(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Richard Neely has more than a dozen novels to his credit, all of them reliant on “thriller” or suspense elements, his work cannot be fit comfortably into any generic pigeonhole. Neely writes about crimes and criminals, yet his novels seem only peripherally concerned with the psychology of crime. He places his characters in dire jeopardy, yet he does not insist that his readers earnestly desire their rescue. He often locates his characters among the new gentry of modern society, yet there is not an ounce of genuine social criticism to be found in any of his novels.

Two questions thus naturally present themselves: What is Neely after in his work and what are the most productive ways into his work? The answer to the first question is problematic and speculative; the second can be gotten at a bit more easily by considering the fictional world that Neely’s thrillers (for lack of a more precise term) create.

In the world of the typical Neely thriller, the everyday codes of moral behavior have been suspended and replaced by a curiously ad hoc morality. In Neely’s world, morality is situational in application and Darwinian in function. Significant human action is almost always governed by pragmatic rather than ethical exigencies. Value finally resides, if it exists at all in this mechanistic system, in survival and success. The abstract principles of innocence and guilt may have legal but seldom moral meaning; ideas of “good” and “evil,” per se, have virtually no meaning at all.

As a result, Neely’s men and women play out their dramas against a moral backdrop that is relativistic and frequently even neutral. The reader is invited to observe the goings-on from a distance that renders empathic or sympathetic involvement difficult. Even the most basic of reader responses—desiring success for some characters and failure for others—is only conditionally evoked. Consequently, just as other binary oppositions fail to yield much meaning, the categories of “hero” and “villain” seem moot. Yet there is a catch. Though legitimate heroes may be in short supply in Neely’s world, most of the villains are small, relatively petty, and so paper-thin as to cast no appreciable shadows. (Compared with even a minor villain in a John D. MacDonald novel, they seem particularly bloodless.) From his distance, with no characters to applaud, the reader looks on dispassionately, engaged in the cool, primarily intellectual pleasures of anticipating the next plot twist and, ultimately, of determining “whodunit.”

In most ways, Neely is a traditionalist. His characters, for example, are motivated exactly as though they were stock James M. Cain creations: That is, their crimes proceed from motives of lust (though seldom love), revenge, and—most important—money and the social and personal power that goes along with it.

An Accidental Woman

Neely is unusually hard on his women, who more often than not are portrayed as Circean seductresses who employ sex as a kind of emotional currency with a murderous rate of exchange. In fact, this view of women seems to be a hallmark of the Neely thriller. With few exceptions, women in significant roles are portrayed as cunning (though not always intelligent), ruthless, and sexually opportunistic. This is true in one of Neely’s first novels, The Plastic Nightmare (1969), and in one written almost ten years later, Lies (1978). In perhaps his most popularly successful work, An Accidental Woman (1981), the title character undergoes a slightly bungled brain operation that “accidentally” transforms her from a timid, sexually repressed being into a virtual nymphomaniac who uses and discards men at a speed even Harold Robbins might admire. That this woman’s sexual “liberation” coincides with her meteoric rise up the corporate ladder in a Madison Avenue advertising agency suggests that Neely may be, if not quite a misogynist, at least a cynic....

(The entire section is 1629 words.)