Some Crime Authors Deserve To Be Locked Up

Reading & Writing

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.

10 comments on “Some Crime Authors Deserve To Be Locked Up”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Coming out of my dictionary dive I have added to my knowledge for the moment but will I remember these oratorical terms longer than it takes to re-shelve my Collins? Probably not, but it was interesting to work my way through the definitions (including the “often mis-spelled scesis” onomaton for which I had to use our friend Google)
    I can remember learning the adjectival progression in French, although in English it is automatic to a native speaker. Even an unlearned person knows when the order in wrong even if he doesn’t know why it’s wrong.
    That “ding, dang, dong”, though, is unfortunate because it’s used for the sound of bells in a ring so that in recounting a peal you could have dong, dang, ding. That’s probably picking nits, however, because most people aren’t reporting bell peals in their writing.
    I’m not going to do your test because you sound right to my memory of recent readings. To show emotion rather than just name it requires more work, just as gaining variety of phrasing does. I was going to write this message using the complete variety mentioned above but it turned out to be difficult, too difficult to be worth the effort (to me, at this moment, for this purpose). The question is why the book is being written at all. If you are just tossing off a quick story for a moment’s entertainment then fineness of phrasing is an extra, while a book intended to be a piece of recurring pleasure requires research and honing. You can’t always tell which is which because the research and honing could all be done to no positive avail at all, while a person with a natural flair for phraseology could “toss off” something of more than moderate reading pleasure. Another test would be to look at one’s shelves for books to which one returns and look at the writing there. Appropriate, witty, or striking phrases are more likely to give repeating pleasure than straight forward telling.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    You mention ‘WandaVision’ – I’ve seen a couple of episodes, and I’m convinced that the whole thing is based on the ideas of the Ambrose Bierce short story, ‘An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’. Everything shown on screen is flashing through the mind of Wanda (Scarlet Witch) in the milliseconds as she’s wiped out by Thanos’ catastrophic finger click.

  3. brooke says:

    The real Christopher Fowler, perceptive reader, keen observer, erudite,cutting edgy commenter, returns.
    May I borrow your gun, please?

  4. Peter T says:

    But, who is to blame? The incompetent writer, the avaricious publisher, or the dipstick reader who wastes his hard-earned spondulix buying the rubbish and his precious time reading it. Reader, lock yourself in your study, put your trusty service revolver to your head and try your very best to improve the average intelligence of society.

  5. Mark Pack says:

    My non-expert impression is that ‘writers these days don’t know how to write’ a permanent feature of writing through the centuries. I suspect it’s also a healthy feeling as it can be a spur to innovation. Dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs triggers efforts to do things differently.

  6. Paul C says:

    Thanks for mentioning Dino Buzzati – I read his haunting, mysterious novel ‘The Tartar Steppe’ many years ago. I’ve just ordered a volume of his short stories.

  7. admin says:

    Glad you found his short stories, Paul. Buzzati’s unique vision feels like Borges crossed with Kafka and Bunuel. Several of his stories haunt me still; try ‘Seven Floors’ and ‘Just The Very Thing They Wanted’.

  8. Anne Billson says:

    ooh yes, I like the sound of those Buzzati short stories, thank you very much. Just ordered Catastrophe.

  9. SteveB says:

    In German adverbs are in the order TeKaMoLo – Tempus Kausus Modus Locus
    In English it’s MoLoTeKa
    I only caught on to the English order because of learning German and wondering what the English equivalent was

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm. “I went running yesterday in a hurry through the park.” That is admittedly a bit awkward but fits the German pattern. Still, “I went running in a hurry through the park yesterday” doesn’t fit the English pattern but is unexceptional. The fact that I notice a level of awkwardness indicates how right you are, though, Steve.

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