Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lionel White and definitely established mathematical odds: A classic heist novel revisited

Sixteen months after I made this post about the wince-making first scene of Lionel White's novel Clean Break (filmed by Stanley Kubrick as The Killing), I went back and read the whole novel; it's a hell of a novel. Rick Ollerman was right to invoke Richard Stark's Parker books in his comment below. The Killing (1955), and also White's The Big Caper, from the same year, are like Parker novels such as The Score, with their emphasis on the build-up to a heist and the ever present danger of interpersonal complications. White's story stays closer to film noir's roots in melodrama than Stark does, and the narrative pace is faster, but if you like one, you're liable to like the other. White appears to have published at least four novels in 1955. Perhaps the haste of publication deprived the book of the editorial scrutiny that would have remedied to faults I highlight in the post. \
 The occasional lapses in prose style in paperback original novels get me thinking about the conditions under which their authors wrote. I remind myself that the verbal lapses may be due to those conditions rather than to lack of talent. But here's the opening of Lionel White's 1955 novel The Clean Break, which Stanley Kubrick filmed as The Killing (the novel, not just its opening):
"The aggressive determination on his long, bony face was in sharp contrast to the short, small-boned body which he used as a wedge to shoulder his way slowly through the hurrying crowd of stragglers rushing through the wide doors to the grandstand.

"Marvin Unger was only vaguely aware of the emotionally pitched voice coming over the public address system. He was very alert to everything taking place around him, but he didn’t need to hear that voice to know what was happening. The sudden roar of the thousands out there in the hot, yellow, afternoon sunlight made it quite clear. They were off in the fourth race.

"Unconsciously his right hand tightened around the thick packet of tickets he had buried in the side pocket of his linen jacket. The tension was purely automatic. Of the hundred thousand and more persons at the track that afternoon, he alone felt no thrill as the twelve thoroughbreds left the post for the big race of the day.

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed in a wry smile. He would, in any case, cash a winning ticket. He had a ten dollar win bet on every horse in the race.

"In the course of his thirty-seven years, Unger had been at a track less than half a dozen times. He was totally disinterested in horse racing; in fact, had never gambled at all. He had a neat, orderly mind, a very clear sense of logic and an inbred aversion to all `sporting events.' He considered gambling not only stupid, but strictly a losing proposition. Fifteen years as a court stenographer had given him frequent opportunity to see what usually happened when men place their faith in luck in opposition to definitely established mathematical odds."
I'll give White "aggressive determination," though I think the phrase weak, bordering on repetitive. But every other word or string of words I highlighted crosses that border or is at best unnecessary and at worst grammatically ludicrous.  "Emotionally pitched"? What does that mean? Did the announcer sound as if he were about to break into tears? Why "everything taking place around him" rather than just "everything around him"? Why slow a sentence down by beginning it with an adverb ("unconsciously"), especially when White repeats himself in the next sentence, telling us the tension was "purely automatic"? And why "purely automatic" rather than "automatic"?

"Turning into the abruptly deserted lobby of the clubhouse, his tight mouth relaxed" is not only a dangling participle, it's wordy. Why tell us that the stragglers were rushing if you've just told us they're hurrying? And "the course of," "very," "in fact," and "at all" are throat-clearing. White should have cut each in his second draft or his editor on a first pass. As to "definitely established mathematical odds," all odds are mathematical, and "definitely established" is doubly redundant, each word with respect to the other, and the two when set against "mathematical."

OK, these guys churned it out, and their work probably did not get the care most novels got at hardback houses or that one associates with novels today, when authors will turn out maybe a book a year rather than a book a month. If  he'd had more time, Harry Whittington might occasionally have substituted another word for sickness in A Night for Screaming. Charles Williams might have found other ways to say "thoughtfully" in All The Way (also known as The Concrete Flamingo).  But those guys saved the repetition for later in their books, and it's easy to imagine them so caught up in the stories they were telling that verbal polish fell by the wayside. They didn't bog things down on the very first page, never a good idea, particularly not in thrillers or suspense novels.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

White was a "heist" novel specialist and books like "The Big Steal," while possibly suffering from some of the infelicitous writing, reminds a lot of Westlake's/Stark's later Parker series. And White's books *move*, and he often writes from the criminal's point of view, like Parker, but with a broader viewpoint. In my opinion, he's well worth the effort of looking up.

March 17, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...

I have a hard time judging older fiction, as the standards of the day were different. Not necessarily better or worse; different.

On the other hand, I live and read now, and I would have stopped reading this one before I got as far as the end of your excerpt. Tastes change.

March 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rick, in addition to White's other accomplishments, The Big Caper includes the most charming tribute to another writer that I kjnow of in all of crime fiction.

And isn't it interesting how often older authors remind readers of Westlake? I'm reading Anatomy of a Killer now, and its opening chapters read as if a psychologist had sat down to write about Parker. And Peter Rabe was a psychologist, of course. I can see why Westlake was fascinated with his work.

March 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, you;re right that standards and practices change in writing and in everything else. Even Chandler used adverbs more than is general today.But I've been reading lots of paperback originals recently, and the passages under discussion here stick out.

But most people will recognize, that the conditions under which paperback originals were produced made it inevitable that not every book would be of the highest quality. Perhaps the opening of Clean Break/The Killing are an example.

The best of the paperback original writers could write beautifully, of course. Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, and Gil Brewer come to mind.

March 17, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: Tastes change, which is why I'm often cautious about criticizing older books that put me off. Rather than calling such books bad, I'll wind up saying they have dated badly.

March 18, 2015  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

I narrated the audiobook of THE KILLING, and I have to admit, I had trouble with the verbose opening. I must also admit, though, that once I got into the book, the tension grabbed me and wouldn't let go.

April 01, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, that's a good plug for the audio version. I'm curious about how you handled all the unnecessary words.

April 01, 2015  

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