Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hammett begat Leonard, and Leonard begat Nicol?

finished Payback last night, first novel in Cape Town author Mike Nicol's "Revenge" trilogy, and I realized it reminded me a bit of Elmore Leonard.

Each author will have his protagonists pause amid the main action to engage in something like old-fashioned vaudeville cross-talk, one character cutting the other's verbal legs out from under him as they veer off into comic mutual misunderstanding. It can be great fun, and it does much to humanize the characters.

Then a Detectives Beyond Borders reader pointed out a passage from Dashiell Hammett's early story "Arson Plus" that does something similar. Hammett has the Continental Op stop, step back, and reflect upon the investigation in which he is engaged:
"We poked around in the ashes for a few minutes—not that we expected to find anything, but because it's the nature of man to poke around in ruins."
The humor here is darker and more introspective than Leonard's or Nicol's, but it similarly does much to flesh out the protagonists. The device helps explain what readers mean when they that say the characters are likable or that the authors have created sympathetic heroes (or, in Leonard's case, villains).

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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6 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think that line would have been funnier if he had repeated ashes instead of saying ruins. I dont know why but it just sounds funnier.

March 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think you're right; either word would be appropriate in context. Perhaps Hammett or his editors thought repeating the word would have gone too far over the top into comic territory.

March 30, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Hmm... I didn't see humor in that line but rather an existential musing on "the romance of ruins" -- think John Ruskin's treatise The Stones of Venice or Nicolas Poussin's painting Et in Arcadia ego.

April 02, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, and even if I'm wrong and Hammett did intend that line to be humorous, can we cut the guy some slack on the first story he ever submitted to "Black Mask"? And short stories liberally peppered with humor were never a hallmark of the magazine.

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's darkly or ruefully humorous, I'd say.

April 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And no need to cut him some slack on humor; I loved his humor (except in "Itchy," though he salvaged the name of that story main character to excellent advantage later).

April 02, 2012  

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