October 28, 2011 10:02 pm

Thrilling news about dressing up

In many films and books the person of low moral fibre is denoted by his high sartorial taste. If you want to dress evil, dress up

Early in October I was sitting in the Valentino show waiting for it to start, as one does, happily reading my Kindle to while away the time, as I do, when the fashion person sitting next to me leaned over and said: “What are you reading?” I showed him: it was Worth Dying For by Lee Child. “Vanessa!” he said, “you have hidden shallows!”

I beg to differ. I love a good thriller. I love them fast-paced and pared-down and requiring enormous suspension of disbelief, like Child’s Jack Reacher books, and full of existential angst and intelligence, like Ian Rankin’s series, and Michael Connelly’s. The part of my soul that harbours a long-standing romance about Israel is drawn to Daniel Silva, just as the part of my soul that harbours a long-standing romance about the Democratic party likes Richard North Patterson (or used to, before he stopped really writing about it).

I think James Lee Burke is the Tennessee Williams of the American Southern cops ’n’ robbers epic and I used to think Christopher Brookmyre served the same purpose for the postmodern Scottish suspense novel – but then he went a little too po-mo, even for me. I am the person who gets the email alerts from Amazon saying Jeffery Deaver has a new novel coming out – and buys it. Embarrassing but true. Admittedly, I draw the line at John Grisham and James Patterson, but still: give me a thriller over a piece of chick lit any day. Not because I am all about escapism: I don’t love thrillers because they are an antidote to the consumer frippery in which I spend my working days (though to a fashion editor there is something fabulously perverse about a character like Jack Reacher who never owns any clothes besides the ones on his back, tossing them out when they are dirty and buying new ones), but rather, I have come to realise, because they serve to rationalise the frippery in which I spend my days. Indeed, in some ways clothes matter as much in thrillers as they do in any novel – perhaps more than they do in other novels.

After all, in chick lit novels, which are usually more overtly about fashion, or at least shopping, the clothes actually are disposable; they are just there to symbolise “emotionally needy”, a hole you know will be filled at the end by some nice man, so why bother to think about it? By contrast, in thrillers the clothes go towards character. Especially bad character.

The conduit for my above epiphany was a new book by Stephen Hunter. His stories, for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure, centre on an old ex-sniper named Bob Lee Swagger (really, that’s his name) who is retired but continually gets re-recruited by the government to take on various bad guys, and is such an archetype that he often is simply referred to as Sniper, in a form of high camp. Anyway, in the new book, Dead Zero (spoiler alert) the Sniper takes on an Afghan warlord who is painted initially as a bad guy-turned-good but clearly has something rotten at his core.

And how do we know this? I offer as Exhibit A the following description: “Today he’d gone with the Patek Philippe Gondola, in gold, muted, with a black face and Roman numerals ... It set off his blue, pin-striped Savile Row suit, immaculately tailored, his crisp white Anderson & Sheppard shirt with Van Cleef & Arpels cuff links in tasteful onyx, and his black bespoke Oxfords from J. Cobb.” This is followed by the character’s decision to change clothes for a more casual meeting, into a “blue shirt, the gold Tiffany cufflinks, gray slacks, and that nice pair of cordovan Alden tassel moc loafers.”

. . .

This sort of description puts Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama brand porn to shame. It also telegraphs, quite clearly in a book where the hero sports beaten-in blue jeans, that anyone so obsessed with clothes is suspect. This is something of a fictional trope: in many films and books the person of low moral fibre is denoted by his high sartorial taste. It’s no accident that James Bond constantly faces his evil target over the craps table in a tuxedo – the worst evil villains in Ian Fleming’s world hang out at casinos and wear black tie – and it’s true in the teenage version of the same, the Alex Rider books, the latest version of which starts with the words “The man in the black cashmere coat” and then reveals said man is “wanted by the police in 17 different countries.” Essentially, whatever your age, if you want to dress evil, dress up.

I think the roots of this are fairly obvious, especially in the current economic environment: spending so much money on clothes instead of charity is bad; ergo, the person who does so is bad. And though you might think I would find this offensive – it’s not exactly a positive portrayal of fashion and the people who love it – and perhaps even attempt to get some tailors to picket the office of, say, Hunter’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, actually, I think, in a roundabout way, it’s good for the industry. Such books demonstrate, viscerally and effectively, how important clothes are to identity.

Thrillers are good at clarifying such clichés; in embracing them they expose them – to the extent that it’s something of an irony that on Monday children will be dressing up like black Spiderman or ninja assassins to demonstrate their “badness”. If they had read their Stephen Hunter, they would know they should dress like clotheshorse bankers.

I tried this argument on my son when we were discussing what he should be for Halloween and it didn’t really fly, but I guess it’s a little subtle for six-year-old trick-or-treaters. When his reading gets beyond There’s a Bird on Your Head he might understand.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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