Top-quality reportage is far more difficult than thriller writing. You can't sit in a tower and write down your imaginings. You have to retrace the steps of complex, unpredictable human beings, travel miles around the world and interview hundreds of people.
That's why it is so irritating when what seems to be a book of fiction is portrayed as a work of serious reportage. Heinemann has published The Sett, a thriller by adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and has left a deliberate question mark over whether the story it contains really happened or not.
The writer, who says he wrote down a story he was told by a person who said it all really happened to him, claims to be 98-per-cent sure that it is all true. The directors of the publishing firm claim to be even more convinced it is fact.
The Sett tells the story of a mild-mannered accountant whose wife and child are killed by evil-doers, a la Mad Max. These baddies are so nasty that they torture animals for fun - the 'sett' of the title is a hole in which a family of badgers live.
The accountant, driven to the edge of insanity by his physical injuries, grief and anger, pursues the murderers around the world and becomes a killer himself. On the way, he becomes involved with villains at Bank of Credit and Commerce International (the money-laundering bank), drugs cartels from Colombia, the Irish Republican Army, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so on. All standard players on the international thriller stage.
Of course, it is perfectly allowable for a writer to pretend that a story is real. The Bridges of Madison County, an impossibly idyllic story of tragic love, starts off with the writer claiming that he came across the story by reading old letters and diaries belonging to real people. But that story is obviously made up, and the introduction is seen as all part of an attempt to set the scene for and draw the reader into what follows.
Fiennes may have done the same thing. The difference is that The Sett involves dramatic murders and other spectacular acts of evil-doing, blended in with incidents that unquestionably really happened, leading to confusion and discomfort - especially in the minds of the police forces of the jurisdictions in which the various murders allegedly happened.
He starts off by telling how an irritating man called Goodman pressured him into writing his biography. Fiennes, feeling money pressures because he lost a lot as a 'name' (underwriter) for the troubled insurance firm Lloyds, agreed to do it - but only if he could keep the money.
This rings true, since most writers do their craft for money. But it also makes Goodman impossible to trace. Since Goodman didn't want any money, both Fiennes and Heinemann can conveniently say that they are making all this money from Goodman's story but don't have contact numbers for him.
As for the book as a piece of storytelling, whether it is a record of actual events or not, it is a distasteful work.
It is not the villains, but Fiennes who enjoys torturing innocent animals. Whenever an animal is mentioned, he goes into excruciating detail about its torment and death.
As for the story, it becomes too James Bond-like to be believable. A giveaway is when Goodman breaks into the chief bad guy's premises.
The first person he encounters is the villain's cook, whom he knocks out cold with one blow. Only heroes in corny movies knock people unconscious with one blow. Even professional boxers rarely achieve this.
But when Goodman encounters real bad guys, as opposed to a semi-innocent one like the cook, he kills them horribly, in one case with a barbecue fork. Not the sort of skill most accountants pick up very easily.
The Sett by Ranulph Fiennes Heinemann $272