THE RIGHT WORD (Adventures in Language: Second Journey)

It’s a short journey this time, but I just came across a bit of writing in Geoffrey Household’s Hostage: London (1977 and promising to compete with Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima as the best novel ever written about the inner workings of a terror cell–see Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Eric Ambler’s pre-war spy novels for the best novels written about innocents caught up in a terror web, which isn’t quite the same thing), that made me smile:

When the patrol had reached the millpond and turned back on their beat, Mick slipped away ahead of them. From where I was I could not see the pool of light flickering over the ground and in and among the tree roots, but its effect on the police was immediate.

Almost any good writer could have written those sentences and conceived the simple actions involved (a member of the cell drawing off the police so the narrator can proceed with his appointed rounds). But I like the clarity and specificity of “tree roots.” Leaving it at “trees” would have been perfectly acceptable to most writers and nearly all readers. But the “pool of light” is in the mind’s eye of the character. If the light were “flickering over the ground and in and among the trees” if would raise a conflict–subconscious in all but the most attentive reader’s mind, but likely to nag all but the least attentive–that the first rate writer would hate himself for accepting. If the light is playing among the trees, how has it remained only in the Narrator’s mind’s eye and not come to his actual vision? Plus, even if the light were shining directly behind him, not only would it flood his vision, it would find him out.

But among the “tree roots?”….All eyes–in the Narrator’s mind, the police patrol’s heads, or the reader’s imagination–are looking down…while the man trying to save London from a nuclear blast by betraying his fellow terrorists slips away.

Conflict resolved. Intensity heightened. Plot moving. All due to a right word, which, if it were not present, would have the best readers wondering what it is that’s….not quite right.

That’s the kind of writing that will put you in competition with Henry James.

And make your fellow writers take a moment to offer a salute.