Friday, May 08, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Switch,”
by William Bayer

(Editor’s note: This is the 51st installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from aspiring British crime novelist and short-story writer Col Bury, who lives in Manchester, England, with his wife and two children. He and Matt Hilton (Dead Man’s Dust) are the co-editors of Thrillers, Killers ’n’ Chillers, a site “encouraging new writers to showcase their talent.” Bury’s ever-growing collection of short yarns can be found on that site as well as in other e-zines, such as A Twist of Noir. He interviews fellow crime authors and blogs here.)

If you were to ask yourself the question, “Which single book most shaped my life?” I’m sure you, like many other people, would be undecided, possibly even drawing up a shortlist.

But not me. Who knows how my life might’ve panned out had I not, as a spotty teenager, stumbled across William Bayer’s tense, psychological crime thriller, Switch (1984), in an aged cardboard box at a dingy little second-hand bookstall in Manchester city center in the late 1980s?

This was the first book I’d ever read to its end. Others before it just didn’t hold my attention as far as their conclusions. The bloody knife on Switch’s original book jacket (above) pricked my attention and the cover blurb gripped me with a literary bear-hug. Switch was most aptly described as “Psycho-logical.”

However, it took me some time to finally get my hands on Switch. I heard about this book a year before I actually found a copy. Every time I tried to borrow it from my local library, I was told that the sole copy on loan hadn’t been returned--and, alas, it never was.

Gutted, I impatiently scoured the bookstalls far and wide--with obviously no assistance from the Internet in those days. Every once in a while, some bookseller would tell me he’d got it in stock, only for “it” to be a totally different book with the same title. And then came that fateful day when the silvery word Switch shone through the tatty-looking paperbacks as I rummaged desperately through that box. My heart somersaulted with joy and, after all that, the book only cost me 40 lousy pence. I’d have given the seller 50 quid!

Long before my visions of grandeur kicked in--my hopes of becoming an author of any standing--I was an avid reader and had a profound love of words and the utmost respect for any book in print. This was probably due to the fact that my mother had had the same visions, hers thwarted, however, by having to rear three children and holding down two minimum-wage jobs, while my late father grafted at the Power Station in working-class Manchester. My mother had enjoyed modest successes with her short stories and poetry, and her auntie was a head teacher of a primary school where she specialized in English. So, as they say, it’s probably in the genes.

For whatever reason, horror novels seemed to attract me as a youth. Be they the work of James Herbert, Dean Koontz, or Stephen King--the last of whose books I always found long-winded, yet still gripping--there was just something in me then (and it’s still there now) that reveled in the occasional literary fright. I enjoyed the suspense, the tension, and the ominous threats of what might be.

Nonetheless, my first love was, and still is, the crime novel in all its guises. But to be honest, among the crime novels I read during that early era, it’s only Switch that is tattooed on my mind. Not wanting to miss the proverbial boat, as my mother had, I’m now having a damn good go of writing fiction myself. And it’s all down to Switch. Well, most of it anyway, as after reading Bayer’s novel again and again, I think something “switched” in my head. Maybe a light...

Let this passage from the introduction to Switch whet your appetite for the novel as a whole:
[New York Police Lieutenant] Frank Janek has just been assigned the case that will make--or break--his career ...

‘Got something for you, Frank. You have to take it over right away. Your kind of case. Psychological.’ Hart winked as if he’d made some kind of private little joke. ‘Two homicides over the weekend. One in the One-nine, the other in the Twentieth. Monday morning they find this schoolteacher. You probably read about it in the papers. The second one was on the West Side. Tenement building. All-night call-girl type. They found her Monday, too, but we didn’t say much about it then even though there was something peculiar that connected the two cases which we weren’t actually aware of until yesterday afternoon.’ Hart grinned. ‘Tell you one thing, Frank. You never had a case like this.’

‘Like what?’

‘Hold on. I’m getting to it. Understand that what I’m telling you isn’t going to the papers.’ He turned in his seat so he was facing Janek. His voice turned serious. His tiny eyes were boring in. ‘The heads were switched ...’
I defy anyone not to want to read on!

Detective Janek is one of the good guys in the true sense of the word and, forgive the Mancunian in me, but he’s a proper detective. From the outset Bayer not only explores the particularly warped mind of his imagined killer, but also Janek’s own standing, especially since the book begins with a world-weary colleague sticking a gun his mouth and blowing his brains out.

Full of twists and turns, moody, almost melancholic at times, but tense and shocking throughout, Switch has top-notch characters and a well-woven plot, and it is written at the perfect pace with which to keep the reader riveted.

And the author, himself: William Bayer was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of an attorney father and a screenwriter mother. In the 1940s, his parents collaborated on several mystery novels under the joint pen-name “Oliver Weld Bayer.”

The younger Bayer graduated from Harvard in 1960 and served with the United States Information Agency, writing, producing, and directing documentary films. After that he became a full-time freelance writer and filmmaker. Several of his documentaries were given awards before his first novel, In Search of a Hero, was published back in 1962.

Bayer penned other thrillers, and later used the pseudonym “David Hunt.” However, it wasn’t until the early ’80s that Frank Janek was introduced to the world via the novel Peregrine (1981), which won the 1982 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. Then came Switch (1985), a New York Times best-seller and the source of the CBS-TV mini-series Doubletake, in which Janek was played by Richard Crenna. Doubletake turned out to be the first of seven TV films in which Crenna starred as Janek.

For his own part, Frank Janek appears in three other best-selling Bayer novels, the aforementioned Peregrine, Wallflower (1991), and Mirror Maze (1994). In all of those the police procedural lives strong and, as it seems with every one of Bayer’s books, the psychological edge lingers long after one puts the book down--something which I struggled to do myself with Switch.

I don’t fully understand why Bayer composed only that quartet of Janek books, as Switch seems to me to be the epitome of the hard-boiled American crime novel. It stands the test of time which, for me, still makes it a five-star read.

And thank God for second-hand bookstalls!


Unknown said...

Thanks for inviting me to be part of your 'Forgotten Books' Series. I'm both honoured and humbled to be in such great company.
And I loved re-acquainting myself with Switch again after all those years. It was like meeting an old friend!

Paul D Brazill said...

Never heard of this 'switch' before. Nice piece Col!

Michael Solender said...

re-reads years later are the best. i like your take on this tome and will look it up. good write col!

Unknown said...

Cheers, Paul and Michael.
It's a damn good book!

Pat Miller said...

What would we do without secondhand bookshops! That's where I found my copies of Bayer's books over the years, too, though I wouldn't expect to be able to find them as easily now. It would be great if there was a publisher out there willing to reprint these timeless thrillers to give other readers a chance to enjoy them.

William Bayer said...

I'm incredibly flattered to discover that a novel I wrote had such an effect. Your king remarks definitely warm my heart.
Bill Bayer

Unknown said...

Wow, Bill! I just popped back two years after writing this, as I'm mentioning it again in an online interview (Chin Wag at the Slaughterhouse), and I'M flattered that you left a comment. I meant every word.