Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Stopping to Smell the Flowers
It was Mae West who once said, in a context other than literature, “I like a man what takes his time.” That used to be true in literature as well; readers appreciated authors who took their time to describe people, settings and situations in a way that made them come to life. Think of Dickens’ London.
These days, not so much. Or so it seems.
In the past month I’ve read two mystery-thriller novels by two different best-selling contemporary American authors, and what struck me about both of them was the utter lack of description. One book was set in New York and the other in San Francisco, but neither gave the least bit of feeling for the city in which the story took place. Either book could easily have been relocated to Cleveland simply by changing some place names.
It was not always thus. Dashiell Hammett made you feel San Francisco; Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain caught the spirit of Los Angeles; and Ellery Queen captured the unmistakable aura of New York in the Twenties and Thirties.
Plot Coming; Outta The Way!
All the aforementioned authors wrote pretty hard-boiled, fast-paced stuff, but they were still close to and felt bound by the older literary traditions that required a scene to be properly set and a character to be properly established. Those guys didn’t dawdle, but they colored in the picture well enough.
I got to thinking about this on a more personal level lately when I went back and re-read the reviews on Kindle for my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. The book was generally well received by readers and is averaging a bit over four stars, but several reviewers, including some who rated the book highly, complained that there was too much description of fishing in the book.
As a matter of objective fact, there were two detailed fishing scenes in the book, each about three pages long. One scene introduced the story’s antagonist and the other established the time of death in the murder.
And, to be fair, a number of readers praised the descriptions in the book, so who do I listen to? At the moment, I have to feel the complainers are so used to books that don’t pause to convey detail — books that race from chase to chase and killing to killing — that they don’t know what to make of a story that stops to smell the flowers occasionally.
Authors What Takes Their Time
And there certainly are successful mystery writers who do take the time to develop character and atmosphere. Benjamin Black and Louise Penny come to mind. But then, one is Irish and the other Canadian. The list of leisurely Americans is short indeed.
I personally enjoy the writer who takes the time and effort to establish a setting, develop a character more fully, let me know what time of year it is and what the weather is like, and who even might interrupt the narrative flow of the book to tell, as an aside, a good story that may or may not have anything to do with the matter at hand but is interesting in its own right. Those are the details that make a book more real and memorable.
That’s the way I try to write my mysteries, and if there’s a smaller audience for that sort of book than there is for the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am thrillers, so be it. Authors and readers relate to each other as lovers, and I’m content to find the lovers — book lovers, that is — that like a man what takes his time.