In the course of an interview, Jon L. Breen once evaluated the major strengths of his novels as their humor and their appealing characters. Breen’s humor owes much to his forays into parody and pastiche. In Hair of the Sleuthhound: Parodies of Mystery Fiction (1982), Breen, in his preface to the volume, tries to distinguish between the two; either because of his careful scholarship, characteristic of his work, or the honesty of his approach to writing, an equally important characteristic, he does not manage to provide a clear distinction; the two forms are intertwined and difficult to separate. Furthermore, the most successful parodies, Breen maintains, are those done in affection and with respect, without hostility. That attitude is obvious in Breen’s work. The authors whom he parodies have accepted his work as flattering and have noted its humor. While Breen’s parody may be the sincerest form of flattery, it can also be an important form of criticism—and therein, perhaps, lies its key distinction from pastiche.
Breen’s humor is close to that defined as the ready perceiving of the comic or the ludicrous, effectively expressed. It is marked also by warmth, tolerance, and a sympathetic understanding of the human condition. Gentle as this humor may be, Breen is capable of creating hilarious scenes. Listen for the Click (1983) can be regarded as a spoof of the classic amateur-sleuth plot. The final scene is a parody of the typical gathering of suspects during which the culprit is unmasked. A situation that in less practiced hands might be both tiresome and trite, under Breen’s control leads to a satisfactory resolution of the mystery and a genuinely comic scene.
The Gathering Place
Breen is also capable of handling subtler humor adroitly. In scenes with less action and more dialogue, his touch is equally deft. Neither labored nor forced, his lines are witty, suited to his characters, and well paced. When Rachel Hennings, protagonist of The Gathering Place (1984), inherits her uncle’s secondhand bookstore in Los Angeles, she interrupts her college career in Arizona to manage the shop, which is a literary landmark. In the past a favorite haunt of literary figures and their friends, it has a charming ambience and appeals to her tastes and interests. While at college, she has been pursued by an amorous if tense young faculty member. Resigned to her leaving Arizona, the young professor calls his brother in Los Angeles, who is the book editor for a local newspaper, asking that he assist Rachel in getting settled. Rachel and the editor are attracted to each other, but he considers her his brother’s girl. Their conversation in which Rachel tries to express her feelings is characterized by Breen’s control of scene and dialogue. The tone is light; there is no weighty introspection or serious self-analysis. In this author’s work, only the less sympathetic characters take themselves very seriously.
Rachel is an independent young woman, determined to succeed in her bookshop. Confronted by a motley lot of representatives of the world of the best seller, as well as the friendly ghosts she senses in her uncle’s shop, she proves equal to the challenges presented to her. As in the case of other Breen characters, she is attractive and has a winning personality.
Triple Crown and Listen for the Click
As Breen suggests, his characters are one of his strengths. They are varied and attractive. Jerry Brogan, the protagonist of both Triple Crown (1985) and Listen for the Click, is an overweight racetrack announcer. He is bright and decent, a former public relations man who has found satisfaction and pleasure in his small and narrow announcer’s booth, although his weight calls for imaginative methods of entering that cramped space. Devoted to his aunt and dedicated to doing a good job calling the races but somewhat uncertain about his relationship with his girlfriend, Brogan is eminently likable. He is not cast in the traditional hero mold, nor is he an antihero, but rather a figure with whom it is very easy to identify.
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