Burn Notice: An Appreciation

I got an email from a reader a few days ago telling me how much he enjoyed the John Crane series. That’s always a nice feeling. But this reader said something that kind of surprised me. He mentioned that in some ways Crane reminded him of Michael Westen, the main character from the TV series Burn Notice. That wasn’t something I’d ever really considered before, but this email made me sit up and think.

You may or may not be familiar with Burn Notice. It ran for seven seasons and generated a prequel movie and no less than five tie-in novels. During its run on the USA network, it was frequently in the top Nielsen ratings for cable shows. It was obviously very popular, and yet somehow it seems to have simultaneously flown under the radar — to the extent that Saturday Night Live even did a sketch called What is Burn Notice? in which game show contestants struggle in vain to come up with any tidbit of information about the show, it’s characters, or its premise.

So forgive me if you know all about this show, but I don’t want to make assumptions…

Burn Notice is about a US government agent, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), who is “burned” in the first episode, which basically means he’s fired with extreme prejudice. He suddenly finds himself blacklisted and his whole life simply gone. As Michael says in the intro, “When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing. No cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.” In Michael’s case, that’s Miami, where he grew up and where he at least has some contacts. To get by, Michael takes on odd jobs using his espionage skills and talent for improvisation to help people in serious trouble, all while trying to figure out who burned him and why. The cast is rounded out by Michael’s ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) a ticking time bomb who used to work for the IRA, his best friend Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell)  an ex-Navy SEAL who informs on him to the FBI, and his mother (Sharon Gless) who is, well, his mom, with all that that entails.

But what does Burn Notice have to do with John Crane?

I watched Burn Notice when it aired, and enjoyed it a great deal. But I certainly wasn’t deliberately thinking of the show when I was designing John Crane’s world. The intention was very much to update James Bond and take him outside the role of “government agent,” which has very different connotations than it did in Ian Fleming’s day. You can see the modern genre expectations of government in Burn Notice itself, where Michael Westen is a principled hero trying to unravel the shadowy conspiracy that’s entangled him. Michael might be on the side of the angels, but the intelligence bureaucracy that burned him certainly isn’t. When government agents appear on Burn Notice, they’re almost invariably there to cause Michael trouble. This trope is nearly inescapable in modern spy stories, and explains why James Bond always seems to be going rogue in recent films. I didn’t want Crane to have to be always looking over his shoulder, wondering when his own side would betray him. I wanted straight-up sincere heroism, and I wanted Crane to be able to trust the people he was working for.

So while I was working out the setting and characters, I was thinking basically James Bond, except he doesn’t work for the government. Who else has the resources to field their own secret agent, and would be out to un-ironically use him to do good? A tech billionaire with high-minded (if perhaps sometimes a bit naive) ideals and more money than he knows what to do with. Thus Josh Sulenski was born, and Crane had a patron to send him on missions.

That puts him on a very different footing from Michael Westen, who lives off the grid without so much as a bank account. But looking more closely, I can see some elements of Crane and his world that are not so unlike Burn Notice. The circumstances of Crane’s separation from the government are very different, but both are former spies working outside the lines without authority or backup. Both agents have to improvise a lot, making do with what they have at hand and adapting to a world where they’re not part of a large, nearly omnipotent organization.

Now that I think about it, the image of Crane on the book covers even looks a little like Jeffrey Donovan!

Another thing that comes to mind is the bantering tone between Crane and Josh. That’s certainly not coming from Fleming, where “M” was Bond’s superior and any affection between them had to be carefully hidden behind stiff British formality. But it feels more like the tone between Michael and Sam.

And then there’s Fiona and her on-again, off-again relationship with Michael. Fiona is a wild card who can usually be counted on when push comes to shove. But she’s also very much a loose cannon, apt to go off in her own direction at any moment and unleash chaos, probably involving explosions. Is there a hint of her in Crane’s tentative relationship with Swift, high ranking member of a hidden criminal organization that Crane frequently tangles with?

So I was in no way consciously modeling the Crane books after Burn Notice, but at least one reader is reminded of the show, and I can see why. Perhaps a bit of unconscious influence crept in there. At any rate, it’s interesting to consider how the bits of story DNA we consume in our books, TV shows, and movies might recombine and end up in some all-new form.

Burn Notice is available on DVD, and is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a lot of fun, and if you enjoy the John Crane books, I bet you’ll like it. On the other hand, if you remember the show fondly, I think John Crane might be right up your alley. You can buy the books at Amazon.com, or read them for free with your Kindle Unlimited subscription.