A Few Thriller and Mystery Clichés/Bugbears

I thought I’d mention a few things that I find annoying in thrillers and, more particularly, mysteries (where they seem more prevalent):

• writers who say their protagonist has figured out what’s going on—and then don’t tell us what that is. It’s usually something you can’t figure out on your own, so it’s not like they’re giving us numskulls a chance to solve the mystery ourselves.

• detectives who shower until the water runs cold. Course if you’ve done this once or twice in your life in periods of great stress, you’ve successfully exculpated from the charge of literary falsity a host of writers. But I think not—unless you’ve got a 10-gallon water heater. And, yeah, I know, the motif has allegorical significance—the washing away of filth—but after a while that’s just too easy.

• protagonists (usually detectives of either gender) whose humanizing flaw is alcohol(ism). Having read numerous bios of authors over the last year (more on those books in a later post perhaps), I realize many relied on alcohol to free up their tongue (make that their pen). Still, the reliance on this feature seems excessive—it’s the easy way out again. [See the earlier post on David Hunt, where the author avoids the commonplace and thus produces a far richer work.] Who cares if you’re an alcoholic and know just what it’s like? Be creative!

• and, finally, authors, particularly bestsellers (who can afford to pay for help), who use foreign languages and make stupid mistakes in doing so. Sometimes it seems they simply use a dictionary and think that will provide the correct grammatical form. Think of a word like “coach.” Someone who works with athletes. You look it up; it’s the only word in [pick your foreign language] you’re going to use; so, taking Italian as an example, you plug in the word “carrozza.” Ah, a coach that’s really a carriage. Now that’s a bit stunning to read if you happen to be fluent in Italian. The simplest way to avoid that error (if you’re just using one word) is to look it up in both sides of a dictionary (okay, I realize most people these days just check online, where everything is presented at once, but writers should also have multiple dictionaries handy, including bilingual ones for any language they plan to use). If you make a mistake these days, it’s just laziness. Why? Because online you might find something like this for “coach” in Italian:

coach, trainer
bus, coach, Pullman, minibus
car, coach, carriage
carriage, coach, cab, car, chaise, fiacre
instructor, trainer, coach, preceptor
insegnante privato
tutor, coach

That’s pretty good and just might save you! Right?

By the way, in the old days, you know who was good at this? Robert Ludlum. Yep. Damn good! Great at using foreign languages correctly in international thrillers.

That brings to mind one final thorn—writers who use foreign languages (let’s say, Spanish) and then translate the simplest of words (e.g., “Sí, señor,” he said, “Yes, sir”). The head drops in befuddlement. Someone who avoids that? Donna Leon. Doesn’t translate, just relies on the reader’s intelligence. Brava!

On the Author’s Bio

I find it annoying—when reading the author’s bio placed at the end of books—to see only a list of other novels written by the author. With, at most, a concluding line that the author lives in such-and-such a town or state. [Of course the wealthy authors, the truly successful, make sure two places are listed. You know, they have a home in Seattle and another somewhere in Florida.]

That’s doubly annoying when the book, as most do, contains a prefatory page headed “Other Books By So-and-So” or “Also By So-and-So.”

I’d rather know the author’s favorite books than to see, for the second time, what that person wrote. In fact, sometimes, looking at an author photo, I wish the publisher had shown instead a close-up of one of the author’s bookcases. What does the person read for pleasure? Tell me not what he or she also wrote but which books (by other authors) are his or her favorites.

The place-of-residence line passes muster only if it adds a detail or two, e.g., The author, his wife, Shirley, and his two English setters, Rufus and Brigadier, live in Hampshire, England.

A little bit of sop to Cerberus please!

Three Women Authors

I followed Hunt up (see the prior post below) with a classic mystery, Vera Caspary’s Laura (1942). The writing seemed a bit stiff to me, though she had a very funny line to the effect that “He wrote an unforgettable line, the exact words of which I’ve forgotten.” But perhaps I should quote her directly to give you an idea of why I thought her style was occasionally clunky (not that this is an ideal example):

A mechanical contrivance filled the restaurant with music and sent faint melody into the garden. Noel Coward wrote an unforgettable line (whose precise wording I have forgotten) upon the ineluctable charm of old popular songs.

I wonder if she meant for that line to be as funny as it is. On the whole I had a tough go of it to be interested in the plot.

Much more intriguing were two other books by women authors I was reading at the time: Evelyn Anthony’s thriller, The Rendezvous (1967), for which I have an Arrow Books paperback edition published in London in 1968, and Bertha Runkle’s historical novel, The Helmet of Navarre (1900). My copy of the latter is a hardcover published by The Century Company in New York in 1901. I mention the latter book because it’s not one you’re likely to come across unless you’re searching for that exact title.

Anthony’s thriller has as one of its themes the baffling complexity/simplicity of human nature. The novel’s concept, best seen in the back cover copy, is intriguing:

Paris, May, 1944. Terese Masson, working for the Resistance, is captured by the Gestapo. Her interrogator is Colonel Alfred Brunnerman. Both are young; in different circumstances, they could have been attracted to each other.

Twenty Years later, in America, they meet again . . . 

Turning to Runkle, she has a great opening scene :

At the stair-foot the landlord stopped me.

“Here, lad, take a candle. The stairs are dark, and, since I like your looks, I would not have you break your neck.”

“And give the house a bad name,” I said.

“No fear of that; my house has a good name. There is no fairer inn in all Paris. And your chamber is a good chamber, though you will have larger, doubtless, when you are Minister of Finance.”

This raised a laugh among the tavern idlers, for I had been bragging a bit of my prospects. I retorted:

“When I am, Maître Jacques, look out for a rise in your taxes.”

The laugh was turned on mine host, and I retired with the honours of that encounter. And though the stairs were the steepest I ever climbed, I had the breath and the spirit to whistle all the way up. What mattered it that already I ached in every bone, that the stair was long and my bed but a heap of straw in the garret of a mean inn in a poor quarter? I was in Paris, the city of my dreams!

I enjoyed Runkle’s skillful use of archaic language (never annoying) and the first-person narrator, the underling seen above. Hard not to find him instantly likeable.

The Magician’s Tale

A couple of years ago, following the recommendation of my wife, I read David Hunt’s The Magician’s Tale (http://www.williambayer.com/html/the_magician_s_tale.html). Set in the Bay Area, the novel stars a petite photographer with achromatopsia, a form of color blindness.

A very smoothly written mystery/thriller with an unusual protagonist, who tries to find out who dismembered a hustler friend. Very well done from start to finish. I went on to read Hunt’s sequel: A Trick of Light, not quite as good to my mind, but I recommend him as an author who’s sure to delight.

[David Hunt is a pseudonym of William Bayer, author of numerous other novels.]

Drugs, starvation, and why can’t we place a comma between subject and verb?

In the spring of 2010 I read several of the canonical texts of drug addiction—Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, William S. Burrough’s Junky (using the 50th Anniversary Edition), and Melvin Burgess’s Smack, among others. [One might also read Keith Richard’s recent memoir Life or Steven Tyler’s Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? for a good description of the excesses of the drug culture.] Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Bill Clegg’s lyrically grim, devastating Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which I read in September of that year (2010).

The first part of De Quincy’s Confessions where he talks about his relentless hunger reminded me of Knut Hamsen’s (later novel) Hunger. [And, by the way, I also recommend Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil as a good read. H. G. Well’s had this to say about the book: “ . . . [Growth of the Soil] impresses me as among the very greatest novels I have ever read. It is wholly beautiful; it is saturated with wisdom and humor and tenderness.”] Anyway, De Quincy’s description of the throes of starvation is tremendous. I experienced what now seems a small part of this when I ran out of money while living in Mexico City in the mid-’60s. I dropped from 185 pounds (at 6’3″) to 150. I got so hungry that late at night I would sneak into the kitchen of the widow in whose home I boarded and would scoop out one or two spoonfuls (any more and she might have noticed the loss!) of her refrigerated frijoles. At most, I ate once a day, spending 25 cents for a meal at a hole-in-the-wall eatery. So, to a certain extent, hunger I understand.

But rather than speaking of hunger or drugs, I’d like to say a word about complex literary style, of which De Quincy (but also many other contemporary novelists) was a master. Here’s a sample of his beautifully ornate style. De Quincy has just noted his interest in one period of English history—that of the Parliamentary War. From a matter of reflection, the history now provides matter for his dreams. At one point, he has a vision of English women at the unhappy time of Charles I:

These are the wives and the daughters of those who met in peace, and sate [i.e., sat] at the same tables, and were allied by marriage or by blood; and yet, after a certain day in August, 1642, never smiled upon each other again, nor met but in the field of battle; and at Marston Moor, at Newbury, or at Naseby, cut asunder all ties of love by the cruel sabre, and washed away in blood the memory of ancient friendship.

Let me cite a second example from De Quincy’s Suspiria de profundis:

He whose talk is of oxen, will probably dream of oxen: and the condition of human life, which yokes so vast a majority to a daily experience incompatible with much elevation of thought, oftentimes neutralizes the tone of grandeur in the reproductive faculty of dreaming, even for those whose minds are populous with solemn imagery.

See the comma in that first sentence? Grammatically taboo today. But De Quincy, though placing a comma between subject and verb, does so only where one would naturally pause to take a breath, which is what a comma should signify, right? Seems to me we ought still to be able to do that today. Of course, there are those who would call us illiterate were we to do so.

Descartes and Sartre on Existence

“I rebel, therefore we exist.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

Most people are familiar with René Descartes philosophical aphorism “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). But fewer know how he died.

In 1650, Descartes was living in Stockholm, Sweden, where he had been invited as a tutor to Queen Christina. One day—the actual date was February 11—Descartes walked into a tavern and the barkeep said to him, “Want a beer?” at which Descartes replied: “I think not.”