Some Crime Authors Deserve To Be Locked Up
A lengthy conversation with my agent this morning on the subject of writing (what else?). I’ve been receiving review copies of lots of crime novels, many of which I find completely unreadable. Partly this is down to their authors’ use of cliché, but often it’s the sheer unreality of everything, as if it’s all been copied from bad TV dramas. Their authors misuse parataxis, which is the ordinary plain English of the everyman. Victorian writers became too ornate and verbose to use parataxis, and for a while it vanished.
Agatha Christie was fond of the device; her characters go, do, speak, call, decide – in other words they carry out a forward action. Many crime authors use it emotionally; she was miserable, he was angry. Instead of showing us, they tell us – always a sign of bad writing. To make up for their deficiencies they throw in more plot.
Currently there’s a fashion for adding a second genre into the first, from whodunnits where the suspects turn out to be shapeshifters or ghosts to shows like Marvel’s ‘Wandavision’, which takes the superhero genre and mashes it with meta-fiction ideas. The trouble with this is that it fails to deepen our knowledge of any characters – we come away knowing almost nothing about the protagonists – and it allows lazy writers to get away with not learning their craft.
Much of our language is instinctual. Hyperbation is a good example; this is our natural placement of words. Adjectives have a strict running order. It’s so strict, in fact, that you cannot switch them around. You can read a small boring grey leather book but you can’t read a leather grey small boring book. And if you use ablaut reduplication, you’ll say ‘ding dang dong’ but not ‘dong dang ding’ because the running order always has to be I, A, O.
We use zeugma because it’s pedantic to write ‘she liked trees and liked flowers and liked cocktails’ so we say ‘she liked trees and flowers and cocktails’. Writers of suspense use a lot of scesis onomaton. I often use it, and Dickens uses it best in the opening of ‘Bleak House’, in which he sets the scene of the chapter without using a main verb. It makes scene-setting feel very modern. And don’t get me started on sylleptic phrasal verbs, when you add a preposition to a verb to get a new meaning.
The problem is that if you don’t learn these tricks and tropes you have no interesting way of saying what you mean. Older writers exhibit linguistic grace as a matter of course; read Robert Louis Stevenson, Dino Buzzati or Edgar Allan Poe for elegant clarity. Or, for that matter, Tolstoy or de Maupassant. Can you write a novel about your formative years without knowing that it’s a bildungsroman? Yes, of course, but it’s better to have the labels at your fingertips.
Many have now dispensed with these boring old-fashioned tools. Want to write a quick bestseller? Doing it in the first person present tense gets around the need for eloquence; write purely about your feelings and you’ll never need to tell a story properly. It suits our self-obsessed times; we favour self-belief over self-improvement, hubris without the back-up of talent.
If you concentrate on your craft and then add your art, so that you’re building a strong foundation, you won’t go wrong. Try this test; read the ‘Look Inside’ sample of whichever crime novel of ‘unguessable twists’ is currently being pushed on Amazon – I just tried it with a few ‘Richard and Judy’ picks. Ask yourself if the writing is interesting or if it’s merely a list of mundane actions.
The first thing you’ll notice is that all the extracts are interchangeable. The second is that they’re little more than soap opera. And that’s an example of zeugma.