Tough Guy Lit: A. J. Quinnell’s Man on Fire

Tough Guy Lit is a new series that will recommend and discuss a tough guy novel from yesterday. Feel free to send Sean Tuohy your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us at @WritersBone along with #toughguylit.

By Sean Tuohy

Take one little girl living in constant threat of being kidnapped and then throw in a burnt out mercenary with no reason to live and you end up with a fast-paced thriller with a huge amount of heart. Since it was first published in 1980, Man on Fire, the first book in the long-spanning Creasy series written by unknown author A. J. Quinnell, set the tone for modern action thrillers. The book has been turned into two separate films:  1987’s “Man on Fire” with Scott Glenn in the title role, and 2004’s “Man on Fire” starring Denzel Washington.

The novel wastes no time getting into the blood and guts of the story, but doesn’t lose any of the character development that other thrillers do. We are introduced to Creasy, an American mercenary who has spent most of his life fighting wars around the world but has lost his reason to live.  

We are also introduced to Pinta, a 10-year-old girl living in Italy during a violent time. Her parents decide to home school her after a fellow student is kidnapped. Knowing that staying at home is not any safer, the parents decide to hire a low-rent bodyguard to watch their daughter. Enter Creasy. Pinta treats Creasy like a new pet, poking and prodding the deadly killer. Creasy, who isn’t used to children, lashes out at her. It takes the pair some time before forming a strong and loving bond. For the first time in a long time, Creasy is given a real reason to life; his friendship with Pinta.

1987 movie poster

1987 movie poster

All is lost when Pinta is kidnapped off the street and Creasy is shot in the chest. Creasy swears vengeance after losing the only joy in his life and begins to take down the Mafia. Quinnell does not shy away from violence, but doesn’t glorify it either. He gives the reader enough bloody details to make them shiver, but not be repulsed. The author also doesn’t leap right into the action; he allows the tension to build be describing Creasy’s convalesce, training, and planning his revenge mission in detail.

Throughout the book, Quinnell provides twist and turns that may seem dated and overused today, however, in 1980, the novel was considered fresh and innovative. Also, unlike the films, Pinta’s fate is much darker.

The biggest compliment to give to Man on Fire is that, despite some of the plot twists, it doesn’t feel dated. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the book is nearly 30 years old. Filled with hardboiled dialogue that flows from finely crafted characters, Man on Fire retains its youthful glow and is well worth a modern reader’s time.