Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Collusion, chiasmus and crime fiction

What's a chiasmus? I'm glad you asked, because there's a nice one in Collusion, Stuart Neville's follow-up to The Ghosts of Belfast (a.k.a The Twelve).

A chiasmus is a literary structure in which a list of concepts is given, then repeated in reverse order — the old A-B-B'-A' form (or A-B-C-D-D'-C'-B'-A' and so on). The Bible uses them all the time, and so did Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. And Alexander Pope ("His time a moment, and a point his space," Essay on Man, Epistle I. ). And now Stuart Neville, too:
"`I've been called lots of things. Smith, Murphy, Tomalty, Meehan, Gorman, Maher, I could go on.' He leaned forward and whispered, `There's some people say I'm not even really a Pavee.'

"A dead mask covered O'Kane's face. `Don't get smart with me, son. I'm a serious man. Don't forget that. I'll only warn you the once.'

"The Traveler leaned back and nodded. `Fair enough. But I'm a serious man too, and I don't like answering questions. You'll know as much about me as I want you to know.'

"O'Kane studied him for a moment. `Fair enough. I don't care if you're a gypsy, a traveler, a knacker, a tinker, or whatever the fuck you lot call yourselves these days. All I care about is the job I need doing. Are you the boy for it?'"
This lends the exchange weight and rhythm and a fair bit of grim humor, too. Most of all, it makes the reader sit up and pay attention, alert for what comes next.
Reviewers, readers and blurbsters have quite rightly praised Neville for the ends he achieves: the suspense, the haunted emotion, and so on. I just thought I'd throw him a bouquet for a means by which he achieves those ends.
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(Stuart Neville will discuss chiasmuses and other interesting subjects on my "Flags of Terror" panel at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 15, at 10 a.m.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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13 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Chiastic structures and crime stories -- see, this is why I think this blog is awesome. Who else would notice ancient literary structures showing up in contemporary fiction?

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great to learn something new. The excerpt from Collusion was really good as well.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I've long had a soft spot for chiastic structures, and when I saw this example, I said, "Aha! Here's my chance to share that love with the world."

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, have you read Ghosts of Belfast? This is a worthy follow-up. The tension starts out high, and Neville keeps it there for 320 pages. That's an impressive acocmplishment.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Peter- Yes, I have read GOB. In fact, it was the first Irish crime novel I read, and it has lead me to many tremendous crime novels, writers, and bloggers, including you. So I owe a lot to Stuart Neville, you might say. I read the first CH of Collusion a while back and loved it.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The ghosts motif was a daring step in the first book, and not an easy motif to follow up on. But he's done it well in this book.

So Stuart Neville was your conduit to Irish crime writing just as Declan Burke was mine.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

Although more a figure of repetition than a chiasmus, your passage reminded me of one of my favorite amusing passages from “The High Window” comparing Phillips and Marlowe,

Lt Breeze said: “Phillips. Well, George Anson Phillips is a kind of pathetic case. He thought he was a detective, but it looks as if he couldn’t get anybody to agree with him.”

“What about this ad?” It said:

Why worry? Why be doubtful or confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cool, careful, confidential, discreet investigator. George Anson Phillips. Glenview 9521.

“Twelve hours to tie up a situation which I didn’t even begin to understand. Either that or turn up a client and let the cops go to work on her and her whole family. Hire Marlowe and get your house full of law. Why worry? Why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cockeyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator. Phillip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come.”

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the sections I highlight in red echo one another in form rather than the second merely repeating the first, so there is a chiastic pattern to the passage. The chiasmus would be even more perfect if each character's declaration that he is a serious man fell in the right place.

And that's a wonderful passage from Chandler, demonstrating that his wit extended beyond mere extravagant personal descriptions.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

oops, I didn't mean to say that your example wasn't chiastic, I meant to say that mine wasn't. Anyhow that Chandler passage was what sprung into my mind after reading your post.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm glad you cleared that up. Precision is desirable at all times, especially when one is discussing figures of speech. You might like this article. You might also enjoy a wonderful little book by Arthur Quinn called Figures of Speech.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

Okey, I'll get cracking on some antimetaboles.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Antimetaboles, of course, sound like something that is awaiting a go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration for clinical trials to begin. I'll take a good chiasmus or earthy tmesis any day.

October 06, 2010  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

I found another one for you, from Stein Stoned by Hal Ackerman. It's a smaller one but I think still fits the bill:

“Two joggers in their sixties clomped through the mist discussing their portfolios. One was in diversified mutual funds and wore hundred dollar Reeboks. The other had a headband and rental property.”

October 13, 2010  

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