Saturday, May 14, 2011

Booms, busts, and how crime writers portray them

More than most crime novels, Domenic Stansberry's The Big Boom (2006) caters to my tendency to devote posts to a book's parts rather than the whole.

Chapter One is a fine atmospheric beginning that opens the way to questions about historical fiction. Chapter Three has the protagonist imagining a corpse talking to him. Chapter Five is narrated from a cat's point of view — and it also contains a regrettable editing lapse. Thirty short pages could keep me posting for a week.

First the opening. I've long wanted to ask authors of historical crime fiction about an inevitability of writing stories set during a real war: The reader knows how part of the story will end.  Stansberry sets his book not during wartime, but during the dot-com bubble (Remember when the term dot-com made people giddy with excitement, the way social media or apps or 4G smartphone do now?)  The reader knows how the boom will end, and Stansberry does not pretend otherwise. The result is one of the more evocative and ominous openings in all of crime fiction:
"It was the time of the big boom and everyone figured the prosperity would last forever."
(Here's another favorite bit from the opening paragraph: "The old-timers found the new enthusiasm insufferable, but the old-timers found everything insufferable. The truth was, you could see a certain gleam in their eyes, too ... ")

Here's your question: Stansberry's opening will inevitably put crime readers, perhaps Irish ones especially, in mind of economic booms, economic busts, their consequences, and the people left behind. Who has written the great post-Celtic Tiger crime novel? The great American recession crime book? 
***
And here's the lapse. The cat chapter begins thus:
"Eccentric the Cat lay in an unhappy somnolence on his mistress's rayon bathrobe, in the dark corner of the armoire. It was a place that was redolent of Angie's smell ... "
Redolent means exuding fragrance; smells like, in other words. Redolent of Angie's smell is redundant. I also would have cut "a place that was." But I'm a copy editor; what do I know?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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48 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

raises timid finger in air...

uh Falling Glass?

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Falling Glass, whose protagonist takes on the job that drives the plot because his apartment buildings have gone bust, is a brilliant choice. No aw-shucksing necessary.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have just read that Ireland's entry did not win Eurovision. Sorry, mate. You'll get 'em next year in Baku.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I stayed up to watch the FA CUP Final and the Eurovision Song Contest.

I am shattered.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Manchester City and Azerbaijan: The new axis of evil.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Crosby Kenyon said...

You know what you know. I remember redolent..it causes problems if you don't take care.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose it's possible that the sentence as it appears in the book was a compromise between the evocative redolent of and the plain smelled like.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Falling Glass is an excellent choice. Based on Winterland, which takes place during the bust, I am betting Alan Glynn's next novel, Bloodland, will be a strong contender in the category.

One thing I didn't understand about Falling Glass when I read it, but do after reading Michael Lewis's informative recent article about Ireland post bust, was that Killian couldn't just walk away from the apartments as one might do here. I don't quite understand what people are doing in Ireland if they can't pay for their houses and building projects anymore. I mean, they don't have debtor's prison anymore, do they?

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, where can one find that article?

I also understand that Gene Kerrigan's new novel would be a contender for best post-boom book.

May 15, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that you, as a professional copy editor, have a good nose for bad usage but most dictionaries allow evocative, suggestive of or reminiscent of as synonyms for redolent. One might reasonably conclude that the word has become unmoored from its olfactory origins.

Obviously, this usage gets up your nose but that's no reason to kick up a stink about it.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I haven't seen the new Kerrigan. Yes, I'm sure that there is a pretty strong group of crime writers coming out of Ireland on the theme. I can't say that I've really noticed the same trend here, but I am hardly up to date on everything. The TV series Breaking Bad is about the closest I've seen to a story that really deals with the financial woes afflicting America, and it is not truly post-boom.

Michael Lewis's article is here. I don't know if the same rules actually apply to Northern Ireland, so it may not be the motivating factor for Killian after all.

Lewis actually makes me want to read more on the world of business and finance, which I think it is safe to say is something I have never thought to say before.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'd have to side with Peter on this one, Anon. Understandable lapse in the writer, but not in the editor. Especially since you've just provided three good alternatives he or she could have chosen.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous: I know that "redolent" can, by extension, mean "evocative," but the sentence in question fails the smell test for two reasons:

1) If one accepts -- and it's a big if -- that "redolent" can mean "evocative" without any connotation of smell, one accepts that it's a dead metaphor. Here's what I mean by "dead metaphor": The sentence "Jones was burning with frustration" is unexceptionable because no one will read it and think Jones is literally burning. The metaphor is dead. But bring two dead metaphors together, and they come alive and create confusion. Here H.W. Fowler on the subject:

"This, as you know, was a burning question; and its unseasonable introduction threw a chill on the spirits of all our party.

Burning and chill are both live metaphors, they are grammatically connected by its, and they are inconsistent; there is therefore confusion.
"

Something like that happens in the sentence in question. The juxtaposition of the literal "smell" and the metaphorical "redolent" brings the dead metaphor to life. In this case, the result is not confusion, but redundancy.

2) The sentence as published reflects sloppy conception of what the scene is about. The armoire smells like Angie, it doesn't smell like Angie's smell.

If you walked into a room that smelled like excrement, you wouldn't say, "This smells like the smell of shit," you'd say, "This smells like shit."

The sentence is just a small lapse in what looks to be a fine novel, but it is decidedly a lapse.

Incidentally, I don't have a nose for bad usage because I'm a professional copy editor; I'm a professional copy editor because I have a nose for bad usage.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the article, Seana. I'll print it out if the printer at work ever works again.

What impressed me about the remarks I read about Kerrigan's book, The Rage, is the novelty: any number of crime writers make observations about gentrification and the rush of money into cities, but few, if any, that I can think of deal with the after-effects.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Understandable lapse in the writer, but not in the editor."

Or not in the publisher, who ultimately is responsible for ensuring the product's quality.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't think the new Kerrigan is out in the UK and Ireland yet, much less in the U.S.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I've only read The Midnight Choir so far, so I can probably wait on Rage.

You're right about the publisher being ultimately responsible, although, I'm not sure that the publisher reading that would have smelled something redolent of fish.

I liked the live and dead metaphor examples.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My own professional situation predisposes me to fear the worst for copy editing in related fields.

I have heard authors complain that they are now expected to pay themselves for editing publishers would have paid for not so many years ago. Under the circumstances, how could there not be a slackening of editorial vigilance and therefore an increase in mistakes in books? (I do not expect any publisher to admit this, of course.)

Just last night I found a shocking confusions of homophones in a book I loved so much that I was up until the morning light reading it.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Suitcase Sallie said...

I humbly submit that I am not a copy editor or publisher but a mere mortal reader, and I find the use of "somnolence" and "redolent" in back to back sentences pretentious and unnecessary. The author was trying too hard to be clever and it fell flat. I assume, however, from the insightful comments above that the rest of the book may be worth reading. Thank you.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sallie: Thanks for the comment. "Somnolence" bothers me less than "redolent" because I'm not sure such words as "drowsiness" or "sleep" convey quite the same meaning.

In any case, you're wise not to judge the book by that one sentence. It's a fine novel.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think authors and editors are an indispensable combination. It's unfortunate that authors don't advocate for them much, but then, it's that kind of relationship, I suppose.

Good v word, though I have no idea what it means: hondetro

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hondreto sounds like a moniker -- Hondreto, the Hero With Just One Name.

Acquisitions editors do get some recognition, I think, but the folks who find and fix the mistakes get none. I'm not sure what form that recognition could or should take.

I can well imagine that such folks are among the first to go when publishers cut budgets, that the consequences of such cuts are inevitable, and that no one will acknowledge those consequences.

It would be nice to see some best-selling author go public with complaints in this respect.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, that was hondetro, not hondreto. (Budget constraints here at Detectives Beyond Borders mean I have to act as my own copy editor.)

Dietro is Italian for behind, so perhaps hondetro is proto-Italian for Attila's arse.

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

If Paul Newman were still alive he could star in a movie called Handreto or Hondreto. It would fit well with the other "H" movies he made: The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Harper (1966) and Hombre (1967).

v word njaugh reads like Evelyn Waugh's younger relative, who took a pseudonym in order not to be confused with his elder.

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't forget John Wayne, who could have starred in Hondreto, a sequel to Hondo (1953).

njaugh is what someone says when he's been hit so hard in that part of his anatomy that he can't move it.

"Where'd you get hit?"

"Njaugh," he mumbled though the wires that would bind his mandible and maxilla shut until the fracture could heal.

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

(Applause)

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thank you. Thank you.

You've been a wonderful audience.

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I wonder if the writer may not have chosen a narrative voice that is more colloquil?

I always know to use the expression "to avail oneself" in the correct manner, but if I were writing fiction, depending on the circumstances I would choose "to avail" just to keep a more popular and less formal tone, depending on the circumstances.


It's unlikely that a writer would not look up a phrase before putting it in place for posterity... or so is my excuse for this writer.

There is of course, the unusual case of Amanda McKittrick Ros whose exuberant metaphors defy all rational explanation.

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Sorry... I've never been able to spell "colloquial".

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, I'm not sure colloquialism is a factor in this case. "Redolent" is not exactly an everyday word. One commenter in this thread, in fact, accused the author of pretentiousness for including it and "somnolence" in the same sentence. I'm not sure I agree, but Stansberry is certainly not writing chatty colloquial, prose.

Give me an example of how you would use "to avail."

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I think the word

redolent is exactly right for a cat, whose sense of smell is 14 times that of humans.


I have no way of knowing if the ungrammatical usage was intended, so I'm going to stop bringing on a fever (I have a ghastly cold) by wondering about it further. Maybe it's a scruffy, feral cat... or maybe the writer did not do his work. The only way to find out is to email him and ask.

Also "redolent" is not a strange word to anybody with a classical or literary education here. It turns up in James Joyce and ordinary people used it when I was a child.

As for "avail", simply writing "they availed of the opportunity to visit the city" shows that the writer does not know that this is a reflexive verb. Since most people do not seem to know that "to avail onself" is reflexive, the subtle nature of his detail would doubtless not set the world on fire.

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Sorry, "this detail".

This is beginning to remind me of why I was so happy to retire...

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Redolent" is not especially strange, not its use here especially ungrammatical. It's just that sentence was redundant and arguably sloppy.

"Availed of the opportunity" would make my flesh creep.

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I took as much time as possible to think about the most grotesque usage.

But that is how people in Dublin speak.

So, the choice for the fiction writer... do you clean up all your characters' grammer and make them "speak proper".

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Assuming the bad grammar is deliberate, the trickier question for a translator is how to render a similar effect in a new language.

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or, if the idea is that the characters are uneducated, to show this through some means other than poor grammar.

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

There's a thought. I suppose listing all the schools they might have ... but did not .. attend could work.

However, it seems to be a fact of life that the less educated many characters in literature are, the more prolix are their
linguistic outpourings. It would be interesting to work out how Joyce might have better handled Molly Bloom.
Striking her dumb would have been an option, possibly? She would have resisted vigourously, however.
Writers are often quick to point out that the characters are in charge, or so Tolstoy often found.



As for translation, I think I learned French so quickly because of the frightening way many people in France spoke English.


(Please remove the previous comment, at your leisure, Peter. I made a mess of the link.)

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, the previous comment is gone.

I am always impressed by the humility and the ingenuity of fine translators. They must work their way around the problems we discuss here, and issues that include dialect, slang, and swearing. And I think the best of them recognize that perfection is impossible.

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

A good translator must truly love language. There are many phonies who seem to just do the job for money.

Swearing and dialect is relatively easy. But just try getting Marcel Proust out of bed first thing in the morning.

I find him unreadable in English.

May 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't find Proust a day at the beach the one time I tried to read him, though that was years ago.

A number of the translators I've interviewed and spoken with cite swearing and dialect as a difficulty. Maybe translating such terms is easy only by comparison to translating Proust.

May 19, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mentioned dead metaphors and I see Wikipedia has a list of them.

One such metaphor, dead or otherwise, depending on whether one accepts the idea, is 'to kick the bucket'.

I read On The Art Of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch recently and was amused by the following passage:

Like the Babu he [the journalist] is trying all the while to embellish our poor language, to make it more floriferous, more poetical—like the Babu for example who, reporting his mother’s death, wrote, ‘Regret to inform you, the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket.’

May 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that list. Here's a link to it.

That's a superbly clear example of two dead metaphors coming to life and adding up to a bad sentence. Hands don't kick. The sentence doesn't work. It is pretty funny, though.

May 19, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I think you would love Proust as he is fundamentally a mystery writer. The protagonist Marcel goes through the world in a state of bewildered miscomprehension and the denouements are usually very humourous or shocking or both. Proust was a remarkable mimic and his ability to efficiently present a character's tics makes him a joy to read. Look up the description of Madame Verdurin and laughter, for example.

Funnily enough the aspect of translation I find the hardest are the phrases that everybody learns in childhood like "woof, woof" ("arf arf" in French). That is why slang is also a problem, as you point out, but if you learn a language as a teenager this is not usuall an obstacle as your exchange student will be an expert.

Reading Asterix solved this problem.

May 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, mimicry could make for capable disguise, and Proust's ability to detect tics indicates acute powers of observation. A fictional detective could use both.

I always thought French dogs said, "Hanf, hanf," or something weird like that. I've seen lists of how various languages render dog sounds. I remember arf competing with woof from my youth. That could be a spillover from the Francophone side of Quebec. And what ever happened to "bow wow," which I never liked as much as "woof woof" anyhow.

A late thought on this vitally important matter: The breed of dog prominent in an area probably influences what its residents think of as typical dog sounds and how they transcribe these sounds. Are dogs sounding more and more alike because of the homogenizing power of mass media? Does the Academie Francaise insist that French comic-strip dogs say "Yip yip," "naff naff" or "arf" rather than "woof"?

Or is there a canine counterpart to world music that enriches rather than homogenizes doggie speech through the power of the media?

Woof!

May 20, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Large dogs in French bark out "roof,roof". It's all in Wikipedia.

Jack Dee does a good dog impression, but it would be impossible to know how he would write his baying down as it has no connection with human speech whatsoever.

The fact that humans can represent the sound of a dog, and not that of a zebra for instance, in words shows the reality of domestication, perhaps.

I cannot answer your question as I have not taken enough time to think about it.

What do you think?

(Also, Peter Carey's book is seemingly a picaresque romp called "Parrot and Olivier in America" based on the life of Alexis de Toqueville. It never got much coverage here and since "Democracy in America" is a book that I read if I find it difficult to sleep as an alternative to soperifics, I doubt if I'll bother to go look.)

May 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, humans spend so much time with dogs that they're more familiar with canine than zebrine sounds.

I am more kindly disposed to Tocqueville than you are. A few years ago, I read a good chunk of "Democracy in America" in French. Tocqueville's prose is so clear, and the territory so familiar to me that I was able to read with surprising ease. He does much observation of New England government, for example, and I lived in New England for twelve years. Thanks to Tocqueville, I found out that the French word for selectmen, local legislators in many New England towns, is selectmen.

May 21, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

While I find that Tocqueville writes clearly, his ideas get my synapses in a twist because I generally find politics boring (though necessary) and the judgements he passed on the America of his day, while understandable perhaps, are mostly a reminder of cross-cultural differences... It's a bit like Candide meets the barbaric YAWP, (though I know the time scales are wrong).

"Selectmen" may be somehow linked with Dutch, perhaps?

I think I just found both the societies in question very alien to anything I had experienced in my own life, though as you have found, it is a book that helps explain New England for the visitor.

May 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One judgment I remember is that Americans have great interest in money. That one has stood the test of time, I'd say.

I don't know that selectmen has any connection with Dutch, wither linguistically or politically. I'm not sure Tocqueville explained New England so much as his examples made me feel on familiar territory.

May 22, 2011  

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