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!”
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?