Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How crime writer R.D. Cain avoids cliché

I'm an impatient reader, apt to put a book down if it does not grab me with its first ten words. I also grow weary of crime fiction tropes that I run into over and over, most recently the chapter narrated from inside a killer's head and set in italic type.

At the same time, I'm impressed when a crime writer manages to make a hoary set-up fresh. That's why I think Dark Matter, by the Canadian crime writer R.D. Cain, just might work.

The novel opens with a young woman slowly recovering consciousness to find she has been imprisoned in basement. Now, if the author were Scandinavian, you know what would happen to the young woman, and the only question is whether her demise would be even bloodier than you imagine. And you would never hear her voice except in a scream that seemed to consume her entire being and echo forever. etc, etc.

Such chapters, (lovingly) intent as they are on portraying the victim's agony, never do her the honor of giving her a voice, much less a sense of humor. Cain does both. First the humor:
"The feeling she had was familiar, high and weightless like vapor floating in infinite blue sky. She had tried oxys before and this felt similar. It was a warm, cozy feeling, like being wrapped in a warm blanket and having every inch of her body hugged by someone she loved. This kind of drug didn't appeal to her."
The voice comes when the woman discovers she has two fellow prisoners, also young women. The three talk, and not entirely with teeth-chattering fear. Whatever Cain intends to do with the young victims, they feel like characters for whom a reader might feel empathy. And that's a lot more than one can say for the endless succession of mangled straw men and women thrown up in so many first chapters.
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That's how one author makes something fresh out of a set-up that risked tumbling into cliché. Who else does this? And how do they do it?

(Dark Matter is published by ECW Press, one of the publishers I highlighted in my recent Philadelphia Inquirer article "Eight Crime Writers Worth Tracking Down.")
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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15 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Alas, I am sometimes impatient with writers who take the easy way out of narrative POV challenges by opting to use multiple POVs within the same novel. Wilkie Collins did it within _The Moonstone_, Stoker does it with _Dracula_, and Dickens did with within _Bleak House_; I tend to give them a pass since they handle the shifts so correctly and clearly. Some contemporary writers of lesser talents use multiple voices, I think, because they work themselves into corners from which there is no escape without resorting to different voices; and some of these writers make the shifts too quickly and too obviously manipulative. I am also, like you, quite tired off italicized riffs that become another example of a writer's laziness. When I see italicized portions within a book, that book returns to the bottom of the slush pile, unlikely ever again to see the light of day. (Note: I shall try to think of some recent examples of lousy POV control for a later comment, but none come to mind at this instant.)

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I tend to treat books with long italicized chapters the way you do--except when I am being paid to review the book.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

When did editors and publishers decide that using long sections of italics is reader-friendly? There really are easier and better ways of handling such POV shifts without resorting to typographical annoyances.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting question, and perhaps librarians or historians of the book might be able to answer. I wonder of the contrast in typefaces--if it's necessary--could be handles better, perhaps by setting the killer chapters in a different font, without serifs perhaps.

Joseph Roth mentions typography, specifically of newspapers and maybe of advertising as well, in his observations of Berlin in the early 1920s.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

If a writer has a story to tell that involves more than one POV, one old-fashioned approach was the 3rd person POV with a more or less omniscient narrator. Over the years, especially more recently, writers tend to like 1st person POVs--perhaps because that POV is popular among readers--and then those writers cannot accept the frustration of not letting the reader into another character's mind, so that writer takes the easy way by including long italicized sections. What happens then--especially for experienced and discerning readers--is the shattering of an illusion: we will no longer suspend our disbelief, and we know that the lesser skilled writer is manipulating us, and we do not like it. However, we will "play along" and allow the manipulation when better writers manage the "game" by using more orthodoxy in their creative POV management.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd like to see more authors do what Musil did with Moosbrugger in "The Man Without Qualities"-- say something meaningful about a killer without getting inside his or her head. Granted, not every crime writer is Robert Musil, but first-person sometimes seems cheap and easy.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Sometimes, though, 1st person works well. Here is an example (not from crime fiction): "Call me Ishmael." Simple. Direct. Effective. That is the prototypical hook.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Perhaps also, Peter, too many current writers have spent too little time reading good writing by past masters. That, however, cannot be an excuse for editors and publishers who permit the less than effective narrative approaches (unless the editors and publishers are equally ignorant about good writing by good writers).

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I looked for posts I may have made about narrations, and I found this, from Elmore Leonard and Martin Amis.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Elmore Leonard qualifies as one of those masters I suggested earlier. No one could ever go wrong "imitating" and learning from Leonard. I like his westerns better than his crime fiction, which must make me something of a heretic on this blog.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've posted about his Westerns here! And quite a number of crime writers I like cite Leonard as a great influence.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

See, I have a very hard time putting down books, even the very worst. That's why I try to have a good idea of what I'm getting into beforehand. I do enjoy most of what I read, not because I'm easy to please, but because I take the time to read reviews and consider recommendations carefully. When I do end up with a clunker, I guess the writer in me wants to figure out what went so wrong with it. I also feel like I have to finish it to earn the right to criticize it.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Kelly, I guess that is a useful motivation, reading to figure out what works and what does not. However, for me, at this point in my life, what remains of life is too short for bad books. We already know how not to write. We need to focus on reading writers who have something to teach us about how to write better. For just one example from among thousands, if I have a choice between James Patterson and Elmore Leonard, the latter moves to the head of the line every time. Based on Peter's comments, I will also be looking forward to Musil.

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, I would like with some effort to become the kind of reader you are. I do think we are similar in some respects: When I have to finish a book I don't love--for an assigned review, say--I find myself compelled to seek out, by analysis what there is of interest in a book. Once I've done that, I feel that i've achieved something akin to liking the book.

You've evaded the question at hand beautifully and in a most compelling manner. Have you come across, whether in crime fiction or other reading, an author creates a set-up that look as if it will be run of the mill but then turns out to be something else?

December 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: You, too, are right. I assuage guilt feelings about setting a book aside by telling myself that life is too short.

What I do sometimes find myself wondering sometimes is if the successful formula writers of the world could do something different if they tried. It takes some talent to stick to a formula and to do ti well.

December 26, 2012  

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