It’s official: reading crime novels has spoiled me.
I talked about this in a couple of prior posts, in a way. Crime novels move. It’s their purpose. They aren’t literary excursions. They’re not exercises in how many words you can use to tell what should be a short story.
I can’t lay the blame entirely at crime’s door, though. There’s this whole Internet thing. You heard of it? Yeah, that thing. Seems that, thanks to it, people don’t like long blocks of text. They want the lite version: tell them as much as you can in as few words as possible. I’ve fallen victim to it as well. If I encounter a Web page that has too much text on it, I skip it.
What spurred this was my attempt to finally read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I’m sure you’ve hard of it. A debut novel from a few years back that made a minor splash on the bestseller scene (that’s sarcasm, in case you can’t hear it).
I made it to somewhere around page 66 and gave up. It’s the kind of book I used to could have curled up and spent hours with. Lots of back-story. Lots of telling me how things came to be since about the time God said, “Let there be Light!”
I used to love that stuff, man. Gimme back-story. Gimme the Book of Genesis. Gimme all the nuances of personality, whether they have bearing on the story or not. I want to know these people thoroughly before I get involved with them. I didn’t care if the story stayed stuck in one spot for twenty pages. This is background, man. Don’t interrupt me right now, ’cause this stuff’s da bomb!
Now, I’ll grant you this: it could be that I just wasn’t in the mood for something like Edgar Sawtelle. Despite my general sense of disdain for the whole bestseller phenomenon (it’s that outsider’s disdain for what he views as the in crowd), I’ve found that, more often than not, they’re bestsellers for a reason.
I’m not downing the book, and I’m sure there’s a reason so many people lauded it. I can remember the first time I picked up Stephen King’s It, just after it was released in hardback (that was back in the days when I grabbed every new King novel as soon as it came out). To be honest, I was a little disappointed and gave up maybe a quarter of the way in. It was just too much.
Something like three months later, I picked it up and tried again. And couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure you’ve done the same thing: you’ve got like three hundred frickin’ movies, and ain’t one of ’em worth watching. At least not today. Go back the next day, and you can’t pick which one of the twenty that look appealing that you really wanna watch. Books can be the same way.
I think I may try Edgar Sawtelle again a few months down the road, when I hit one of those periods where I can’t take another crime novel without screaming and beating on the walls. I’m still ingesting those things pretty steady, though. It’s the genre I want to write in, so I’m taking in all the crime novels I can. The more I know about the field, the better my own novels will be.
And, to be fair, David Wroblewski is a good writer. I reiterate that what he does is the kind of thing I’d happily lose myself in for hours at a time as recently as a year ago. But since I’ve immersed myself in crime so much lately (sometimes it feels like it’s leaking out my pores), I want the story to move with very little pause or I can’t tolerate it.
Wroblewski spends a couple pages of the prologue describing, in somewhat loving detail, the walk a man takes in Pusan, South Korea in 1952. We get a very full picture of what Pusan, or at least that particular part of it, was like back then. And damned if I’m gonna say there’s anything wrong with that. Evidently a lot of people approved of the way he does this.
But compare that with the opening sentence of An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy: I had a gun I didn’t want to use. There’s a blurb on the front cover that pretty much sums up what I’ve read of the novel so far: “An Ordinary Decent Criminal would have Quentin Tarantino smiling from page one. Doubt me? Read page one.” –Michael Koryta.
He’s right. Three people are killed on page two. Violently.
We’re off and running. Go, you. I can’t wait to take the rest of it in now, and I’m just on Chapter 2. We be jommin’.
Maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on this thing. Maybe I sound like the newly converted: C’mere, lemme show you how to get to heaven, brother! But, see, the thing is, it’s a lesson I’ve learned, and this blog is about writing. Yes, I’ve strayed occasionally, writing about something that’s just pissed me off so much that I’ll explode if I don’t say something. But, by and large, this is a blog about writing. Not politics, or what passes for it in DC these days. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Crime writing is my release valve from all that crap. I play video games like Grand Theft Auto for therapy, for chrissakes! Had a bad day? Fire up the PS2 (I haven’t been able to afford a nextgen console) and kill some polygons. Guaranteed to make you feel better. Just imagine it’s your least favorite politician. Maybe that ain’t PC, but it works.
Anyway, the thing is, because writing standards have changed so much recently, and I’ve dove off in the deep end of the crime writer’s pool, I need for my stories to move, thank you very much.
And I’ll try to keep from bringing this up again for a while, boys and girls. That’s this week’s lesson. For your homework, go out and read something you enjoy. And stay out of this damned heat. This summer’s reads aren’t for the beach, they’re for the living room under the a/c.