The M/C Review: The screenwriter of ‘Wanted’ returns with ‘Columbus,’ his second novel

11.16.09 8 years ago

Derek Haas

Have you visited Popcorn Fiction yet?

If not, you should.  Derek Haas, co-screenwriter of “3:10 To Yuma” and “Wanted,” created a site to publish original short fiction, but that would let the authors keep their own copyrights to the stories.  Great idea, and it’s already paid off when Haas optioned his own story “Shake” to Jerry Bruckheimer.  Guys like Scott Frank, Patton Oswalt, Brian Helgeland, and Mark “Smilin’ Jack Ruby” Wheaton have all published stories there already, and I’m sure there are enough interested writers to keep the site viable and lively for years to come.

I’m not surprised to see Haas encouraging other screenwriters to tackle prose.  He published a novel last year called The Silver Bear, a tough, gorgeous crime novel about an assassin who is the best in the business until some personal blind spots almost cost him his life.  Now Haas is back with a new novel, a sequel to his first one, and Columbus is absolutely one of the best reads I’ve had this year.

Columbus is the name the main character and narrator of both books goes by, but it’s not his real name.  I have a feeling Haas may never tell us his real name, because (A) it wouldn’t really mean anything to us and (B) it’s just plain cooler this way.  Columbus is what they call “a silver bear,” from the shelf above the top shelf, the best in the business.  This is a guy who will finish any contract he’s given, no matter what, or die trying.  

I’ve always had a soft spot for novels that are first-person narrated by very, very bad people, and what I love most about these two books is the way Haas lays out the rules, the methodology, the mechanics of killing for a living.  Columbus is a pro, a guy who barely exists outside the job, and then he meets someone.  The book isn’t a “killer with a heart of gold tries to get out but gets dragged back in” story… not quite.  It’s a deft addition to the genre, a knowing tweak.  Haas knows what the conventions are… he reads like a guy who reads a lot.  He’s no dilettante, no tourist.  He’s a muscular writer with a hell of a sense of voice. 

For me, that’s the biggest part of being a novelist… voice.  If someone’s got the right storytelling voice, I’ll follow them almost anywhere.  Without expectation.  I’m betting most of my crime reading lists over the years look a lot like his, and I love the elegance of his plot.  Great noir, great crime writing, is all about how well you can lay all your pieces in place and then pay them off, and Haas builds his books really well.  The initial kill is a tremendous set piece, and then the book takes a long crazy left turn that, when it pays off, introduces a worthwhile villain, a vengeful force that Columbus will be lucky to survive.

Columbus is definitely not a hero.  He’s a contract killer, and he’s cold-blooded about it.  He has a human side, and he seems almost surprised to discover it.  He doesn’t have a change of heart, though.  He doesn’t suddenly see the light and lay down his gun and walk away.  It’s nothing that rote.  A lead on a contract introduces him to a woman, and that woman sparks his interest.  Stops him cold.  It’s a pleasant thing for him, getting sandbagged like that, suddenly introducing chaos into his world of absolute control. He welcomes it, and then that chaos starts to spread, as chaos will, and Haas builds it into a wild ride that pays off over and over.  It’s a fast read, and considering he just published the first one last year, maybe this is something we have to look forward to, and something for other writers to maybe try as well.  I love that John D. McDonald published his Travis McGee books frequently, one right after another, because I think it meant he spent a lot of time in that world, gave it a fair amount of real estate in his headspace.  It was real for him, I’m sure.  He wrote Travis like Travis existed.  He wrote Florida with a virtual reality degree of authenticity.  When you write a series like this, you have the opportunity to really paint a life, a world.  And Haas certainly proves with this strong follow-up that there’s a lot of juice in the Columbus character.

Even if he doesn’t continue the character, Haas is a guy whose work I’ll pick up any time he publishes.

He’s that strong a writer, and Columbus is that strong a book.

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