WHEN A WELL TURNED PARAGRAPH IS AS GOOD AS A SMILE (Adventures in Language: Third Journey)

York Square must never have had a youth; it’s little formal tapestry of a private park, its grizzled guardian corners of little castles, each with its watchful tower, surely looked old and out of place and time even when the masons laid down their trowels. And what York Square was in stone, Robert York was in the flesh. Imagine him a child if you could, and still you saw only a dwindled Robert York as he stood, in black homburg and iron-gray, with a gray cravat above an antique waistcoat (and spats before May 15th), the unrimmed glasses making him eyeless in the morning sun on his drum-skin face. Compelling Robert York to live in one of York Square’s four castles was like compelling a man to be a biped; commanding that he uphold the York tradition was like commanding that the grass in the little park grow green. They were all alike–he, the park, the castles, York Square–punctilious, outmoded, predictable. Neatly Walt worked on the grassy borders of the plaque as, neatly and to the dot, Robert York took his morning stroll about the park. 

(The Player on the Other Side, Ellery Queen, 1963)

If I threw that paragraph up there out as an unsourced abstract and asked who might have written it, sensible assumptions might include Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene. I only mention it because, as late as 1963, it was possible to encounter–maybe even expect–that level of writing even in popular detective novels written by committee.

These days, a single paragraph of that quality would get you consigned to the slush pile and the word would be passed that the writer is to be avoided at all costs.

Believe me, I know.

To make the comparison of eras a little more interesting, you can spend some time contemplating what combination of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (the cousins who were responsible for most of the “Queen” output), plus Theodore Sturgeon (the sci-fi writer who was called in as a hired gun on this one to relieve them of their five-year case of writer’s block and/or feuding partnership) was responsible for this, or any other element of the novel. Just know, neither individuals or committees are allowed this sort of thing nowadays. Realism belongs to the post-modernists who write way longer. Pop writing reaches for a much lower common denominator.

And, time and again, finds it.

(FYI: I’m revisiting The Player on the Other Side because, of all the Agatha Christies and Ellery Queens and Rex Stouts and Legion of Others I read in my voracious youth, it left the strongest impression. I haven’t read it since, but so far it’s holding up nicely. Of course all the writing isn’t up to the descriptive passage above–it is a popular entertainment first and foremost–but neither are such passages uncommon.)

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