Friday, April 15, 2011

Should Actions Speak Louder than Words?

by Sheila Connolly

As I excavate my way through my multi-year TBR pile, I’ve been sampling a few genres that I don’t read consistently—in this case, suspense and thrillers. Two in particular I happened to read back to back: John Connolly’s The Reapers, and the first two of Barry Eisler’s John Rain series, Rain Fall and Hard Rain (yes, the series that he is famously taking straight to ebook now).

John Connolly’s book is a couple of years old, but it’s a signed copy that I obtained from the author when we signed together at Bouchercon (guess who had the longer line?). No relation that I know of, but I haven’t given up hope.

The Eisler books are “homework,” since he will be one of the Guests of Honor at New England Crime Bake this year, for which I am co-chair (shameless promotion: it’s a great conference!) and I thought I should know something about his work when I interview him.

I think that for both writers, their characters are intriguing, their plots are fast-paced, their settings are drawn with a wealth of pertinent details. There are even moral messages tucked in here and there. But they also share a similarity that startled me: their use of language.

In both cases, I would be happily reading along, caught up in the alternately feverish or ominous story, and I’d come across a metaphor or a description that was so compelling that I had to stop and think about it. Like, “wow, that’s brilliant, and I know exactly what you mean!”

For example, in The Reapers, Connolly writes, “A wind farm occupied the hills to the west, the blades unmoving, like playthings abandoned by the offspring of giants.” If you’ve ever seen a wind farm, you’ll see the aptness of this. (I’m also much enamored of a throwaway line in the same book, “phlegm-colored golf shirts,” because I swear my father had at least one of those.)

Or Eisler’s descriptions of a Japanese city neighborhood, in Hard Rain: “Everywhere were metastasizing telephone lines, riots of electrical wires, laundry hanging from prefabricated apartment windows like tears from idiot eyes,” or, “A solitary vending machine sat slumped on a street corner, its fluorescent light guttering like a dying SOS.”

But is this a good or a bad thing?

Any book is a complex, multi-dimensional matrix of elements: character, plot, pacing, setting. In the case of mysteries, you have to add a puzzle, one that must be resolved by the end of the book in a satisfying way. Picture juggling five balls in the air at the same time, and catching them all at the end. No writer pretends it’s easy, although some make it look easy (curse them!). Often in the case of suspense and thrillers, the language and imagery take a back seat. In most cases that’s appropriate, because the writer wants the reader to be invested in the story, to be pulled along breathlessly--to keep turning the pages!

But still, the right image can capture so much in a few words, and can add depth and color to a character based in his or her perceptions of the world. Such nuggets of gold must be used judiciously and sparingly, lest the writer stray into florid Bulwer-Lytton territory (you know, the “it was a dark and stormy night” guy). You don’t want to read a paragraph-long tribute to the wine-dark polish on the revolver that’s about to kill our narrator, the symmetrical star-flash occasioned by the firing of the cartridge, the arrow-straight flight of the bullet headed for his chest. Because then the tension is gone.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.” I read this years ago , and I’ve always remembered it. But how much poetry can a mystery writer afford in his or her book?

I think we need a judicious dash of it now and then. We as writers hope that we’re putting our words in the best order, but we should recognize and salute it when a writer manages to slip in a measured dose of the best words, without sacrificing any other part of the story.

What do you think?


Sandra Parshall said...

I love beautiful language and striking images wherever I find them, and I think it's the language that lifts a crime novel above the ordinary and makes reviewers comment that it "transcends the genre." It enhances the story for me rather than distracting me. I barely remember the plots of some crime novels, but if they're beautifully written I remember the language and want to read that author's work again. A lot of readers don't share my feelings, so it's fortunate we have many choices.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, the key for me is the distinction between self-consciously "literary" prose that's overwritten (or overwrought) and the organic freshness of imagery from a really good writer, like the examples you've given here. I don't think that kind of writer has to weigh and measure--I trust him or her not to spend two paragraphs describing the gun being held on the protagonist at the edge of the rooftop. :) My favorite thriller writer for delicious language along with brilliant plotting and characterization is Michael Gruber. A recent short story that I think has it all is Sean Doolittle's recent Derringer winner, with an eccentric title I won't repeat here--on top of the storytelling and the depth of feeling, the remarkable freshness of the language packed quite a wallop.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think my benchmark is if I find myself saying, "I wish I'd written that!"

Actually I have more trouble with the deliberately flat and unembellished prose that some writers think is appropriate for gritty or noirish books.

Steve Moore said...

Hi everyone!
It must be the Irish in me, but I just love a good story. I try to make mine good and look to read other writer's that offer them up.
That said, I think a good story in the mystery genre has to have a great plot with nice twists and turns while a thriller needs both suspense and action, but I'm not an expert on the first. But, as Sandra said, beautiful imagery is important too...and great characters. While not all of Connelly's books are mysteries, he handles all these elements well, when appropriate. I just wish he hadn't been so flagrant about his self-promotion when he put out his new book about the Lincoln lawyer at the same time as the movie.

Steve Moore said...

Hi again!
My face is red! I got the wrong Connelly. Damn these common Irish names like Steve Moore. LOL. Anyway, what I said above that still works. And my apologies to John--it's probably not funny to him when people confuse his name with other writers with the same last name.

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