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.

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.

Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):

Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”

That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.

The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.

It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.

Then the war came.

The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.

No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.

This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.

Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.

It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.

For that, she can certainly be forgiven.

[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]

SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

MISSPYMDISPOSES

“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.