Wednesday, May 4, 2011

If I Only Had the Words to Tell You*

High-quality crime fiction novels are memorable mostly because of their plots and characters. That’s what crime fiction fans look for when they read. But sometimes, we remember a book because of a particular phrase, sentence or bit of dialogue. When a book has an especially well-turned phrase, haunting sentence or witty bit of dialogue, we may or may not remember all of the details of the story, but we do remember that bit of writing. Some sentences, phrases and pieces of dialogue just stay with the reader.

Sometimes, that happens because what’s written is especially haunting, even eerie. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, American actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect; she wants to be free of her husband so she can marry the Duke of Merton, and besides, she’s even threatened to kill Lord Edgware. But on the night of Edgware’s death, Jane Wilkinson was at a dinner party in another part of London, and her presence there is verified by a dozen people. So Poirot, Hastings and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp have to look elsewhere for the criminal. In the end, and after two more deaths, they discover who the killer is. At the end of the novel, the murderer sends a letter to Poirot which Hastings says reveals how “completely conscienceless” the murderer is. In the letter, the killer outlines what happened, and we get a very interesting portrait of that person. The very last line of the letter is particularly haunting:

“p.s. Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s?”

One of the most haunting and eerie lines (at least in my opinion) in crime fiction is the first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:

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

In that one sentence, Rendell conveys the desperation, fear and anger that lead a housekeeper to plan and carry out the tragic shooting of four people. Eunice Parchman is employed as housekeeper by the upper-class, educated Coverdale family, who have no idea of a secret that she desperately tries to keep. From that first sentence, we know who the killer is, and we know who the victims are; the novel builds on that fact as we find out, as the saying goes, how it all began and what exactly leads up to the murders.

Sometimes, a piece of writing is memorable because it’s funny. Witty dialogue, in particular, can stay with us for a long time and make us laugh to ourselves even when no-one else gets the joke. I don’t recommend that, though ;-). For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who is accused of having poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. She has both motive and opportunity, so things don’t look good for her, but when the jury can’t agree on a verdict, she gets another chance to clear her name. Wimsey’s fallen in love with Vane and determines to prove her innocence. As he’s investigating, he gets help from several people, including a reformed thief-turned-evangelist called Bill. One evening, Wimsey and friend are on their way to visit Bill:

“By the way….this person we are going to see – has he a name?”

“I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.” [Wimsey]

“Not very, perhaps, if he – er – gives lessons in lockpicking.”

“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 admit it; I chuckle, at least to myself, every time I read that exchange.

There’s an equally funny bit of writing in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, in which Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar and later, her husband Jurgen Mitter. When Ringmar is found dead in her bathtub, her husband is accused of the murder. He protests his innocence, but he’s got no alibi and on the night of the murder, he was so drunk that he doesn’t even remember exactly what happened. So he’s arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. During his trial, an officious prosecuting attorney asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he doesn’t remember the events of the evening. Here is Mitter’s response:

I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.”

The courtroom erupts at that remark, and it endears Mitter to Van Veeteren, who begins to think that maybe Mitter is telling the truth when he claims that he’s innocent. Mitter is found guilty, and is remanded to a mental institution instead of prison, because he has no memory of what happened on the night of his wife’s murder. Shortly afterwards, Mitter himself is brutally murdered and now, Van Veeteren is convinced that Mitter was innocent. So he and his team launch a thorough investigation and in the end, they discover who the murderer really was.

Pieces of writing can also be unforgettable because of their eloquence, even if the prose isn’t particularly “flowery.” For example, in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma, the lucky Watson family wins an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City, where they will stay at the exclusive Hotel Beaumont. Arrangements have been made for them to stay on the ultra-posh 14th floor, and all sorts of special events have been planned. Then one day, beautiful twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson wanders off and doesn’t return. When her body is later found stuffed into a trash can, the hotel’s manager Pierre Chambrun and its public-relations director Mark Haskell work with the police to find out who the killer is. Together, they find out who murdered Marilyn Watson and why, and plans are laid to catch the killer. Things go awry, though, and in the end, Chambrun has to violate his own strong sense of what is right in order to make sure the murderer is brought to justice:

“Chambrun was pounding his fist against the office wall, like a man suffering some agony. He turned, and his face was the color of ashes.

‘In the end, they force us to tar ourselves with the same brush,’ he said, his voice ragged.”

Just those few lines paint an eloquent portrait of the ethical dilemmas a sleuth can face.

And then there’s Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murders of Dr. Felix McClure and later, his former scout Ted Brooks. One of the people concerned in the case is Ellie Smith, a prostitute who counted McClure among her clients. Morse and Smith are attracted to each other although each of them is painfully aware that he’s investigating her as a possible murder suspect. Morse and Lewis find out who the murderer is, and what connects the two deaths. Then, Ellie Smith disappears. These lines show just what effect she and her disappearance have had on Morse:

“And above all 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.”

Powerful lines can make a novel unforgettable, even if we don’t remember exactly what happened in the plot. You’ve just read some of my favourite memorable lines. What are some of yours?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s If I Only Had the Words.


  1. Margot- There are too many to list, but one sentence from The Locked Room by Sjowall and Wahloo always sticks in my mind.

    'All of a sudden situations that formerly could have been cleared up by a single man equipped with a lead pencil and a pinch of common sense required a busload of police officers equipped with automatics and bullet proof vests.'

  2. Norman - Oh that is a fine one! Thanks for sharing it. It's so true, too, and quite well-expressed.

  3. I am always drawn to a book where the writing is good. Plot matters little to me if the characters, atmosphere and writing are memorable.

  4. I'm bad to remember lines, but I know that the "Ten Little Indians" poem was used very effectively (and with creepy effect) in "And Then There Were None." Sometimes it's easy to forget how violet these children's rhymes and lullabies are ("Rock-a-bye Baby" is particularly horrible and I sang that to my children nightly!)

  5. Patti - Writing is that important, isn't it? I've had that happen, too, where I was so swept away by memorable lines and good characters that I willingly forgave a less-than compelling plot.

  6. Elizabeth - You know, I hadn't thought of that, but you are so right! Some of those children's rhymes are awfully frightening, aren't they? And I read them to my daughter, too. Thanks for mentioning Ten Little Indians. What a great example of words being used to powerful effect. And yes, quite creepy, too!

  7. As you know, that Ruth Rendell line is my favourite, but the one about Madame Tussaud is also brilliant!

  8. Dorte - Isn't that a great line (I mean the one about Madame Tussaud)?! And, of course, the Ruth Rendell line gives me the creeps every time I think of it. It's such a truly memorable line...