Saturday, October 23, 2010

It's in the Way That You Use it*

Any crime fiction fan can tell you that a good crime novel has a strong, believable plot, well-drawn characters who behave realistically and an intriguing crime or mystery. And we can all think of lots of excellent crime fiction that has those characteristics (hence, the large proportion of our budgets that we spend on books… ;-) ). But good crime fiction is also held together, you might say, by the glue of strong writing. Sometimes, we don’t really pay special attention to particular words or phrases the author uses and that can be a good thing; it can mean that the writing doesn’t jar the reader out of the story. Sometimes, though, we do notice a turn of phrase, or a bit of dialogue, or even a description, that’s particularly haunting and stays with us after we’ve finished reading. Those skilled uses of language can make a story memorable.

Sometimes, the author can convey suspense in just a few words or lines of dialogue. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes has gotten a note from Inspector Stanley Hopkins, asking him to help in the investigation of the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. On the surface, it looks as though Brackenstall’s murder was a case of robbery gone bad. The notorious Randall gang has been at work in the area, and it seems the Brackenstall home may have been their latest target. Neither Hopkins nor Holmes is convinced of this, though, and Holmes and Watson investigate. Here is the terse, yet suspenseful way in which Holmes gets Watson involved:

“The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stopping face, and told me at a glance that something was amiss.

‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’”

It would be hard to resist a summons like that, and of course, Watson doesn’t. Little wonder this is such a famous line from crime fiction.

At times, it’s physical descriptions that stick in our memories. For instance, although Agatha Christie’s mysteries are perhaps best-known for their plots, she also used descriptions quite effectively. Here is a description of Hercule Poirot, taken from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which he makes his debut:

“He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.”

With that indelible picture of Poirot, we follow him and Hastings as they investigate the poisoning murder of Mrs. Emily Inglethorp. As the novel begins, Hastings is visiting her stepson John Cavendish in the village of Styles St. Mary. When it becomes clear that Mrs. Inglethorp was murdered, Hastings visits Leastways Cottage, where Poirot and some fellow Belgians are living. He asks Poirot to investigate Mrs. Inglethorp’s death and Poirot agrees. Together, they look into the lives and motives of the members of Emily Inglethorp’s family and Poirot discovers who was responsible for her murder.

Sometimes, a passage stays in our minds because it’s particularly funny. In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, for instance, Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane. The only problem is, she’s been arrested for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey resolves to clear her name and solve the crime so that he can marry her. At one point, he seeks the help of an acquaintance who’s a skilled burglar. Wimsey and a friend are on the way to this acquaintance’s home when she asks Wimsey about the man:

'By the way,' she ventured, interrupting something Wimsey was saying about fugal form, 'this person we are going to say - has he a name?'

'Now you mention it, I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.'

'Not very, perhaps, if he – er – gives lessons in lock-picking.'

'I mean, his name’s Rumm.'

'Oh; what is it then?'

'Dash it! I mean, Rumm is his name.'

'Oh! I beg your pardon.'

'But he doesn’t care to use it, now that he is a total abstainer.'

'Then what does one call him?'

'I call him Bill,” said Wimsey'”

I have to admit, I’m particularly fond of the word plays in that exchange.

Sometimes, just a sentence or two is enough to convey a real sense of humour. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police officer Brad Chen is persuaded to return to active duty after the brutal killings of former politician Alec Dennet and editor Lorraine Starck. Dennet and Starck were murdered while they were staying at Uriarra, a writers’ retreat, so they could collaborate on Dennet’s memoirs. Chen, who’s got a complicated personal life, visits the crime scene, where he meets Tanya Jackson, the teenage daughter of Uriarra’s current owner. Tanya begs the investigation team to help her escape, saying that she’s been abused:

“I [Chen] grabbed her [Tanya’s] forearm to unlock her grip on my lapel and, in pushing it to one side, exposed a thick ridge of scar tissue across her wrist. I was collecting death-wish women faster than I’d once collected commendations.”

Sometimes, we remember a phrase or some lines from a story because they are particularly haunting. They capture the essence of a character, or they are especially suspenseful, or they get our attention in some way. For instance, in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure. The most likely suspect in the murder is McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks; McClure had found out that Brooks was dealing in illegal drugs, and was going to report him. But when Brooks disappears and is later found dead, Morse and Lewis have to re-think their theories. One person who seems to have a connection to both dead men is Eleanor “Ellie” Smith, a prostitute with whom Morse becomes smitten. Her status as a suspect doesn’t change the fact that Morse is very much attracted her, and the feeling is mutual. Towards the end of the novel, Ellie disappears, and in the novel’s last line, we see how she haunts Morse:

“And above all else in Morse’s life there remains the searching out of Ellie Smith, since as a police officer that is his professional duty and, as a man, his necessary purpose.”

There are haunting lines, too, in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. In that novel, Harry Bosch investigates the supposed suicide of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a fellow L.A.P.D. officer. The official word is that Moore committed suicide because he’d “gone dirty.” Bosch doesn’t believe Moore’s death was suicide, though, and soon, forensic evidence calls that theory into question. So Bosch looks into the case. He uncovers Moore’s past and makes some important connections between that past, Moore’s death and a Mexican drugs ring. As a part of this investigation, Bosch meets Moore’s widow Sylvia. In her, he recognizes a kindred spirit, and in just two sentences, Connelly conveys much about both of them:

“She held him and pressed herself against him in a way that conveyed her need. He saw her eyes were closed and at that moment Bosch realized she was his reflection in a mirror of hunger and loneliness.”

Later, Bosch reflects his sense of emptiness and on the kind of person he is:

“He had learned to fill that hollowness with work. Sometimes with drink and the jazz saxophone. But never people. He never let anyone in all the way.”

I’ll close this with one of the most haunting lines in modern crime fiction (at least it’s a line that has stayed with me for a very long time). In one sentence – the first line of A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell conveys a world of meaning:

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

Which phrases or lines have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eric Clapton song.


  1. I am currently reading Vicky Delany's NEGATIVE IMAGE and one of the characters is described as "looking like an interrupted vacation" which I loved.

    But normally my favourite lines are those which describe the place in same way. I loved this description from Deon Meyer's DEVIL'S PEAK "...the houses of the wealthy sat like fat ticks against the dunes, silently competing for a better sea view"

    and possibly my new favourite lines of all time have come from the opening sequence of Adrian Hyland's GUNSHOT ROAD where he is describing an Aboriginal initiation ceremony

    The town mob: fractured and deracinated they might have been, torn apart by idleness and violence, by Hollywood and booze. But moments like these, when people come together, when they try to recover the core, they gave you hope.

    It was the songs that did it: the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite.

    The resonance of that music is everywhere, even here, on the outskirts of the whitefeller town, out among the rubbish dumps and truck yards. It sings along the wires, it rings off bitumen and steel.

    I love the poetry and imagery of those lines.

  2. Bernadette - Oh, those lines from Gunshot Road are absolutely lovely! Thank you for sharing them. Pure poetry!!

    And thanks for that description from Delaney; I like that very much :-).

    I agree with you, too, that when an author can use a really powerful set of lines to describe a place, that can be very powerful. I can think of several novels like that, where I'm taken to a place by just a few well-written lines. And you're right; Meyer does that very well. I think James Lee Burke does that, too. So did Tony Hillerman, among others...

  3. 'The game is afoot' is a line that says so much with so few words. Every time I hear or read it, it brings such visions to mind - murder, fog, London, Holmes and Watson finding the killer. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. I don't have any phrases in mind but you're right, how things are described are important. Who doesn't know what Poirot looks like and how many like certain Poirot characters in film than other because it's how we imagine him. Great post. Really thought-provoking. I will have to watch the phrasing I use in my books more carefully.


  5. Mason - Thank you :-). I love that phrase, too! It captures all of the suspense, interest, tension and eagerness with which crime fiction lovers read their favorite novels. And it does evoke images of Victorian London, with Conan Doyle's sleuths out on the case, doesn't it? No wonder that phrase is so popular and has become so famous...

  6. Clarissa - I think phrasing is important. As you day, it was Christie's precision in her description of Poirot that gave us that unforgettable portrait of him. I think about that in my own writing, too; it's not just the story you tell, it's the way you tell it.

  7. You know that that opening with Eunice Parchman is also one of my favourites.

    I love crisp language and surprising metaphors, and of course name games like Wimsey´s Rumm friend. Recently I read an article about great names, fictional as well as real. My favourite was the *real* Chinese psychiatrist Dr So Wat.

  8. Dorte - I thought of you when I wrote that bit about A Judgement in Stone :-). And yes, I love that name Rumm, too, as well as some of the terrific names in your The Cosy Knave.

    Thanks for sharing Dr. So Wat's name, too; it gave me a much-needed laugh :-).

  9. My California characters say, "No worries" a lot. My protagonist's boat is named No Worries.

    Stephen Tremp

  10. Stephen - Oh, that's a creative name :-). I like that expression!

  11. The only lines that seem to stay with me are ones from poems and plays I memorized as a child. I am thankful when I can even remember a title lately.

  12. Patti - LOL! I know what you mean. Isn't it interesting how the rhythm of poetry helps us remember better than we remember prose? I think that's an interesting phenomenon.

  13. Fantastic post, and each of those extracts are so compelling.
    The game is afoot is one of my favourite expressions too.

  14. Rayna - Thank you :-). Some writers just really have the ability to evoke so much with just a few lines...

    To me, The game is afoot is so full of energy, urgency and suspense. How can one resist reading on??

  15. And it is the name of Jose Ignacio's blog, appropriately!

    As will be mentioned in my upcoming review, Michael Connelly uses this phrase of the "shearing of a life" that happens to some people - a pivotal event (not good, in this context) that changes them forever. This really resonated with me.

    But, on the whole, my memory is so short that I can't recall these prhases when I come across them. Like Bernadette, I adored the prose-poem that was Gunshot Road.

  16. Maxine - I love that name for José Ignacio's blog :-).

    You know, the more that you mention The Reversal, the more eager I am to read it. I so look forward to my turn coming up at the library..

    I would say that only a few very strong phrases and passages really stay with me for a very long time. Sometimes, an author just has a way with language that, as you say, resonates with one. That doesn't happen with me often, and I'm not sure if it's because of memory or because there aren't a lot of them out there...

  17. I'll just limit myself to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!"

    While reading this line for the first time, almost all of us follow the same pattern. We read the line; we pause; we read the line again trying to decipher it completely { a few of us need a few iterations more! :)}. We accept the meaning (almost grudgingly) and move on to get amazed by Mr. Holmes proving it's veracity beyond doubt!......

    And a real mystery buff tries to apply this principle in his real life at least for a week or so after completing this great series!:)

    Also, check out this conversation from the case of "Silver Blaze"

    "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" (Inspector Gregory asks.)
    "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."(Mr. Holmes)
    "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
    "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.