I’ve recently read (some of) two novels: a randomly selected detective novel, Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, and a cop novel that came recommended, Burning Angel by James Lee Burke.
First, Nine Dragons. Grammatically fine, but the writing is not much beyond high school. The internal monologue is probably the best part, but the dialogue is flat and colorless. Often there are long stretches of dialogue with no action, no gestures, no change in facial expression or vocal inflection, and little internal monologue or review of the developments. The only way we are aware that the characters might possibly be experiencing any emotion is when someone says something ‘curtly’ or ‘in a sulking voice’.
For example, after pages and pages of dialogue with no emotional clues,
Bosch was growing excited.
“Then, why don’t we do it?”
So at least we know he’s now feeling something.
And you also get writing like this:
“… If you think there is any danger involved in talking to us, then we can protect you.”
“Absolutely,” Chu chimed in.
“Chimed in” is not wrong, but it’s not good either. It’s something you’d expect in a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel.
“What is this?” Chang protested. “What I do?”
He had a strong accent.
In case you didn’t notice or thought there was a typo, Chang has a strong accent.
Contrast the writing with this, from Burning Angel:
He had been born to an exclusionary world of wealth and private schools, membership in the town’s one country club, and Christmas vacations in places the rest of us knew of only from books, but no one could accuse him of not having improved upon what he had been given.
I doubt that there is any sentence this length in Nine Dragons, though I can’t say for sure because I didn’t finish it. I was a third of the way through when my wife handed me Burning Angel.
A little further along in our introduction to the character above, we get this paragraph. A nice balance of a short sentence with a longer one, while we see more of the character, his manner, and the location.
We walked under the trees in his backyard. His face was cool and pleasant as he sipped his iced tea and looked at a motorboat and a water-skier hammering down the bayou on pillows of yellow foam.
Whereas Connelly says things like:
As the two women got closer Bosch saw that the younger woman was in her midthirties and attractive in an understated, hair-behind-the-ears sort of way. She was Asian. She was dressed in blue jeans and a white blouse. She walked a half step behind Mrs. Li with her eyes cast down on the floor. The initial impression Bosch got was that she was an employee. A maid pressed into services as a driver. But the deskman downstairs had said they were both named Li.
Here we’re getting what I think of as the faux-Chandler style of short, abrupt, incomplete sentences, used when a writer wants to represent a no-nonsense tough guy. (And note: three sentences in a row that begin with ‘She’). In the last two sentences in particular you can imagine a Bogart caricature; teeth clenched, dressed in a fedora and trench coat, maybe a toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth.
Compare this with:
His race was a mystery, his biscuit-colored body almost hairless, his stomach a water-filled balloon, his pudgy arms and hands those of a boy who never grew out of adolescence. But his comic proportions had always been a deception. When he was seventeen a neighbor’s hog rooted up his mother’s vegetable garden. Sweet Pea picked up the hog, carried it squealing to the highway, and threw it headlong into the grille of a semi-truck.
This one is not even the most elegant of Lee Burke’s descriptions, but it’s from early in the novel and since I didn’t finish Nine Dragons I wanted to be comparing similar sections.
The difficulty I have with Lee Burke is his obtuseness. Often his characters are saying things that don’t make sense because the other character—and you the reader as well—are supposed to be reading between the lines. It’s part of the wise-guy, I’m-just-as-smart-and-tough-as-you attitude and everybody knows it, but it slows the reading down because you have to interpret as you read.
And the emotions of his protagonist are obtuse as well, particularly when he suddenly loses control and beats someone up. I guess the anger was there, veiled, but more than once I didn’t understand why he suddenly started smashing a glass pitcher or his fists into someone’s face. I’m not sure whether this abruptness is obtuseness, or the narrator didn’t want to give away the story by showing the building emotion, or whether the character has anger management issues and didn’t expect the violence himself, or whether the author doesn’t feel that the build up is missing.
And though the writing is lovely, sometimes it’s too descriptive and too much. Every new character has unusual physical traits, and every setting is described poetically.
Somehow because of this, though the mystery is large and has big implications, it has that slice of life feel that literary works sometimes have, though it’s a particularly large slice for a character that is not himself larger than life, like say a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. The story ends by petering out without explosions or violence that match the rest of the novel. Two principle characters are found dead after a non-violent murder/suicide. A mystery character reveals herself and is quickly dispatched by someone who received a phone tip. All the loose ends are tied up, but it feels as if the character and the author (and maybe the reader too) are worn out.
But it is nice to read a genre writer who likes words, who views writing as more than a plot, who writes about characters who are more than just an amalgamation of traits, and settings that are more than just city and street names with temperatures and the occasional leafy tree.