PP readers may already know of my obsession with Erle Stanley Gardner, in particular his Perry Mason books. I really need to try out some other stuff like Raymond Chandler (who, was influenced by Erle Stanley Gardner as it happens) – I’ve had The High Window (1942) on my table for about six months – Elmore Leonard, and James Cain, et al, but I just keep buying more good-looking ESG titles and devouring them in approximately four hours.
It’s true that when I emerge from one of these mysteries, be it The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, or my first ESG, and still my favourite, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, I would struggle to explain out-loud the exact plot details. This is usually because it all gets a bit silly towards the end, but also because I don’t concentrate that hard – the plot is not as important to me as the brilliance of the writing.
I know that’s slightly odd, as the plot is all in these things, and the reason you race towards the end is to find out what happened. But I’ve realised that essentially I really don’t care whodunit or whatever. It’s just the thrill of narrative chase, as it were, the thrill that ESG creates with the forward movement of the sentences and words, more than whether it was that dame or that disowned oil scion wot did it.
I found a quote on crime writer Duane Swierczynski’s cheerfully named blog: Secret Dead Blog on which he quotes the editor of Gallimard’s famous Série noire Marcel Duhamel’s advice to novelist Chester Himes:
Get an idea. Start with action, somebody does something – a man raches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor, he turns, looks up and down the hall.. Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense. That’s for the end. Give me 220 typed pages.
It couldn’t sound more like a Perry Mason novel if it tried. These are normally about 220 pages, or, in fact, a little shorter. Enter some vintage ESG and the to give an example, and to show how to get a plot moving in 3 pages from the opening of The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde:
Perry Mason drew his secretary to one side. ‘A blonde with a black eye, Della, is intriguing to say the least – unless she’s the type who would have been in a brawl. Is she?’
‘Definitely not; but she’s frightened to death about something. I can’t quite make her out. Her voice is unusual – almost as though it had been trained.’
‘And you’ve put her in the law library?’
‘Yes. She’s waiting there.’
‘How’s she dressed?’
‘Black shoes, no stockings, a fur coat, and I caught a glimpse of something under the fur coat that I think may be a black house coat, or a robe of some sort, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if that was all she had on.’
‘And a black eye?’
‘What’s her name?’
‘She insists it’s her real name. She’s terribly excited and nervous. Altogether, I’d say she was pretty unstrung.’
‘I don’t think she has. She seems nervous and frightened, but isn’t doing any weeping.’
‘That,’ Mason said, ‘settles it. We’re going to see her, at least long enough to find out what it’s all about. Bring her in, Della.’
Those doling out advice to fiction-writing hopefuls often recommend reading other fiction and non-fiction that is very different from the ‘literary’ novel. To read as much and as diversely as possible is a common suggestion to struggling writers. And I think the advice from Duhamel could be applied to writing in general: if in doubt, don’t over-explain and analyse; drive the narrative forward with the language, rather than pontificating or speculating about character – action, by its very nature, can explain later, and by the constraints of the novel’s form, will normally be compelled to.
A recent BBC 4 documentary, The Rules of Film Noir, explored why the genre was so popular in the forties and then why the hardboiled style became unpopular in the following decade when colour and optimism was the chosen tonic, and the black and white shadowy and uncertain underworlds represented by noir were not the antidote to post-war life the cinemagoers were seeking.
When I was watching this programme I kept scribbling down quotes from the various aficionados and experts who were on the show as it seemed like the stuff of great short stories or novels. For a start the names of the books/films are brilliant: Stranger on the Third Floor; Murder My Sweet; Sunset Boulevard; Double Indemnity; Kiss Me Deadly.
Disconnection seems the most overpowering theme. The ‘American Dream’ is skewed and the characters tainted before they start – the dream is to get whatever you want without cost, the fall out is the bitter resentment when this is not achieved: ‘In rooms, bars, nightclubs – they’re trapped; they can’t get out. They’re trying to rip their way out, but they can’t’; ‘Don’t go to bed feeling comfortable, because there’s nothing to be comfortable about.’ Apologies, I can’t remember who said this stuff on the programme… but they were good whoever they were.]
It sounds like the subject matter of the domestic novel in a way: the sense of disquiet in apparently mundane settings. Yes, here possibly because someone’s holding a gun beneath that suspicious overcoat, but the sense of foreboding and of being unavoidably and inescapably trapped by location and circumstance is the stuff of many narratives.
Watching the programme also made me think I should go a little darker from the relatively clean and nicely sorted-out nature of Perry’s mysteries and investigations. I was reading an interview – and a very good one at that – with John Banville, again in the The Paris Review (which it is becoming clear I am also obsessed with!). He writes crime thrillers under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I have to say I’ve never been a fan of Banville’s novels but he comes across as rather amusing and pleasingly arrogant in this interview from earlier this year.
He mentions a writer I have never heard of: ‘The impetus for Black came from my having begun to read Georges Simenon […] what he calls his romans dur, his hard novels: Dirty Snow, Monsiuer Monde Vanishes, Tropic Moon, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. I think they are extraordinary, masterpieces of twentieth-century – I hesitate to use the word, but I will – existentialist literature.’
He even compares these works favourably to Camus and Satre, which is pretty extraordinary. I think perhaps these should be next on my list, ahead of old Chandler and Himes. But I like to hear someone praising noir as a serious literary form. I’m not sure ESG’s novels ever achieve the status of ‘art’, but Banville goes on to say that, ‘One can, with skill and perseverance, give a sense of life’s richness and complexity in noir fiction’, and that ‘High art can happen in any medium.’ And I think that’s worth remembering.
And just briefly… the reason I enjoyed Banville’s interview so much was due to his directness and unexpected dry wit. In particular his answer to the question: ‘Do you have sympathy for the characters you create?’ because it always annoys me, and I think it’s become the thing to say, when writers talk about the character ‘taking over’ and the author having no idea what’s coming next. Yes, it is Banville’s style not to be as concerned with character as other novelists, but I still love Banville’s reposte to this:
‘I suppose it’s possible that a writer would have feeling for his characters, but I can’t see how, because writing is such a meticulous, intricate, technical business. I wish I could say that I love my characters and that frequently they take over the book and run away with the plot and so on. But they don’t exist. They’re manikins made of words and they carry my rhythms. They have no autonomous life – surely that’s obvious? I distrust writers who claim to have feeling for their characters. They’re liars or fools.’