The question of what makes a good man is a perennial one. Where the role of women as the nurturers and caregivers of society has always been a pretty solid baseline for individual women to accept or reject, as creatures who seek frontiers and challenges men have always had to find new things to define themselves. While intellectual pursuits have always been a venue for masculine success the form they take varies. In ancient Greece you could be a philosopher. As time wound forward intellectual men turned to art, although philosophy by no means lost its cachet during this time. By the time the 1800s rolled around, science largely usurped both philosophy and art as the realm of the successful thinking man. These days the masculine intellectual works in technology or mass media.
The same is true of the men who are most skilled in working with their hands or who make their living through physical activity (although admittedly it seems the life of the professional athlete has changed the least over time.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with change in the way things work. However very rapid change can result in men getting unmoored from every touchstone that makes it possible for them to navigate life. Very few artists are tackling the question of what it means to be a man in the modern era. Andrew Klavan is one of those few.
Klavan’s Cameron Winter novels are an interesting study in what it means to be a good man, presenting us with a protagonist who is not exactly an expert on the subject but possesses many of the basic qualities that have made manhood vital to the human experience. At the same time, we learn that for most of his life Winter had none of the role models that made it clear how to use them. There are many stories in the world today that create a strong dual narrative between a character’s formative years learning and growing contrasted against where they wind up after they are adults. What’s interesting is how Klavan uses this device.
Many of the worst parts of Winter’s history are now the impetus for him to set right wrongs in the world. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. However Winter isn’t bent on vengeance for the things he lost or trying to make up for his emotional shortcomings through action. Instead he’s trying to understand the virtues he didn’t learn in his youth by righting wrongs he finds in adulthood. That’s an interesting lens to use.
When Christmas Comes is the tale of a man who must make a judgment between good and evil at a moment when, for better or worse, he’s the only one who sees the situation with the clarity to weigh all the factors. This requires Cameron to confront his own biases and consider how appropriate they are. A Strange Habit of Mind takes this to the next step, forcing Winter to consider problems from more than one point of view and weight the outcomes of his decisions on a much bigger scale.
In the first story, the question of what is going on is just as important as the right thing to do. In the second, Winter must weigh what is going on against the various good and evil actions of a wide variety of people. That’s refreshing. Most, if not all stories of the modern day begin with a right course of action presumed based on social dynamics like status or race. They also usually leave the consequences of their protagonist’s decisions conspicuously absent from the end of the story, or present such wildly unbelievable outcomes as to make the entire story meaningless.
However, based on plot alone Klavan’s stories are not particularly notable. They don’t do anything new. It’s the execution of those plots where Klavan’s abilities really shine. Klavan is a very experienced crime writer who excels at sketching his characters and building an atmosphere of melancholy and anticipation. We know Winter isn’t in the best place. He is building a better world for himself and others, one step at a time. It is fascinating to watch the decisions Winter makes on that journey. He makes deliberate actions and his emotions follow well illustrated paths, facing opponents who are well calibrated to him as a character and as an investigator.
It’s hard to point to anything Klavan does badly. That alone isn’t enough to make a great story but when you have at least one standout skill – as with Klavan’s character writing – you do get very good ones. The Cameron Winter novels are definitely good stories. I recommend checking them out so you can be on the train when a great one arrives, because I have a feeling we’re not that far from the moment the definitive Cameron Winter story drops.