Friday, March 31, 2017

Ranking the Indiana Jones novels


I'm not the biggest fan of Indiana Jones. Don't get me wrong, I think the films are loads of fun – all three of them – but I've not explored much further than that. I quite enjoyed the Fate of Atlantis point-'n'-click game, until I got stuck in a cave.

But it's certainly a franchise with legs, and I started to wonder if the tie-in novels would tenderly pastiche the style of old pulp magazine serials in the same way George Lucas & co did with old movie serials. I only wondered that for about a second before realising that, no, they definitely wouldn't. They'd be fan fic at best, and that's only if they cared enough to hire a hack who'd actually watched the films.

But even if The Top 13 Indiana Jones Novels are safely pasteurised cash cow milk churned out to deadline three times a year (initially), surely they could still be fun? Who doesn't want new Indiana Jones adventures after all these years? Yes, I did see it.


Bias-germinating author key:

Rob MacGregor (#1-6)
Martin Caidin (#7-8)
Max McCoy (#9-12)
Steve Perry (#13)


13. Indiana Jones and the Sky Pirates (1993)

The odds were against the Martin Caidin era, occupying as it does a suspiciously brief interlude between the more substantial MacGregor and McCoy epochs. Is that because he was a bad fit, or would he leave us wanting more? (This list starts at the bottom, if you hadn't noticed, just to kill any suspense).

I went in unprejudiced. I was actually looking forward to a fresh start after MacGregor's run collapsed under its own eccentricity at the end, but this isn't even recognisable as Indiana Jones, and not only because he spends so much of it in kooky disguises. With its crack team of skilled caricatures and overly elaborate ruses, it's like Caidin got confused and thought he was writing Mission: Impossible. Where's the damn archaeology?

You could see the UFO stuff as foreshadowing the B-movie elements of Crystal Skull, if you're extremely generous.

12. Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead (2009)

Crystal Skull might have offended you, but the sole novel of the modern era (thus far) is much truer to the spirit of the original films. Like two thirds of those, it's about Indiana Jones racing Nazis to find a supernatural artifact in exotic climes.

The fact that the paranormal activity involves zombies may be too much for some readers to handle, presumably having forgotten all the weird shit that happens in the films (not to mention the earlier books). Personally, I appreciated the period-specific Voodoo zombis [sic], which are perfectly in tune with the horror literature of the time. I only ranked it so low because it's not very good.

Did they plan to fill out the midquel canon with 11 more books like last time? Did Steve Perry's zombie outrage kill those plans dead, or do people just not pay to read licensed fan fiction any more now we have slash? It was probably for the best.

11. Indiana Jones and the White Witch (1994)

After being allowed to indulge his aeronautical hobby last time, Caidin's reeled in to write something more on-brand in his second and final contribution to the series. It even explicitly ties in with Dance of the Giants as Indy once again finds himself involved with pagan magic and Arthurian legend.

Caidin's afterword reveals that pretty much everything that happens in the book is based on his own experiences and beliefs, which surprised me. He knows his stuff just like MacGregor, but where those earlier books were clearly written with passion for the subject matter, the stuffy, exposition-heavy dialogue here makes it sound like the author's learning along with us as he paraphrases his research book.

It's a sub-par adventure and the protagonist is Indiana Jones in name only, but it's a lot better than his other one.

10. Indiana Jones and the Interior World (1992)

I was looking forward to this one. The hollow Earth is one of my favourite outlandish (inlandish?) "theories," though it doesn't exactly feel like the right fit for the world of Indiana Jones. Indy can dig up all the holy artifacts and historical unicorn horns he wants, but my suspension of disbelief has its limits. They'll be doing aliens next.

But it's Rob MacGregor's last book, and he's clearly exhausted his viable concepts by now, so let's cut him some slack and try to appreciate this fantasy tale of magic portals, shapeshifters and mythical creatures as he weakly connects a few dots across his era (ignoring other loose ends completely).

If it's too much to handle, Brody offers up some desperate rationalisations in the epilogue that sound just reasonable enough to excuse it all. If it wasn't for that, this would be lower down.

9. Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi (1991)

Even if you picked this up randomly without looking at the number, MacGregor firmly establishes it as the beginning of the intermediary canon by presenting Henry Jr's graduation and first age-appropriate Young Adult adventure between the grizzled films and whatever The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was like. Assuming the other 12 books don't end up ranking higher, forgive me for suddenly sounding like a novice part way through. This is the first one I read.

The author knows his Indy (he wrote the well-received Last Crusade novelisation) and his history (his bio says he organises adventure tours of lost cities for travel writers), so the historical backdrops of 1920s Chicago, Paris and Greece are all very impressive. it's consequently much too wordy to be a real candidate for a potential Indiana Jones film, though there's still some rope-swinging and car chases in there.

Obviously these events are all as canonical or apocryphal as the reader prefers, but young Indy having the hots for his mature, adventurous professor is a nice complement to the films. If only George Lucas had taken notes about what makes a good prequel.

8. Indiana Jones and the Dance of the Giants (1991)

Now that MacGregor's B-canon is established, we can spend less time on introductions and only a little time advertising the previous book. We've also mercifully skipped right over Indy's PhD, so he's now a fully-fledged professor teaching archaeology to admiring students and you don't have to fight the Harrison Ford mental images any more. Even if those covers are still prematurely grizzled.

The action's still unreasonably stalled by weighty historical exposition just like in the first book, but I liked it more this time. Maybe it was just the quaint British scenery, but I even enjoyed sitting through Dr. Jones' lectures and real-time research.

If you were in charge of abridging the C60 audiobook, you could safely chop out most of the first half and keep the dumb action finale. MacGregor has to write for the target audience occasionally. I have the feeling I'm going to miss his unnecessary enthusiasm when the series passes into the less calloused hands it deserves.

7. Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs (1996)

Now fickle moviegoers are starting to forget about Indiana Jones, and the books are trickling out at one per year, they've finally relaxed the rule about returning characters. Both Belloq and Lao Che make their prequel debuts in this one. No Short Round, alas, but there's a different comedy Chinese sidekick who mixes up his English idioms. LOL!

So what do the kids like these days? Jurassic Park? Yes, write that, McCoy! Surviving dinosaurs is actually one of the less far-fetched things they've asked us to swallow, and the Wild East setting of Outer Mongolia keeps things grittier than the title and cover suggest.

(They do have a dog buddy though).

6. Indiana Jones and the Hollow Earth (1997)

Last Crusade was basically the same story as Raiders after all. so why not return to the interior world five books after another author did it? Especially since the earlier one was such a muddle. Now the timeline's reached the era of occult Nazi polar expeditions, McCoy can do the Hollow Earth properly, even if that means following established Verne/Bulwer-Lytton tropes rather than doing something new. We saw how that turned out.

Though it would have been nice to at least mention that Indy's had a vaguely similar experience before. And better without the distracting B-plot that keeps awkwardly interrupting the main story because that was low on pages. McCoy's Crystal Skull arc (no relation) isn't the compelling hook he thinks it is.

5. Indiana Jones and the Genesis Deluge (1992)

MacGregor weirdly tears down the scaffolding he'd built up in the previous three books of Twentysomething Indiana Jones Chronicles, taking us back to Chicago, terminating Jones' promising career and killing off the inconvenient wife (she died at the end of the previous book, but I thought that was part of the whole deception/illusion. Nah).

Maybe this return to an episodic approach was a mandate from Lucasbooks (as I assume the subsidiary's called), as the death-defying adventure to recover a Biblical relic (Noah's Ark this time) tries its best to imitate the two films people liked best, rather than daring to do its own thing. Though it really ends up making Indy's sceptical attitude in those latter day adventures more problematic. He'd already raided one lost ark.

It might have placed further down the list for these reasons, but a booby trapped maze saved it towards the end. I'm easy to please sometimes.

4. Indiana Jones and the Unicorn's Legacy (1992)

The first Indy film features a scene in which angel/demon entities fly out of a magic box and melt Nazis, so I'm not one of those people who find it hard to swallow aliens, unicorns and the like showing up in their ultra-realistic Indiana Jones adventures.

But if you picked this one up expecting a lighter fantasy-tinged yarn, the excessive cowboys-n-injuns violence you'd find in its place could made you feel a bit unwell. You should also be prepared to deal with a strong and independent female lead, rather than the swooning damsel the cover promises. Avoid basing your expectations of the content of a publication on the often misleading artwork that adorns it, that's what I always say.

The weirdest executive decision about this series continues to be the the denial of familiar character reprises. Here, we're witness to the seeds of a classic hero/villain dynamic as a rival archaeologist quests for fortune over fame, but it inexplicably isn't the same bad guy from the start of Raiders.

3. Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx (1999)

With clunky foreshadowing of Temple of Doom (itself a prequel to Raiders, bizarrely), the original book series comes to a close in another rip-roaring, globe-trotting adventure with punctual peril in every chapter. Apart from some mandatory flogging of his dead Crystal Skull arc, the author keeps things light on continuity to avoid upsetting the casual film fan. To the extent that this book is best enjoyed if it's the only one you happened to pick up.

It's annoying to make it through a 12-book series and realise you know more about this character's history than the person writing him, as McCoy carelessly tramples on the work of his predecessors in exchanges that see the reset Indy explaining that he's never been married and scoffing at the foolish notion of magic despite encountering it all the time (except in Sky Pirates, but that one's even harder to reconcile).

But these are only minor niggles and they don't spoil the fun too much. Same for the trifling historical nitpicks, like Pakistan being a country 13 years early. This never happened on MacGregor's watch.

2. Indiana Jones and the Philosopher's Stone (1995)

To be fair, Max McCoy did draw the long straw. While MacGregor did a decent job with the formative adventures (still not sure what was up with Caidin's weird secret agent interval), we're almost on top of the film chronology now and Indy is Indy. Nine books in, they're finally giving us what we really wanted all along.

I'm not normally a fan of books that aspire to be adapted to the screen. I prefer those that embrace the potential of the written medium and remain stubbornly unfilmable. But when it comes to novels based on an '80s adventure film franchise, the closer the better. This gets it spot on.

The beginning and the ending are the best bits, and the stuff in-between isn't bad either. And look: Sallah's in it.

1. Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils (1991)

Third time's the charm. If this doesn't end up being the best of the bunch, then they're really spoiling us beyond contractual obligations.

MacGregor's done a skillful job gradually sculpting the young student into the dour adventurer, but it's inevitably been lacking so far. From the booby trap packed opening to various death-defying dangles, we're in familiar territory now. You can practically see the red trails left by cruise ships and seaplanes and hear the Raiders March even if you aren't listening to the soundtracks already like you know you are. Lucasfilm even relaxes its inexplicable moratorium on established characters and lets Marcus Brody show up.

Best of all, MacGregor actually does go down the pulp tribute route I naively longed for at the start of this, fusing his trademark archaeological zeal with a zany jungle mystery that's like something from Edgar Rice Burroughs (I imagine). This is much better than it's required to be. I wish I could say that for most of them.




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