Monday, January 17, 2011

Besieging for Dummies, or Bill James on hostage talks

I.J. Parker, author, Detectives Beyond Borders commenter, and acid-tongued critic of writing she doesn't like, disagrees with me on the merits of Bill James. For her, "There is such a crazy abundance of words as characters contemplate absolutely everything at great length, whether it's relevant or not, that I want to strangle the author and his characters."

She'd likely not want to strangle James if she met him. He's a cheerful, soft-spoken sort, more than willing to pose for photos with admiring fans. But Parker is an acute reader; words do flow in crazy abundance in James' books, at least the more recent ones. The difference is that I like the effect. Here's Colin Harpur in James' newest, I Am Gold, contemplating a hostage negotiation with an armed kidnapper who calls himself John:

"Harpur thought the greeting, regreeting, fizzled with emptiness and formula. Naturally it did. It came from the manual — Besieging for Dummies, or something like. And, just as naturally, this boy, this boy `John' in there could recognize smooth-textured bullshit. Very likely these calls would contain nothing but. In fact, perhaps ultimately there'd be so much he would get disorientated by it, half smothered by it, gently and mercilessly chinwagged into collapse and surrender by it. But, maybe he recognized this hazard and left the phone dead for spells while he got his breath back."
That's a bigger step into contemplation than is usual in a police procedural, with perhaps more irreverence than is the custom, but the effect is all the stronger for this. ("mercilessly chinwagged into collapse and surrender" is nice because unexpected.) And, for all the baroque smother of verbiage, it's a plausible thought about such a negotiation. It's relevant, in other words, pace Parker. And I giggled like an idiot at this:

"`You're trying to soften me, aren't you, Olly?' ...

"Rockmain mouthed: `Fuck, fuck, the smartarse fuck.' Harpur took that to be an admission John read the psychotactics right. Iles leaned over and tapped Rockmain on the arm. When Rockmain turned towards him Iles pantomimed a lavatorial scene, holding his nose with one hand and pulling an imaginary flush chain with the other: his thoughts on Rockmain's intervention."
That's relevant. More to the point, it's fun.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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16 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, Jeez!

Well, whatever turns you on. I was unutterably bored by the mental landscape of a policewoman approaching a crime scene. There is such a thing as verbal intoxication. And being in love with one's own writing.

But I tried James twice, and I will give him credit for being a sweet guy.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I.J.

This does turn me on at least. There are too many dull books with dull prose already. If you just want the story go read Q is for Quidditch or whatever its called. I like novelists who love the language and have a bit of fun with it.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I wondered after I made this post wherther the crazy abundance came with the later books -- and therefore which books of James' you had tried. James was always capable of great burst of gorgeous prose, but the bursts may have become floods only later.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, James has lots of fun with the language, that's for sure. Start with one of the earlier books or the ones in the middle of the series, though.

That fun is why I can always read even the weaker entries in the Harpur & Iles series. The npvel I consider the weakest of the lot has one of the funniest comic exchanges.

January 18, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, you know, Peter, on second thought, I cannot imagine anything more likely to intimidate posters than your blog on this occasion.

For heaven's sake, what if the nice Bill James reads that?

For the record, and it shouldn't need saying, readers have different tastes. That is as it should be. Beyond that we get into the murky waters of quality judgement, which doesn't really apply here since I was clearly frustrated by a stylistic approach. In my casual manner of posting I expressed myself strongly, but I doubt that anyone would seriously misread that line as anything but exaggeration.
As for the stream of consciousness technique, I confess I had serious problems with Joyce's ULYSSES and even more with FINNEGAN'S WAKE. I don't think I am at all unique in that.
And language has nothing to do with technique in this case. I wasn't criticizing the language.

I shall restrain my outbursts in the future.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not only do readers have different tastes, but a given reader's tastes can range. I've lately been convinced of Dashiell Hammett's paramount greatness as a crime writer, for example, and he was a far more laconic stylist than Bill James.

No, don't restrain the outbursts. You did get me to consider the possibility that James' stylistic emphasis may have shifted over the course of his very long series, and I appreciate anything that gives my cranium a kick-start.

January 18, 2011  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter, IJ

I think its a bit more than taste. Readers have been negatively conditioned by bad writing in genre writing. Anything that requires them to pause or think is labelled as boring. The quality of the prose in much mainstream genre writing is dreadful.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There may also be a prejudice against falmboyant, theatrical, self-conscsious prose such as James'.

January 18, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, it's true enough that crime writing prose has been stripped down to the most banal, simplest vocabulary possible. Elmore Leonard, I think, wrote a list of things a crime writer must avoid, and that leaves really nothing but short words, short sentences, and action.
I use reflection and self-analysis myself, but only when it applies to the case or a relevant fact in the character's life. I do not do stream-of-consciousness.
I forgot the titles of the two novels. The last I attempted started with a woman detective's thoughts on her way to a crime scene. That start was enough for me.
It is possible that the author has made changes in his style in recent books. I'm all for experimenting, but . . .

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, that could have been In the Absence of Iles, one of the more recent titles.

The first six or so books in the series are dark, bold, funny looks at both sides of the law. Books seven through about sixteen or eighteen are the real achievement, a kind of slice of English life, mores and aspirations through the eyes of cops and criminals. These books are a Forsythe Saga of crime or maybe a Dance to the Music of Time (appropriate, since James also wrote a study of Anthony Powell).

James seems to be searching for direction in more recent books, with such wrinkles as an influx of Eastern European challengers to the local drug firms' hegemony, or In the Absence of Iles, which, oddly enough, is marked by the absence of Harpur.

At their best, the books use the language the way no other crime fiction has.

Finally, you obviously know a lot more about writing novels than I do, but I would not equate banal with simple.

Good god, first you have me defending baroque prose, now you have me advocating for the stripped-down kind. You do keep me on my critical toes.

January 18, 2011  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter, IJ

I would love more writers to defy their editors and attempt to break the rules. Failure and experimentation is fine by me. I'm not a fan of what they used to call "the well made play". Stream of consciousness, baroque prose, bad sex writing, long sentences, stupid jokes, anything really but the turgid, the safe and the sensible...

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, you don't want bad sex writing. Or if you do, you want it over the top and tongue in cheek, or elsewhere. Gunnar Staalesen, a Norwegian crime writer, came up with a clever geological sex metaphor in The Writing on the Wall when he has his protagonist plunge his tongue into his girlfriend's fjord. Now, who said Scandinavians lack puckish wit?

As for rules, Bill James happily admits he does not write detective novels, which ought to absolve him of accusations that he breaks rules for that genre.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

"tongue in cheek, or elsewhere"
I saw what you did there. Nice.

January 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I was only going where that famed Norwegian wit took me.

It's a great metaphor, and it's of special interest to those of us who prize a sense of place in our international crime fiction.

January 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

What's a fjord?

January 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A narrow cleft in the land is the aspect I think he was getting at in this case.

January 20, 2011  

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