After I've built my time machine -- and of course, after I've done the standard time-travel things like killing Hitler, stopping Lincoln's assassination, etc. -- I'm going to journey back in time to experience bestsellers of yore at the time they came out, so I can judge their impact at the time. (This will also necessitate a bit of memory negating on my part, but that should be a piece of cake once I've mastered time travel.)
The problem with reading past bestsellers is that it's often difficult to see what all the fuss was about. I read Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls and found it entertaining and rather more dark than I'd supposed, but certainly not shocking or even mildly scandalous.
Another bestseller that I'd like to assess in the context of its time is Thomas Harris' Black Sunday . Harris' debut novel has been overshadowed by its successors - Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs , and Hannibal . And while the nerd-girl that I am wants to say that the first book is better, because it came before Harris and his most famous creation, everyone's favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, became household names, in the end I have to say that the latter books are indeed better (with Silence taking top honors, Dragon and Hannibal tied for second).
Black Sunday tells the story of a plot to explode a very large amount of plastic explosive at the Super Bowl, where the President of the United States will be attending the game. The terrorists behind the plot are the usual Middle Eastern suspects (including, interestingly enough, a female terrorist named Dahlia Iyad), but the man with the plan is Michael Lander, an unbalanced and extremely bitter Vietnam veteran who will use the blimp he pilots as the vehicle that delivers the bomb to the Super Bowl. Trying to uncover the plot and stop the bombing are FBI and Mossad agents.
It says something about Black Sunday that I'm unable to recall any of the characters' names save for Iyad and Lander. The characters are fairly well-drawn, but unmemorable. Dahlia Iyad is the most interesting character, yet we learn the least about her. Michael Lander's psychology is plausible enough, but his madness is curiously flat. He inspires none of the pity that Red Dragon's Francis Dolarhyde did, or the hypnotic attraction of Hannibal Lecter.
Likewise, the prose and action of Black Sunday is good, never boring, but lacks the baroque edge that Harris brought to his later novels. Though several times in the first half of the book Harris slows things down by showing off how well he did his research, boring the reader with technical detail (also known as "pulling a Tom Clancy"), overall things move well.
What I'm most curious to assess via my time machine is how people reacted to the notion of a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl. Nowadays, sadly, such a concept seems commonplace. It must have been a very different matter in 1975 when the book was published.
My lukewarm response to the book does not mean it is a bad book, by any means; if I had read it before Harris' other books, my reaction would have been more favorable. In the end, my reaction demonstrates that it can take more than one book for a writer to find his voice. And that Harris' narrative voice is less suited to tales of international terrorism, and more to stories about wackaloons who like to make girl suits of real girls or who gad about in Grandma's dentures.