Winter should be a time for reading good novels by the fire while the snow drifts and the birds raid the feeders outside the windows. Had I not been plowing so often this year, I might have done this. You have seen enough of those snows, and read enough of those stories. But, as the snows have melted on their own recently, I have been able to return to finishing Edward Cline’s third Novel of Suspense about Merritt Fury, Run from Judgment. When I purchased the set from Mr. Cline, he summarized that in Whisper the Guns “I dealt with Red China”, in We Three Kings “I dealt with the Saudi’s”, and in Run From Judgment “I dealt with New York”. In Fury’s final adventure, he certainly does have his judgment on what business moguls have done to the freedom of our economy and political system.
To leave the suspense between you and Mr. Cline’s plot, I shall only briefly describe the key players in the book. No spoilers here. Rather, I will focus on what I consider to be an important theme in the book, the concept of ethics. Don’t shy away thinking that this will be riddled with stops at the dictionary. Between Mr. Cline’s ethical points there are plenty of bullets.
Merrit Fury, the protagonist of the series, is a financier, who loathes partnerships, preferring to select companies and products that he views as beneficial and potentially profitable. His antagonist in this book is William Portman, who sells factories to China, then purchases back the textiles they produce, after negotiating tax and tariff exemptions that allow his company’s products to under price all competitors. An economics magazine owner and editor, Eric Hodding investigates and exposes businessmen whom he believes are financing the dictators of the 20th century. Kenneth Traxler is a British investigator, who uses his holidays to piece together a series of murders of prominent businessmen. This leads him to Fury, whom an assassin has been smartly missing in a threatening manner.
Okay, so you are up to your ears in male testosterone by now. Bring in Stella Dawn, a British portrait artist who has been anonymously commissioned to paint Fury’s portrait… as she did of several of the now deceased businessmen featured in Hodding’s magazine. My wife would not classify this novel as a Bodice-Ripper, but there will be some thrashing on coaches here and there. “That’s about what you get for dating a businessman,” she snorted one evening while I read her various scenes from the book.
Now, on to those juicy scenes about Fury’s view of ethics… His primary concern is with authenticity, personally, artistically, economically, and politically. A group, whether an artistic movement, business, or political body is no better than the people who comprise the group. No wonder Fury keeps pretty much to his own company. From other writings by Mr. Cline, collectivism in any form should be suspect of eventual and ultimate evil.
When Dawn inquires to Fury why he so rarely attend social gatherings, he replies:
Who makes up “Society,” who goes to all those lavish dinners and sparkly receptions? Ex-secretaries of state who helped make the world less lavish and less sparkling, not to mention more dangerous and barbaric. Famous novelists who helped to destroy literature. Film producers who helped to destroy the screen. Composers and conductors who helped to destroy music. Noted economist and lawyers who advise Congressional finance committees on how to better paint me and my breed into tighter regulatory and tax corners. Businessmen and industrialist who accept loans from governments and who duck every time some bureaucrat proposes a new cost to business. Congressmen who sponsor immigration quotas that favor the poor, the illiterate and the ethnic over the able and educated. Stars and singers who screamed, slept and drugged their way to the top but who now expect respectability for having made dubious renditions of the Savoy operas. Third World dignitaries who a year ago were directing the massacres of technicians and colonials and native reactionaries but who now regularly visit New York and Washington to receive loans to rebuild the economies they’ve ruined. Witless dilettantes of all professions and persuasions. Affected hosts and hostesses who are either awed or cowed by the senseless mix of guests at their table.”
And, that is just one paragraph on page 81. Any surprise that someone has been aiming to silence him?
The plot begins, though, with somewhat of a red-herring. It is one of many false clues in the book, but isn’t that what suspense is about, sorting out the true clues from the red-herrings? We meet Traxler, whom we will learn over time is investigating a series of murders. Moreover, in regard to ethics, he is investigating the role of public service and private action. Traxler and Fury have numerous scenes with police officers, who are investigating who has been trying to kill Fury. Traxler, acting on his own, a version of the free-man, is not constrained as are the police. The later have protocols, supervisors, and ultimately political leaders to account to. In the hierarchy, these leaders may have agendas other than solving crimes and justice. Though a police officer may be well intended, his ability to act may be hand-cuffed before the criminals are.
Traxler was not known to have ever brought in a suspect who was not later convicted of the original and more serious charge. The man’s sense of justice was privately, not socially, rooted. He never spoke of it in terms of society or public welfare.”
Mr. Cline weaves this concept of social good and public service throughout the book. Yet, he questions whether this is a rationalization for self-serving behavior and guilt relief, rather than truly altruistic. Is the philanthropy of billionaires truly in the public interest, when they have manipulated their way to wealth? Are employees on the public payroll, from police officers, to bureaucrats, to political leader truly concerned with the constituencies which elected or hired them? Or, do they smile one direction while writing laws and carrying out regulations, governed on the principle of bettering those who support their elections and pay their pensions in retirement?
Traxler will disappear for a few chapters, while Fury steps on a few toes of the business community. In his opening scene, he sits at a dinner table awaiting speeches from various business leaders. The other businessmen at the table are unsure of who he is and even more offended at his off-putting responses to their attempts to draw him into conversation.
His face was wide, but contained a lean quality etched, they knew instinctively, by years of ferocious, determined struggle which all of them were afraid to imagine. And it was a face, they knew, whose features would never lapse or grow slack once he had reached a plateau in his life or work… His face held something more potent and devastating than the physical menace of his body; few present discerned the difference, and this confusion contributed to their fears.
In contrast to Fury’s free-man of business, William Portman represents the excesses of commerce without ethical guidance.
[Fury] had never met Portman before that meeting, though he’d known that the gadfly financier made news years earlier with his sale to Peking of modern textile processing machinery. Fury assumed that it was this same machinery that was now producing Balboa goods. Portman had to solicit only three other potential investors. Fury knew that he was the man’s sole failure…
Balboa was more than a success. It’s name struck the market like lightning… It had been a saturation advertising blitz on a scale untried for years. Everybody was amazed that such premium merchandize could be had so cheaply and in such abundance…
What was not advertised was that Balboa products were exempted from all import tariffs, that it received a partial rebate on its shipping costs from the government-subsidized merchant fleet it used exclusively, that it had somehow qualified for a number of special domestic tax reductions classifications, and that it had been granted a waiver from mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements.
When Fury refuses to join in financing Portman’s scheme, Fury outlines the above accusations. Portman’s ire can only be revenged by devastating Fury. This turns out to be a difficult task, especially when Fury takes the liberty to walk out of the dinner when Portman begins to give a speech about his triumphs in international trade.
Prior to this speech, Fury assess the corruption of the political process by business (self) interests, when an Under Secretary of Commerce walks to the podium. His table mates scold him for not applauding.
“I don’t applaud my executioners,…”
[The Under Secretary’s] address was a rambling monologue about the troubled dollar, the urgent need for making “rational” investments abroad, unregulated capital flight, and the necessity for closer cooperation between government and the entrepreneurial sector of the economy. There was no beginning to his speech, and no end. One subject led to another, connected by no discernible theme; their order of sequence could have been mixed in any number of ways to produce the same effect. Fury was reminded of a spinning bingo cage; any sequence of chance numbers could create a winning series, just as a string of paragraphs could create a modern speech or news article.
The slippery-slope of government-business coalitions occurs when unjust acts become legitimized by legal action, which lawyers can then use against liberty. In a confrontational exchange with Fury, Portman threatens to play this card:
“Whatever ground my lawyers will come up with, and you can bet they’ll be totally legitimate, don’t you worry.”
“I don’t doubt the proficiency of your attorney’s, Mr. Portman. But there’s another curious concept: legitimacy. Anything can be made legitimate. it was once legitimate to kill Christians. To Moslems, it still is. Slavery was once legitimate. Joan of Arc was tried and executed — legitimately.”
The ultimate evil which Fury views in corrupt business ethics is profiting by doing business with hostile governments and dictators. Beyond Portman’s wheeling-and-dealing with China, Fury, Traxler, and Hodding discuss the destructive consequences of providing financial gain to countries who would point their armies and missiles toward free countries, establishing weapons sales programs which arm the same nations, and importing drugs to bind citizens with intoxication.
Mr. Cline believes that any belief system, religious, philosophical, or social will eventually progress into it’s most extreme mode of thought and action. Some time ago, given that Mr. Cline is a proponent of capitalism, I posed the question to what extreme would capitalism eventually devolve. While he does not directly state this in Run From Judgment, I think that he illustrate two extremes. Fury’s path of individual decision-making and accountability, or Portman’s narcissistic manipulation of markets for personal gain regardless of the consequences.
This leads us to the theme of personal ethics, for free-men/women develop and act on their own beliefs, not those of groups, collectives, and cartels. In answering this question, we must view Mr. Cline’s description of art in modern society, for art can be a way of understanding the subject portrayed. Also, a majority of the novel is about the process of making, appreciating, and selling art. As you can imagine, Fury has a pretty dismal view of the arts. When discussing the proposed portrait with the artist, Stella Dawn, he dismisses most 20th century art quickly:
“I’ve gone through museum portrait galleries in no time at all; nothing I usually see in them stops me. Names of famous artists mean nothing to me.” He paused. “There’s a bronze bust in the lobby of an office building not far from here. It’s supposed to be of the builder. Though every time I see it, I think either he must have been a leper, or the bust was damaged by fire or partly melted, or vandalized.”
Fury also views the art market as contrived. Just as business leaders and politicians write laws which promote their wealth, artists and galleries create any type of image, generate buzz about the artist, then sell them to collectors and speculators, who in turn rave about the future prospects long enough to sell the pieces to other collectors and institutions for a profit. The cycle continues with no one challenging the premise of whether the art has any merit, until Stella Dawn come along. But, I shall leave that story for her and Fury to relish in, to your suspense.
Dawn is, rather, an outcast from the art world. She refused to join this system of art selling, after one of her paintings was shown in a gallery along with other sensationally erotic works, which she viewed as neither technically or thematically proficient as her own. She, like Fury, works outside the networks for back-slappers and hand-holders. She has found reasonable income in doing commissioned portraits. She is not a production shop, cranking out stalwart executives, lavish wives, and smiling children. She may take months to explore a person whom she finds intriguing, or weeks to be done with a bore. Need I say that she spends quite a number of pages turning over Fury’s essence before committing her discoveries to canvas? Foreplay may be in the stroke of a brush or one’s hair.
In a spread of black on the darkened south window, Fury could see her smile of amusement and the look of possession in her eyes. He closed his own for a moment, and listened to the sound of her movement over the paper. It took on an aspect of intimacy; the lines and shading he heard being created were his, and he began to feel them as though her fingers and palms were moving deftly over his face instead.
Okay, hold on there, folks. It’s only page 40. You have a way to go until my wife would call this a Still-Wet-Romance. In additional to developing images on canvas, Dawn stages situations to see how her subjects react. One evening, she suggest setting aside Fury’s sitting for Dawn’s preliminary sketches, to attend a concert instead.
Later that evening, as they left the concert hall, Fury broke his silence and shook his head, saying, “That was terrible.”
“Why?” asked Stella.
Fury sighed at having to explain the obvious. “That pianist, he missed half the notes, he faked his way through the whole program, he wouldn’t let his foot off the pedal, there was confusion about whether he was leading the orchestra or it he –” He stopped to face her. “Stella, how could you have wanted me to hear that?” The crowd moved down the steps around them, wary of what they presumed was an arguing couple.
“I didn’t,” Stella said with a smile. “I knew he would be awful. I wanted to see you listen to it… I wanted to see if you had an ear, to see how you reacted to badness. You didn’t clap once. To see if there was anything conventional or fraudulent about you, as there was in that pianist and in most of the audience….”
If I pulled such a stunt during our courting days, my wife would not have found that reason for romance later. I think that our first date, at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art, in NYC) followed by lunch at a falafel deli during a bar mitzvah celebration, was test enough. But, she came back for more.
Through Fury’s and Dawn’s exchanges over the portrait and other art works, Mr. Cline outlines the ethics of art. This is a combination of knowing one’s talents, developing one’s techniques, selecting one’s subjects and taking the time to understand what one is portraying, rather than being cleaver and catching the whim of the socialites to sell one’s products.
In a similar manner, Mr. Cline begins to hint at what may be the free-man’s personal ethics: talents, technique, subject, time and understanding, and awareness of this process. In the progression of the book, he hints at these qualities. In contrast, he provide many examples of what are shallow, short-sighted, and flawed ethics in artists, businessmen, politicians, and assassins. These qualities will lead to their destruction, if not directly by death or arrest, then by the degradation of the society in which they live.
The most direct example of this is Mr. Cline description of the hired-gun, “Corsair”:
[He] was a former member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. Parachutist, frogman, expert marksmen, belt-holder in various martial arts, schooled in explosives, and trained in rural and urban warfare, he had mastered many disciplines, except the one most crucial to an individual skilled in endurance and destruction: himself… [He] meticulously detailed [his] diary;… a man of his alleged professionalism would have been averse to keeping a record of his cleverness. Apparently vanity got the better of his training… It usually did with such men… It was the need for recognition.”
This concept of recognition comes up in numerous places in the book. At that business dinner, Fury’s table mates viewed him as arrogant. Dawn ponders what she sees as conceit in his assurance, but is not threatened by it. Portman craves being in the news, anticipating good public relations for his companies and better returns on his investments. Traxler wants to solve his case and bring justice for those who have been wronged. Hoddings writes his editorials to recognize both the honorable and deplorable actions of business leaders.
Now she understood why had behaved so strangely in his office today when he ended the interview so abruptly. She’d touched him. She’d known it then. And this evening, he had returned… What had he returned?
Recognition. Recognition in everything he’d said to her, and about her, in the way he watched her move through the space of his penthouse, in the way he answered her questions, spoken and unspoken, in the way he enjoyed the sight of her, in the way he kept a physical and mental distance from her, in answer to her own.
Throughout these novels, I wondered whether a character such as Fury could bond, attach to anyone, let alone connect with the emotion and idea of love. I would not be giving anything away to suggest that he connects deeper than James Bond would with women. In Whisper the Guns Fury’s love interest is expendable when the plot requires that she be killed. In We Three Kings his flirtation, not even a love interest, lacks his independence and courage, thus is easy to send back to the safety of her bureaucratic job when extreme measures are warranted. In Run From Judgment, Fury is not running. He is ready to settle down and use his new position to bring judgment on those who are corrupt, after he meets his equals in Traxler, Hodding, and Dawn.
Novels written during and about a specific time period can seem dated when read decades later. What relevance might they contain, other than some evenings of entertaining reading, or historical references to the past. Whisper the Guns, We Three Kings, and Run From Judgment probably did not get much attention 30+ years ago, and will be passed over by most readers today. However, with China dominating the manufacturing production of the world through subsidized factories, Russia staging uprising to annex bordering countries, and the Saudi royal family sitting quietly while neighboring nations degrade into tribalism, and our own Supreme Court handing elections over the highest bidder, we better do some reading before the possibility of the free-man is left to a few rebels. Mr. Cline summarizes this in his 2012 re-print forward:
Since finishing this novel in 1983, America, Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world have become inhospitable to freedom in ways I could not imagine, predict, or find credible thirty years ago. So the actions and milieu the reader will encounter in this story will seem wistfully nostalgic.