Jim Thompson, Benjamin Whitmer, Daniel Woodrell, mood-breakers, a question for readers
"Sheriff Nick Corey is Jim Thompson's greatest creation," Woodrell writes. "Pop. 1280, set in Texas, is so directly a southern novel, so clearly from that tradition, that it would stand high on the Southern Lit shelf (which means high on the Lit Shelf, period) if it were not so consistently misidentified as a work with its roots genre, and therefore arbitrarily reduced in stature. ... The vision is dark but the writing bizarrely hilarious, utilizing the strain of downhome joshing I love so well and learned at the knees of my old ones."Now, I've been to Texas just once in my life, to Houston and Galveston, and, while my charming hostess does like to say, "Y'all, hush!" I can claim only the most cursory acquaintance with the state, the region, and their quirks and folkways. But I have to think Woodrell is right because fourteen chapters in, Pop. 1280 is dark, hilarious, a stunning performance that sustains its mood in every word, far and away the best of the limited amount of Thompson's work that I've read (Savage Night, The Getaway, part of The Grifters).
I may have more to say on this astonishing book later, but for now some thoughts on why hard, dark writing may the most difficult kind of crime writing to do well. Here's what I mean: I've read plenty of the hard stuff recently, Thompson, Whitmer, Jedidiah Ayres' Fierce Bitches, Crime Factory's Lee Marvin-themed short-story collection Lee, Eric Beetner, and Blood and Tacos. Lots of that writing is good, some better than that, but what interested me were those stories where a not-quite-right word threw the atmosphere off just enough to take me out of the story, if only for a moment. No author wants to do that, but I suspect the stakes may be especially high in noir, hard-boiled, Southern Gothic, or any other genre that depends heavily on mood.
The slip-up need not be large; all it takes is a bit of jargon or psychobabble, a grammatical error ("Lying still, strapped down tight, the hostage's eyes meet his."), or some annoying quirk of contemporary speech creeping in (level, say, as in "his confidence level" rather than "his confidence.")
That's me; What are your mood-breakers? What lapses will take you out of a story?
© Peter Rozovsky 2013