Thursday, April 13, 2006

Street Legal

Author and lawyer M. Diane Vogt once said, in my hearing, something to the effect that she was surprised at the rise of "legal thrillers" because there really isn't anything inherently thrilling going on in the legal profession. Obviously depending on what it's about and who the characters are, not to mention the quality of the writing, a "legal thriller" can actually be exciting. Or on the other hand, it could be Grisham's The Street Lawyer.

When I read Charles Williams' Hell Hath No Fury (1953) it struck me that this kind of book isn't written any longer. I wonder how much of a factor this may be in the perception that reading older books is preferable to reading strictly newer. Success in the market is not always an indication of quality; in fact, it's probably the opposite.

As interesting as the concepts in The Da Vinci Code may be, the book is a poorly written, horribly constructed exercise in form over substance. It's not the religious implications that trouble me in the least, including the actions of Opus Dei or the Catholic church. Was there really a Priory of Sion? I don't care. But when the murdered caretaker fakes the death of his family in order to protect them, why does he not hide the connection to his daughter as well (or was it his granddaughter? Who cares?)? Logic would tell us that scrutiny would have been focused on her, ruining the plot. Or the fact that her last name, according to the hero, precluded her from being a descendant of Jesus: it just isn't that hard to change a name. Every time the girl rasied a question, the hero said, no, that can't be, and then explained it away. This is a very clumsy device, especially when used repetitively, when the points he debunks turn out to be the opposite of his conclusions. In other words, it's not the story that offends me, it's the deadly writing.

But I digress. That book will be bashed for decades and by people who care far more about it than I. It has spawned a mini-trend of "religious thrillers," though, and it will be interesting to see if it has any traction. I tend to doubt it if only because market watching authors concentrating on bandwagon jumping rather than writing well are unlikely to produce much of quality. What a snob I am.

Obviously techno-thrillers didn't exist in the forties and fifties, we were still transitioning from horses and radio. Romance novels existed but I wouldn't think they'd be in the same class now.

Hell Hath No Fury is a kind of book that doesn't seem to be around much anymore. A small time drifter with questionable morals and ethics pulls into town, messes with the wrong women, and goes for the shortcut to some easy cash. Only it's never quite so easy and it usually goes to hell when the right woman shows up and the poor shmoe can't get out of the mess he's already made for himself. A classic formula, and many other writers (Jim Thompson leaps to mind) have used it to good effect. Because of these common elements I suppose it could almost be called a mini-genre which might be good if it called more attention to these books.

Yes, when you pick the book up you know roughly how it will go and how it will end, but that's true of most books you pick up, old or new. What sets this book apart is its style. All the good writers of the period developed a strong and distinctive voice and flair for language. I think that's largely missing in today's bestsellers, with exceptions like James Lee Burke being far too few. Modern writers that try to write in an older style come off as forced and cliched. My guess is that yesterday's pros were just that, pros, and in order to feed the bulldog they were punching out word after word at a much greater pace than most writers today.

I don't mean to imply that quantity automatically begets quality because that is clearly absurd. But quantity produced by a talent yields a quality and a voice and a style that I bemoan in much of today's popular fiction. I don't want to be dazzled with pyrotechnics of plot, I want to be absorbed by the writing, by a style that makes me stay up too late at night, that relates the things I know must be coming in ways I've never heard before (even though it may have been written sixty years ago).

Most heavy readers are always looking for new writers; most are somewhat disappointed by the modern writers they claim to like, saying his new one is not his best, or this is for fans of the series only. I've written a lot about authors who write an excellent first book or two and then settle into mediocrity. I think many readers would be better served to expand their search to include vintage books like the ones I've been writing about as well as to the blockbuster du jour.


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