Looking to get Lost again...
April 16, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a new book or series to read, and I'd like a specific theme: that of a protagonist(ish) mastermind. More info included, as well as some minor spoilers for those who have never seen Lost, and would like to. (Just a friendly warning!)

Because being late to bandwagons is essentially what I do, my boyfriend and I began the Lost series a few weeks ago. We just wrapped up Season 4 last night, and I realized that we're nearing the end of marathon-esque viewing ability.

I love the character of Ben Linus, mostly because the concept of the perennial mastermind really appeals to me. I like his objective "other people be damned" attitude, the ability to be in control when seemingly at the end of his rope, but also the fact that most of the time, he's a good guy...ish.

Are there any books, or hopefully a great series, that has this sort of character as a main protagonist, or commands a large portion of the storyline?
posted by thatbrunette to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've never watched Lost but you may enjoy Dune (and its sequels) by Frank Herbert. I'd say more but I don't want to spoil it.
posted by griphus at 10:07 AM on April 16, 2010

Definitely Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard series.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:10 AM on April 16, 2010

I'd suggest Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest and The Glass Key, both of which were cited as influences that combined to create what I think of as film's greatest mastermind protagonist, Tom Reagan of Miller's Crossing.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:12 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by IndigoJones at 10:18 AM on April 16, 2010

TVTropes (you've been warned!) calls these figures Chessmasters.
posted by cgc373 at 10:20 AM on April 16, 2010

Nabokov's Lolita? You might have to be flexible on the "good guy" part, but Humbert Humbert is definitely magnetic.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:34 AM on April 16, 2010

Holmes and Moriarty. Bruce Sterling's Distraction. Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide. Terry Pratchett's Lord Vetinari in Discworld, who features principally in the Watch subseries. Lois McMaster Bujold's Emperor Gregor in the Vorkosigan series, who, like most of the secondary characters, is a hell of lot more interesting than the central character. The Minds in Banks' Culture novels, though the games they seem to be playing are so deep that the reader can only guess at them. Enoch Root in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

In comics, both Dream and Lucifer in Gaiman's "Sandman"; Lucifer continued in his own series by Mike Carey. Christopher Priest's "Black Panther." Grant Morrison's Batman in the Justice League of America, DC One Million, and Batman. (This is not a global recommendation of Batman for this purpose -- there are many Batmans and you can't be sure which one you're going to get. But Morrison's, who seems to principally regard himself as humanity's protector against the superpowered no matter which side they're on, and who fights street crime personally in part as a means to keep himself humble and grounded, is my favorite.)

I'll probably come up with more later -- the character who can see 40 moves ahead when no one else can even see the board is a favorite of mine, too.
posted by Zed at 10:35 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I second Dune.
posted by ish__ at 10:42 AM on April 16, 2010

Or maybe I won't bother... mine would continue to be but the humblest adumbration of TVTropes' compilation. On the bright side, my reading list just got a zillion times longer.
posted by Zed at 10:45 AM on April 16, 2010

Maybe this one goes without saying but what about Shogun? While not necessarily the protagonist, Tokugawa Ieyasu commands a large part of the novel and is constantly and masterfully scheming his way through historical Japanese society.
posted by talkingmuffin at 10:46 AM on April 16, 2010

To add on to Parasite Unseen's comment: Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books and Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op/Sam Spade stuff is great. Red Harvest, a Continental Op novel, is the (always contested) source to Kurosawa's Yojimbo which is a great mastermind-character film, which is the source material for another mastermind movie: Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.
posted by griphus at 11:00 AM on April 16, 2010

House might be what you're looking for. He definitely fits your description:

I like his objective "other people be damned" attitude, the ability to be in control when seemingly at the end of his rope, but also the fact that most of the time, he's a good guy...ish.

The first three seasons are solid, the fourth season shakes things up but is still pretty decent, but it starts to get a little ridiculous after that.

Profit is another show where the main character is very manipulative and tricky, but he's not good or even good-ish.

The Usual Suspects is about a mastermind who controls all the main characters.

Even with all these suggestions, I think you might end up being disappointed. Ben Linus is a singular character. And though there are many masterminds in TV, movies, and books, they are rarely the protagonist.
posted by Ortho at 11:02 AM on April 16, 2010

Double plus seconding Vetinari in Terry Pratchett books...

Also, the Engineer trilogy by K J Parker has a main character who is fired-with-extreme-preudice from his job as an imperial engineer, and starts engineering geopolitics to get it back...
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:05 AM on April 16, 2010

The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov came to my mind first. Wikipedia makes it sound boring, but I actually found it a really interesting story about a man manipulating essentially all of humanity.
posted by Menthol at 11:36 AM on April 16, 2010

Check out the Second Sons Trilogy by Jennifer Fallon. The protagonist is certainly a mastermind. I won't give away too much, but he basically creates a massive plot an single-handedly changes the face of the country through virtually intrigue alone.
posted by scrutiny at 11:56 AM on April 16, 2010

Try Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which gives Thomas Cromwell the benevolent schemer treatment.
posted by Iridic at 1:23 PM on April 16, 2010

Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley books. So very very good.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:35 PM on April 16, 2010

The Stainless Steel Rat series is fun.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:01 PM on April 16, 2010

Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote two excellent novels about brilliant novelists in early 20th century Barcelona. Titles: "Shadow of the Wind" and "The Angel's Game".
posted by Iggley at 5:16 PM on April 16, 2010

There are some more great suggestions in this similar question.

I'd definitely second the Gentlemen Bastards series. I'm about halfway through the second book at the moment, and it's great stuff. It centers around a group of con-men who're experts at reading and manipulating people and determined to bring down an aspect of the society they're living in. Some really lovely conspiracies and heists.

Gormenghast is a fantastic book for an intelligent, ruthless central character scheming to get what he wants. The sequels are good too, although much heavier going. It's set in an amazingly rich and well-constructed world, too.

The Magus by John Fowles (not a fantasy book, despite its name) puts us in the opposite position; the book's protagonist is dropped into a situation where he's being very cleverly manipulated, with no obvious goal and with no idea who he can trust. It's handled fantastically, real wheels-within-wheels stuff.

You've probably already seen The Game; if not, watch it. Again, following a character being manipulated by some vast conspiracy with very unclear motives. Great film.

Fracture and Swordfish also have great evil-genius level schemes and plots that actually hold up to examination, orchestrated by intelligent and charismatic bad guys. Admittedly, swordfish is a bit thin, but Fracture really is good.

As a rule, seek out films by David Mamet. There are a few radio plays (or at least radio adaptations) floating around, too. He handles conspiracy, plots and deception very well.
posted by metaBugs at 3:27 AM on April 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for the great suggestions! I now have a keyword to use- thanks cgc373 for the link!

oinopaponton: I love Lolita, it's actually my favourite novel. Humbert Humbert isn't really the mastermind type, poor guy, but he IS a fantastic example of the un-protagonist-protagonist; perhaps one of the best written examples.

The Gentlemen Bastard's series sounds intriguing: I'll check it out!

Zed: Great list, thank you! Many of them I know well and agree with- I love Lord Vetinari, and he's exactly what I'm looking for.

Talkingmuffin: Clavell is my best friend's favourite author, so I've had every book of his nudged at me for over a decade. :) Shogun is my personal fave of the lot, for exactly the character of Toronaga/Tokugawa.

Ortho: I just did the marathon viewing of House over the summer. Again, bandwagon, M.O. ;)
posted by thatbrunette at 12:53 PM on April 17, 2010

Way late to the party here, but I think the Artemis Fowl series fits your request well. It's ostensibly for kids, but was written by the very clever Eoin Colfer, who was recently tapped to pen the sixth Hitchhiker's Guide novel after Douglas Adams' death. He doesn't disappoint.

The series is set in a Harry Potter-esque world where mythical creatures like Fairies and Trolls exist in a (literally) underground society hidden from humanity. Although magic exists, it's dealt with in a "realistic" way: it's measurable and predictable, and many facets of it are harnessed or enhanced by technology.

The main character, Artemis Fowl, is a highly intelligent and wealthy prodigy who is determined to unearth the magical world and repurpose its knowledge for his own ends. Like Ben Linus, Artemis is a brilliant but isolated manipulator, one who has difficulty relating to normal people, and someone who teeters on the boundary between genius hero and amoral villain. He's also always in control and always has a plan... or at least is extremely good at pretending so.

It's very engagingly written, and the way Fowl both uses and is used by his targets is entertaining. The series is permeated with globetrotting adventure and Lost-ish mystery. And again, although it's marketed to tweens, it's not limited in its appeal.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:21 PM on April 18, 2010

Daniel Odier, writing as 'Delacorta' wrote a series of books about a couple, Alba (a Lolita-like waif wise beyond her years) and Serge, her companion; one of which the 1981 movie 'Diva' is based on. Serge is a mastermind character, such as you describe. Unfortunately, only a couple of the books have been translated from french, but definitely watch Diva if you have not yet done so (and can stand subtitles)!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:43 PM on April 20, 2010

From what I've seen after six episodes of Damages, Glenn Close's character Patty Hewes might meet your criteria, thatbrunette. Bonus: You get the first hit of her mastermind quality in the first episode. It's damned twisty!
posted by cgc373 at 5:29 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Finished the first season of Damages, and they up their ante at the end presumably to prepare us for an even twistier matchup of chessmasters in the next season. If you can handle the flash-forwards and side-flashes and flashbacks on LOST, the time-shifted narrative in Damages shouldn't bother you, though for myself, often I find such manipulations of the story timeline troublesome and contrived.
posted by cgc373 at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2010

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