Monthly Archives: July 2017

When Writers Fail to Keep Up With the Times

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So I’m reading this Lee Child novel, The Hard Way, and at a certain point I just can’t take the story seriously anymore. Now, I know. Hold up. Wait a second. Who am I, right? I’m a nobody with the faintest outlines of a fledgling “career” (generous term). I’ve published a whopping one novel through a small press and I’ve landed a handful of short stories in mostly obscure literary journals. So who am I to criticize a best-selling author? Well, I’m an English professor with a degree in literature, but I don’t pretend that makes me an expert (I’m always shocked at never-published bloggers without degrees who feel qualified to blog about the “rules” they’ve learned without citing sources). Anyways, hear me out. We all know that book writing is not a meritocracy. Many popular books are awful, and some of the greatest works of literature of our generation go criminally underappreciated (Exhibit A). People on bestseller lists should not be immune from criticism, even from nobodies like me.

I’ve decided to write a murder mystery as my sophomore novel, and I’ve been diligently reading and studying all the big names in the genre. And I have to admit that as a snobbish literary type, I’ve been quite impressed by the skill of many commercial crime writers. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent was particularly excellent, especially in his deft handling of the characters’ emotions. Now, the novel has outdated references to VHS recorders and mainframe computers, but hey, it’s set in the 1980s. The Hard Way is not. It was published in 2006 and the story is firmly planted in the 21st Century (with numerous references to “the years after” 9/11). And yet, the characters seem stuck in a bygone era.

Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher comes off as a bit of a luddite, but given his drifter persona that’s okay. It’s the private investigator I have problems with. Lauren Pauling, we’re told, is a former FBI Special Agent and a successful detective operating out of New York City in the 21st Century. And what’s her number one strategy for investigating people? Looking them up in the phone book. Really. No mention of the internet. And it works every time she tries it. Later, they travel overseas and link up with a second private eye. What’s his go-to strategy? Looking people up in the phone book, of course!

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We’re asked to believe that a former member of the British Special Forces lying low in the English countryside (who only recently moved onto a farm) has listed himself in the local phone book. When Reacher suggests they continue to lie low and the bad guy, Edward Lane, won’t find them, the ex-soldier says it’s not possible. “Eventually he’d look us up in the phone book,” he says.

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I am a 30 year old man and I have never in my life been listed in any phone book, nor have I ever owned a phone book or even used one. This is because I live in the 21st Century. Nor have I ever purchased an atlas. This is because I have the internet. While in England, Reacher finds that his target has hidden himself away in a hamlet called Bishops Pargeter. First priority: finding the place. So what does he do? He walks into a map shop and checks the atlas. Finding the town too small to be listed in a typical atlas, he’s forced to seek out a specialized map. Again, no mention of the internet. Here I am reading this book like:

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Then they hit the road, Reacher driving, Pauling navigating from the atlas, because of course they don’t have a GPS. But the breaking point for me came later, as they rush off to this farm to try and warn the family living there that the bad guy’s coming for them. Reacher suggests calling the farm to warn the occupants, but Pauling points out a difficulty: they’d have to pull over and look for a phone booth, and in doing so they’d lose precious time. That seemed off to me. Then I realized that this private detective from Manhattan who once was a Special Agent in the FBI does not own a cell phone. Really.

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So, phone books, atlases and a pay phone booth. I’d recently read a book by Raymond Chandler that took place in the 1940s, and these are the things his characters used, in the 1940s.

Michael Connelley’s character Harry Bosch is likewise clueless when it comes to tech, and I am likewise incredulous. A homicide detective who can’t work a suspect’s smartphone is not going to be employed much longer if he lives in the 21st Century. It’s not realistic. I can’t help feeling that Child and Connelley – both men in their 60s – are covering for their own technological ignorance by writing it into their characters. Don’t get me wrong, I do that too. I’m sure every author does. You can’t be an expert on every topic. For example, I don’t pretend to know the first thing about medical forensics. And yet, I’m writing a murder mystery. So what do I do? I place my story in a setting where nobody can do a proper autopsy of the victim. The mystery takes place at an isolated research station in Antarctica. Boom, problem solved. Now I completely understand that if I intend on making a career out of writing crime fiction that I’ll need to learn the ropes inside and out eventually, but that works for now. The idea of a detective in modern times who can’t work a wristwatch is asking the reader to suspend too much disbelief. All novels are historical novels, and books set in the present day should be as realistic and as well-researched as novels set in the distant past. Then again, The Hard Way has a near-perfect Amazon score with almost 2,000 ratings, whereas Presumed Innocent has about 300, with one reviewer giving it a single star because “To much words” [sp]. So what the hell do I know?

Raymond Chandler Breaks All of the Rules

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Today I learned that there are no public domain photographs of Raymond Chandler in existence. Zero! Seems odd for a guy who was born in the year 1888. Anyways, I love me some Chandler, especially his 1940 classic Farewell, My Lovely. It’s one of the very best crime books ever written. But he does some odd things here and there that sometimes fly in the face of commonly accepted writing advice. I previously wrote about his clever strategy for breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. Later on in the same novel, he does something highly unusual in the middle of a fight scene. Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe is investigating a lead when he falls in with some rough people and finds himself in a fistfight:

I tried to yell, for no reason at all. Breath panted in my throat and couldn’t get out. The Indian threw me sideways and got a body scissors on me as I fell. He had me in a barrel. His hands went to my neck. Sometimes I wake up in the night. I feel them there and I smell the smell of him. I feel the breath fighting and losing and the greasy fingers digging in. Then I get up and take a drink and turn the radio on. I was just about gone when the light flared on again…

Did you catch that? Chandler inserted a flash forward right in the middle of an action sequence. This is strange for two reasons. First, it breaks the flow of the action. In Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel, crime writer Hallie Ephron warns against doing that:

If you find yourself taking a pause in the middle of an action sequence to explain something, be aware that you are slowing the forward momentum… Don’t dump information into an action sequence.

So, he’s blatantly disregarded some core tenants of a fight scene. But, moreover, this flash-forward ruins the suspense. The author is telling you, right then and there, that the main character’s going to be just fine. Not only will he survive this fight, but it sounds like he’ll survive the events of the novel as well. What’s the use of putting your character in danger if the reader knows he’ll survive? Sol Stein addresses the dilemma in his essential guidebook On Writing:

A point sometimes overlooked by beginners is that if a story centers on the narrator’s ability to survive life-threatening dangers, some suspense will be lost in the first person because the character will have to survive to finish the story.

I can’t help but think that Chandler is having some fun with the confines of first-person narration here. He’s blatantly announcing to the reader “OF COURSE HE LIVES! WHAT ARE YOU, STUPID?” It’s a story told in first-person, dummy. And before you dismiss this as the over-analysis of an English professor, consider that Chandler routinely inserts meta-commentary on writing and literature into his novels, including in Farewell, My Lovely, when he takes a dig at his contemporary Ernest Hemingway. Marlowe meets a dumb brawny cop and decides to nickname him Hemingway (much to the cop’s confusion). Then they have this exchange:

“Who is this Hemingway person at all?”

“A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”

Dang, Ray. That’s savage. I don’t pretend to understand his beef with Hemingway (I think Hemingway’s pretty great!). But Chandler was a writer of enormous talent and great wit who liked having fun now and again with the conventions of literature. I can’t help feeling that’s what he’s doing here, and I love it.