08 December 2012

Old Dogs and New Tricks

As usual, I've been reading almost as much as I've been writing, lately.  What's unusual is that in a few of the crime novels I've read, there are some new techniques--or at least seldom-used techniques--that caught my attention.

A reborn identity

The first "different" approach I'll mention was used by the late Salvatore Lombino--much better known by the pen names Evan Hunter and Ed McBain--in his novel Candyland.  Those who have read him know that the Evan Hunter name appears on his "literary" novels while Ed McBain writes police procedurals, notably those set in the fictional 87th Precinct of the fictional city of Isola.  In fact Lombino legally changed his name to Evan Hunter many years ago, although I would imagine the pseudonym Ed McBain is more familiar to the reading public.  (Genre writers are almost always better known than literary writers.)

Anyhow, the reason Candyland is unusual is that it's two different books in one.  Billed as a collaboration between the two authors, the first half is written by the more sophisticated Hunter and the second half is written by the crime writer McBain.  (It's as if there really were two different authors rather than the same person; both names are even listed on the book cover.)  Also interesting is that the situation introduced by Hunter is then turned into a tale of murder investigation by McBain.  The viewpoint in the first half is that of the killer, and the viewpoint in the second half is that of one of the homicide detectives.  An intriguing approach, and an entertaining novel.

Don't I know you from someplace?

Another (fairly) rare technique is bringing characters from different series together in the same book.  I know it's been done a number of times, but I've encountered it most recently in two novels by two of my favorite writers.

The Panther, a new book by Nelson DeMille, pairs the characters John Corey and Paul Brenner, both of whom were already known to DeMille fans as protagonists in some of his previous novels.  John Corey was the head fred in DeMille's Plum IslandThe Lion's GameNight FallWild FireThe Lion, etc., and Paul Brenner was the hero of the novel Up Country.  Corey and his wife Kate Mayfield are the main players in The Panther, but Brenner is onscreen for most of the book as well.  As with all series characters, it was fun to meet them again, and also to see how they (when thrown together in the same cage) reacted to each other.

Robert B. Parker did the same kind of thing, occasionally teaming up folks from his three series starring Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall.  In the novel Blue Screen, two of the three series protags even become romantically involved (no, it's not Spenser and Stone), and Parker regularly interchanged minor characters like Rita Fiore, Martin Quirk, and Vinnie Morris.  Again, whenever that happens, and readers discover unexpected but familiar faces, it's fun.  It's like running into old friends while on a faraway vacation.

A Grisham switchum

I'd also like to mention a recent novel by John Grisham, an author I would describe as extremely talented but not extremely innovative. Grisham seems to know what works for him and sticks to it. Except for the occasional lighthearted project (Skipping Christmas) or sports theme (BleachersPlaying for PizzaCalico Joe), the only time I've seen him stray very far afield was with A Painted House, which is a literary, Southern, coming-of-age novel told from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old boy.

But in his latest, The Racketeer, he does some things I haven't seen him do before, stylewise, like mixing present and past tense, and writing some chapters in first person and others in third person.  He even writes the first-person sections in the POV of an imprisoned African-American lawyer.  I can't say it'll be a great story--I only just started it--but it looks pretty good so far.

Hey, Mom, watch this . . .

The kinds of things I've described above are merely different literary approaches, not so-called experimental writing.  Experimental, to me, means something like stream-of-conscienceness, or putting all dialogue in italics, or using second-person plural POV, or omitting all quotation marks, or writing the whole story or novel without using the letter "n."  That kind of writing I don't usually enjoy; I think that's just being different for the sake of being different.  (On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy has been known to employ some pretty wild techniques, and he's an author I like a lot.)

How do you feel about "pushing the envelope" in terms of writing style or other literary devices? Have you done that, in past novels or stories?  Would you consider it, for future projects?  Do you enjoy reading fiction that uses new and different writing techniques and approaches?

Since I don't consider myself particularly innovative or adventurous, I was surprised to find myself enjoying most of these recently-read books I've mentioned.  Who knows, maybe I've learned from them.  Maybe one day I'll try something different myself.

And maybe not.

BREAKING NEWS: The winner of last week's drawing is C.S. Poulsen, who will choose either Death Will Get You Sober (hardcover), the first in Elizabeth Zelvin's mystery series, or her brand new e-novella, Death Will Save Your Life.  Congrats to C.S.!


  1. I'm not fond of tricks, although I don't consider having characters from different series too tricky if it works well. Clive Cussler used to write in the author as a cameo character his protagonist would meet along the way.

    I much prefer 3rd person, period.. In a thriller a few years ago, an author had 3rd person and two different 1st persons. One of the 1st person chapters reported the death of that particular character.

    I also read a so-called Indy novel (self-pubbed) with mixed 1st and 3rd person, sometimes in adjacent paragraphs. The authoress called it innovative; I called it sloppy writing.

    I have used present tense in a flashback, but I didn't think that was too tricky in a 3rd person novel. But who knows?

  2. Great analysis of these novels, John. Makes me want to read all of them. I enjoy things that are different, if they don't get in the way of the story. I'm not fond of present tense, for example, because it gets really awkward when the author does a flashback. But I have read a few works that were done so well in present tense than I forgot about it after a few pages. It works better in short stories, I believe. I like to try things out in my short stories, but I'm pretty traditional in my novels.

  3. Your excellent post has me ruminating about my feeling that use of present tense can sometimes lend a "continental" flavor to the voice of a piece. As if the narrator (or, perhaps, a character) is German or French, for example.

    I don’t know…this may be a personal thing, based on my reading WWI & II history as a kid, in which German and French war memoirs were translated into English in present tense – something which really struck my young “ear” as being very foreign.

    On the other hand, I seem to remember John LeCarre doing this also, when he had a character from one of those areas -- or from, for instance, Luxemburg, or Belgium or something (the “Low Countries” are they called??).

    I think I may have used present tense – more often in character speech patterns, but also, at times, in the narration of certain pieces -- for the same reason.

    Does that make sense to anybody? I don’t think I’ve consciously considered it before, but rather that I just “felt” this was the flavor needed to create a certain voice. If you know what I mean.

  4. Nice piece, John. Perhaps I will give the new Grisham a try. I used to read all of his books but lately have given up on the lawyer novels -- they generally have no character that I like or can empathize with (and this, you will remember, is a comment BY a lawyer). Also his lawyer books of late seem to end without a satisfying resolution. Calico Joe, on the other hand, like A Painted House, was IMO great.

  5. Lee, I too prefer to write in 3rd person, but for some reason a few of my favorite stories were those I wrote in 1st person. I believe the biggest advantage of 1st person is its feeling of closeness to the viewpoint character, and the biggest advantage of 3rd person is its ability to create suspense. (How else, except with 3rd person, can the reader know, before the POV character does, that the killer is lurking just around the corner? Or that a bomb is ticking away under the table?)

    I don't particularly like mixing 1st and 3rd person, although it has certainly been done a lot lately--and done successfully.

    Jan, I agree that present tense is hard to get used to. I still prefer reading and writing in past tense, probably because that's the traditional way to tell a story. As in "this is what happened."

    Dix, it sounds as if you're comfortable enough with using present tense that you probably use it effectively. If you don't consciously think of it when you do it, it probably sounds natural--both to you and to the reader.

  6. Dale -- I finished The Racketeer late last night, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't think it was his best. With recent Grisham novels, I often find myself feeling as if I'm reading a piece of nonfiction rather than a piece of fiction; in other words, I wind up learning a lot about a process without caring much about the folks who are involved in the process.

    I maintain that Grisham is a gifted writer--his style is smooth and entertaining and seemingly effortless. I just think he's a better writer than storyteller, if that makes any sense. At least in his later novels.

    If you read this one, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion of it.

  7. Sorry, Leigh. I honestly do know how to spell your name . . .

  8. John, thanks for the info to think about. Two of my AHMM series are in 1st Person and two are in 3rd Person. Turns out that both 1st Person series are told from the POV of a young orphan, which thinking back on it, must've been for the close effect in order for the reader to see the juvenile thoughts leading to the juvenile actions.
    I too, feel that The Painted House is the best of Grisham, from what I've read of his novels so far anyway.

  9. I guess I am a traditionalist in that I like stories that are written without gimmicks. I tried several times to read Andersonville, but found the use of dialogue without quotation marks difficult to follow. The closest I have ever come to non-traditional writing was a story using only dialogue with no description.

    The majority of the stories I have written are in first person. It is "comfortable". However, certain stories must be written in third person. And we all know when to do so.

    Good article, John. And I agree with your comments about Grisham.

  10. John, don't you know this is a really busy time of year? At our house we have birthdays from November 13th through January 15th with a concentration in December around Christmas. As busy as I am, you're forcing me to take time out to read a book. Can't wait to read CANDYLAND!

  11. R.T., if I'm remembering correctly, Robert B. Parker wrote one of his series in 1st person (Spenser) and two in 3rd person (Stone and Randall). You're in good company.

    As for A Painted House, I've heard some critics say its POV character "knew" things that a seven-year-old child couldn't yet know, but I didn't agree. I liked it, and thought it reminded me a bit of Shane and To Kill A Mockingbird; a young narrator who was eager to learn seemed a perfect choice for the viewpoint character.

    Thanks, Herschel. Actually, I find that "tricks" like using no quotation marks are so distracting they keep me from getting totally invested in the story. And to me, as a writer, distractions of any kind should be avoided if possible.

    Fran, if you read Candyland I hope you enjoy it. I didn't think it was a great novel, but it was certainly interesting.

  12. Interesting comment concerning "Painted House". I felt the same way about the narrator. And it caused a slight problem for me, even though the book was enjoyable. "To Kill A Mockingbird" used the same technique, except the narrator was an adult looking back on her life whereas the narrator in Painted House was telling the story as a child. That made a difference to me and I could accept her insights. Harper Lee was careful to separate the "reflections" from the dialogue, thus giving her the freedom to see things from the perspective of an adult while telling the story as Scout the child. Clever. And effective.


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