most widely read of all contemporary novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

"Wheels" is at once an exposé of and a salute to the auto industry. The exposures are directed largely at the work force, who may well deserve them; at car dealers, who are certainly not without sin; and at the M—a, which controls the crime rampant in all auto plants. On the other hand, Mr. Hailey plays a diligent Boswell to management's Doctor Johnson. He describes the pox-marks on his subject's cheeks, but finds him to be an admirable fellow.

The book (a Hailey hallmark) is crammed with information about the design, manufacture and marketing of automobiles. It has a Tolstoy-sized cast. Its plot has more windings than a Byzantine intrigue. That is not to say it is hard to follow: Mr. Hailey is nothing if not a competent craftsman; his directions are as easy to understand as an A.A.A. road map. What is more, his novel is interesting, since he has the natural storyteller's gift of keeping a reader avidly turning the pages. One's attention does wane, briefly, when he writes lines like: "Later they made love to find the old magic had returned." But these are momentary irritants—and one races past them. (p. 48)

Mr. Hailey produces not a single scene with explicit sex, and few terms likely to offend anybody's moral sensibilities. The strongest word in the book is "s-o-b," usually directed at Emerson Vale, a critic of the industry and author of a book "The American Car: Unsure in Any Need."…

Mr. Hailey goes on and on, until he decides he has given the reader his money's worth. And he has. In my judgment, his chances of escaping blockbusterdom are nil. (p. 49)

John Reed, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1971.

Arthur Hailey lives in a world of diminishing opportunities, perhaps a victim of his own success. Since he perfected the formula for his kind of novel, with Airport, a lot of other writers have moved onto his turf—not necessarily imitators, but certainly competitors, gobbling up ideas in a field where basic themes are not all that plentiful. Frederick Forsyth, for example, wrote the novel that Hailey might have called Coup or The Mercenaries, calling it instead The Dogs of War and hitting best-seller lists for a good long stay. John Godey's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three might just as easily have been a Hailey book called Subway. And there are two books either of which Hailey might have written under the title of Skyscraper: The Tower and The Glass Inferno. It's getting crowded out there in the world of what we might call the "information novel."

But if he ever runs out of industries and enterprises suited to his particular style, Hailey does have one last resource; he can always do a novel with autobiographical overtones called Potboiler. It would chronicle in minute detail the daily routines of a man who lives well by writing 500-page books which are almost fact and almost fiction: the travels to interview people for background information, the carefully arranged boxes full of little index cards with key details, the slow elaboration of a multilayered plot and the writer's search for places in the bulk of his novel where he can slip in a fact or an opinion like nuts and raisins in a muffin. Above all, it should explore the unique formula for this kind of book. Start with something large and complicated, a business or institution that touches the lives of large numbers of people and is not fully understood by the public. Ideally, the subject should have a touch of glamour and some element of risk in its routine activities. The writer takes the reader inside this subject, letting him see it from various points of view and tossing in an occasional little sermon on public responsibilities. Numerous characters are formed out of available material (cardboard will do nicely) and they are set in motion by a series of crises, small, medium and large, which illustrate the nature and particularly the weaknesses of the activity that is the real subject (in a sense the real hero) of the book.

The Moneychangers fits this pattern beautifully. Its hero is First Mercantile American, a large bank in Cleveland (the locale is carefully disguised throughout, but on page 200 an editor let slip the information that one of the bank's officers lives in Shaker Heights) that sometimes resembles the Bank of America. FMA faces a number of problems and/or decisions: the mysterious disappearance of $6,000 from a teller's cashbox; a rash of counterfeit credit cards; the question of whether to continue funding a low-cost housing development or to float a massive loan for a multinational conglomerate; policy decisions on whether to open new branches, how to advertise its services and which to encourage (credit cards which are a trap for many weak-willed clients, or savings accounts which build the nation's moral fiber), whether to put money into slow-but-sure home mortgage investments or to go after various fast-buck opportunities. Above all, the bank faces the choice of a new president, whose personality will naturally affect many key decisions: Roscoe, an unimaginative man but good with money whose eye is fixed firmly on the bottom line; or Alex, dynamic, innovative, socially aware but solidly committed to traditional fiscal virtues—you can tell from these summaries which one Hailey is rooting for.

The plot involves (besides a modest quota of sex) a large and cleverly contrived demonstration by poor people, undercover operations in a counterfeit ring, a bit of embezzling, a little blackmail, some high-level corporate hanky-panky, a major financial disaster, a localized panic and run on the bank, some kidnapping and torture, several visits to an insane asylum, a chase scene, a suicide. And in little niches strategically located throughout the plot, we get what I suspect most people read Hailey for: a panoramic view of the banking industry, its security arrangements and profit margins, the philosophy of the credit card, the attractions of foreign currency, the inside of the stock market, the EFT (electronic fund transfer) system which may eventually replace money, the principles of trust fund management, the question of interlocking directorates, the relation of banks to savings and loan institutions, the plans for a new American currency which will baffle counterfeiters, the dynamics of short-term money trading among big banks, tax dodges and shelters, the techniques of a surprise audit in a branch bank and much more. We might say of Hailey what one of his characters says of a call girl who is employed by a large conglomerate, that he gives full value for the money.

What he gives, actually, is the feeling that you are learning something—that, by the time you finish page 472, you really know what's in banking. This is largely illusion, of course; even with this size and such a restricted subject, the book has to sacrifice depth to achieve breadth. But it is ideal reading for those who feel guilty about wasting their time on mere fiction. And if you wonder whether there are many such people, just watch the best-seller lists. (pp. 1-2)

Joseph McLellan, "Cash on the Line," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 23, 1975, pp. 1-2.

Arthur Hailey's novels are such genuine publishing events that to criticize them is like putting the slug on the Rockettes. It's not going to change anything. No sooner is his contract inked than mighty lumberjacks start to make their axes ring. Paperback houses and book clubs fairly whimper to give him money while the work is still in progress, and Ross Hunter calls up the old actors' home to begin casting his next blockbuster. At the publication party itself the last deviled egg is still to be consumed when his book busts through on the best-seller lists. In view of all this hoopla, the fact that Mr. Hailey's books aren't any good seems to be almost beside the point. They are already winners.

Still, there is such a thing as degree, and it must be reported that "The Moneychangers" represents a step backward for Mr. Hailey. It is neither as interesting as "Hotel" nor as arresting as "Airport."

The side of the street Mr. Hailey is working runs through an old and respected neighborhood. The novel that brings the reader news of places and people far removed from his own experience has been a staple of the craft of fiction since Defoe started the whole thing. For better or worse, and I'm not so sure it has always been for worse, the novel has been as good an illuminator of our time as nonfiction. Good novelists, even clumsy ones with a story to tell, have always been able to take us behind the scenes. Dreiser rubbed our noses in the stench of the machine shop, and Auchincloss can still give us a dazzling, muted tour of the board room. They had stories that went somewhere peopled with characters you wanted to know more about. And while they were at it, they told how things worked.

Mr. Hailey doesn't have a story to tell that hasn't been done better before. His characters swarm through his books like bores at a cocktail party you forget the second they depart and have to be reintroduced when they reappear. And his detail work gives less information than a well-constructed Sunday piece in a newspaper. Mr. Hailey is one of the new purveyors of plasticized fiction who promises to take us to distant places and then stashes us in a nearby Hilton hotel.

In his latest ["The Moneychangers"], Mr. Hailey draws a bead on the banking business and somehow manages to miss that inviting target almost entirely. Ben Rosselli, president of the First Mercantile American Bank, announces that he is at death's door—which at least gets him out of the book early. This sets off an unseemly struggle for power reminiscent of the plot of "Executive Suite" which is resolved in largely the same way. If you think the vice president who is in favor of the little people of this world doesn't win, you haven't been reading many Arthur Hailey novels. It's enough to make you search out Tolstoy's clean old peasant and strangle him.

There are a few subplots included not so much to illuminate the main story I suspect, as to take our minds off it. There is a whiff of Robert Vesco in the character of a crooked financier, a credit-card counterfeiting scheme of surpassing crudity and the mandatory love story.

This represents fairly sparse plotting for a Hailey novel, and I think it was a mistake. Books such as "Hotel" kept driving the reader forward by switching among seven or eight relatively boring story lines, until he had invested so much time he hung on just to see what happened. You can bail out of "The Moneychangers" at any time. You've been there before. (p. 40)

Peter Andrews, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.