Showing posts with label Jim Harrison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jim Harrison. Show all posts

08 March 2023

The Novella

As a form, the novella attracted me early.  It didn’t have the capaciousness of a novel, or the tight rising action of a short story, but it promised both a wider canvas and the close reading of character.  In time, I came to realize how near it was to a screenplay, the economy of depth.

My parents had some John O’Hara titles on the shelf.  I don’t think they were fans of the later novels, which were heavy-duty door-stoppers, but they had all of the story collections – his stories from the 1960’s are terrific, and invite reappraisal – and a trilogy of novellas called Sermons and Soda-Water.  That book became my model for what a novella ought to be, rigorous and intense.

I didn’t see anything to match it for twenty years, and then Jim Harrison published Legends of the Fall, and that book had me seriously re-thinking what you could maybe accomplish in a hundred-odd pages.  (I have to say that the movie adaption is execrable, a subject for another time.)

Much influenced by Legends of the Fall, I wrote a bounty hunter novella called Doubtful Canyon.  I discovered, to my chagrin, that it’s an awkward length, too long for most general-interest magazines, too short for book publication.

Then I did a spy story, called Viper, and put it up as an Amazon e-book.  I did the same with another, The Kingdom of Wolves.  I love the form, but the issue is marketability.

We come now to the Nero Wolfe Society’s Black Orchid Award, which is specifically for novellas, written after the manner of Rex Stout.  This doesn’t mean a pastiche, like a Sherlock Holmes and Watson; in fact, you’re not supposed to use Nero and Archie at all, or their ecosystem.  It means, in the spirit of.  I read a couple of Wolfe novellas, to get the flavor, but I found them dated and contrived, and I read one of the recent winners, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which appeared in Hitchcock, and a mystery I found original and ingenious.  The obvious question: could I write one?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m taking a crack at it.  The trick, of course, is how to do Nero-esque without the tiresome Nero himself, the misogyny, the hothouse flowers, the bloviating condescension.  Archie, let’s face it, is by far the more attractive (and authentic) personality. 

A bigger question is how to address the basic gimmick of the Nero stories.  He never leaves the house.  Archie does the legwork and reports back.  Nero reads the runes and fingers the villain.  How do you repurpose this, without falling into inert convention?  “The Black Drop of Venus,” manages to solve the problem convincingly, with a good deal of wit.  I hope to follow suit.