Monday, October 22, 2007

Old style, new style and a tough question for readers

Two crime novels I’m reading now have nothing in common except startlingly good prose style. Paul Cain’s Fast One, the only novel by that most elusive of the great Black Mask authors, is a textbook for today’s neo-noir and neo-hard-boiled authors and movie makers. It has all the pace, all the wit, and, though there is lots of shooting, none of the hyperviolence and over-the-top jokiness that sometimes mar the newer efforts.

Possibly most astonishing for a novel published in 1932 is that it is not at all dated. There are no “dames” here, and none of the archaic diction that mars the work of other writers from the same period, such as Raoul Whitfield or even some early Hammett. If only the mysterious Cain had written more, he would be mentioned right up there with Chandler and Hammett, and the Chandler-Hammett debate might be over which was the second-best of the group. As this brief discussion reveals, Cain is also an ancestor of the tradition by which hardboiled writers seek to buttress their tough-guy credentials with extravagantly glamorous hard-edged work histories.

The other style king is Australia's Peter Temple, about whom readers of this blog will have read much. Dead Point, third of Temple’s novels about lawyer/cabinetmaker/horse-racing expert Jack Irish, contains more of the gorgeous prose that Temple readers know well. Here’s the novel’s opening:

“On a grey, whipped Wednesday in early winter, men in long coats came out and shot Renoir where he stood, noble, unbalanced, a foreleg hanging. In the terminating jolt of the bolt, many dreams died.”
That’s gorgeous, I’d say, the kind of stuff that may make you want to stop just so you can savor the prose. And that leads to today’s tough question for readers: Who are your favorite crime-fiction prose stylists? Whose sheer skill with words takes your breath away? And is this necessarily a good thing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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14 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Ken Bruen is one who can deliver a line that cuts to the core.

In general, is it a good thing to have the language be so beautiful and mesmerizing? Hmmm. Obviously, the use of language is important, but there is always a risk that it will sound forced, pushed, or pull people out of the story as they savour phrasing.

I suppose it's like all things in books. It can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing. No one uniform answer.

October 22, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I don't know about beauty of prose, but I'm reading Lawrence Block's "Burglar" books right now, and I find myself stopping to admire the way he sets up Bernie's wisecracks.

October 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, Block is a master, beautiful prose or nor, so he'd qualify for this discussion. (I've read books from most of the sectors of Block's vast output, and I like the Rhodenbarr short stories better than the novels.) In any case, stopping to indulge in admiration is a good thing as long as you go back to the story when you're done. I'm sure Block would concede this.

October 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Sandra, Ken Bruen is also a candidate for this question for the laugh-out-loud lines and self-referential jokes in Bust, Slide and the Brant and Roberts novels.

No one, uniform answer, of course, but it may worthwhile mentioning that reading is probably rarely, if ever, completely linear and all in one direction, anyway. We stop, look back, think ahead the like, whether we're conscious of doing to or not. And that's all the theory you'll get from me.

I do think that the question is likelier to arise with a slower-paced, lyrical writer such as Peter Temple than with more action-packed crime writers. And I likely would never have asked myself the question had I not been reading two such different writers as Peter Temple and Paul Cain at the same time.

October 22, 2007  
Anonymous Katherine Howell said...

Temple. One hundred percent.

October 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Temple does the things other crime writers do, but he'll add that extra charge, that extra little touch that keeps me interested: the deadpan elliptical transitions or, especially, the descriptions of the protagonist's outside interests. Crime writers by the score will do the latter but rarely in so compelling and even beautiful a manner as in, say, the descriptions of Jack Irish's cabinet work. An author has got to be pretty confident of his technique to believe that he can do that and still hold the reader's attention. With Temple, it always works.

October 22, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

It's been years I read Chandler, but I'd vote him.

Kevin Wignall's simple prose is haunting, as is Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Chandler's worth a vote. He can be lyrical, tense and funny. I like your description of Kevin Wignall's prose. I'll step up my search for his work. Any recommendations?

I had not heard of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, but I see Chandler himself was a fan of her work, which by itself makes her a figure of interest.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I tend to think more of lines in the Jack Taylor books, some of which cut to the core.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Sandra, I had a feeling that was the case. My pattern of reading Bruen is probably different from those of most readers. I read the six Brant and Roberts books and Bust before I read my first Jack Taylor novel, The Magdalen Martyrs.

There's a decided shift to the sad and poignant in that last book, even in the funny lines. I suspect you may have that type of line in mind. The Magdalen Martyrs is closer in tone to some of those wonderful pieces Bruen has been posting on Murderati.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, and you should read The Guards, the first Jack Taylor book, and all through. But then, bear in mind I've also read some (as of yet) unpublished Bruen, so I can't cite all my sources. I think Ken is capable of covering the spectrum, but the sad, poignant stuff resonates with me. My favourite Bruen quote is "I only know the heart exists on what it daren't lose."

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I thought I might read Cross next. I saw the video that Ali Karim made of Bruen reading the first chapter. Bruen is a fine reader, but the main attraction for me was his ability to make the scene funny and chilling at the same time. It's a stunning piece of writing, to my mind. Series order be damned! I'll let myself be surprised by the discoveries that can come from reading non-chronologically.

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I was very impressed with Daniel Woodrell and some of his succint use of words in his Ozark noir novel Tomato Red.
I felt I was there in the trailer park with the characters.
But of course the Camilleri/Sartarelli combo are pretty good too when it comes to descriptions of food.

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

The one time I flipped through a Woodrell novel in a bookshop, it did not grab me, perhaps because my expectations were so high. Everything I'd read about Woodrell had raved about his prose style.

Oddly enough, what sticks with me about Camilleri's descriptions of food are less the dishes themselves than the situations in which Montalbano eats them: He comes home to find a dish the maid had prepared for him, or his misgivings before he digs into a massive helping of some trattoria's daily special. I get instant and vivid pictures of these situations, especially the former. I'd call that a high compliment to the Camilleri/Sartarelli team.

October 24, 2007  

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