Elmore Leonard – More Hemingway than Hemingway

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.

Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.

Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.

As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.

Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmore_Leonard

A few excerpts from the Leonard opus ….

A male character called Foley to Dawn:

“Tell me, what is it about a girl’s navel? It catches the eye and won’t let go.”
“I suppose,” Dawn said, “because it’s right in the middle of the playground.”

Two “criminal” characters:

“I’m saying we’re all friends,” Frank said. “Kindred spirits. Birds of a feather.”
“Man,” Sportree said, “you need some new words.”

Movies vs. Books

Book lovers, you know who you are. You rank books above movies. But what about when movies are better than the books they’re based on? Consider a case from Swedish noir: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (aka, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy).

The books were a sensation. No debate there. However, the movies were far better (the three versions shot in Sweden). They have depth and complexity. As critics like to say, they live and breathe. You see the dark side of Swedish life. You feel Lizbeth Salander’s anger and disgust. And when you read the books? You don’t.

The English translations seem plodding and mundane. Relatively speaking, the books are dead wood. I’ll never read them again. However, I will watch the movies again. Movies: Three. Books: Zero. A lopsided win. And a shutout, as we Canucks say.

PS: IMHO, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy is an exception. Books usually win. But, hey, I’m in the writers’ union. 😉

Off-the-beaten Track

Under The Holy Lake by Ken Haigh, 2008. University of Alberta Press.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Those who know me, know I’m a big fan of travelogues featuring distant lands. Few countries are as remote as Bhutan.

Under The Holy Lake presents a captivating memoir of two years in Bhutan. The prose is polished and whip-sharp. The author, Ken Haigh, is thoughtful and learned without being pedantic. The memoir is entertaining, at times light and effusive, yet also profound and intensely satisfying. What does it say?

Go to Bhutan. (Or, if not Bhutan, any place off-the-beaten track.) Live there, work there. If you can go when you’re young, all the better. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. Approach the new land slowly. Accept it warts et al; in the case of Bhutan, torrential rain, foot-long poisonous centipedes, and confusing social mores, to name a few.

Haigh certainly accepted it. His time as a teacher in Khaling, Eastern Bhutan, is a study in cultural adaptation, always a long and arduous road, and not always successfully traversed. He came to cherish Khaling – the valley under the holy lake – and the Bhutanese people. I won’t elaborate on the book’s narrative trajectory. I rarely do. Instead, I’ll say: “Read for yourself.” Experience the real Bhutan, from a to z: ara (corn-mash whisky) to zhugcho (please, sit).

PS: Haigh tells of two years in the late 1980s. Of course, places never stay the same. Bhutan is still 12,000 km from central Canada, but it is no longer distant in time. No place is.

Click to view Under The Holy Lake.

A Siege of Bitterns – A Birder Murder mystery

A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows. Dundurn Press. 2014.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

A Siege of Bitterns is the first novel in the “Birder Murder” series. The book won the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel (for non-Canucks, the Arthur Ellis is the Canadian Nobel Prize of crime writing). A Siege of Bitterns is worthy of the prize.

The novel’s protagonist, DI Domenic Jejeune, is a Canadian transplanted to the UK. The mystery unfolds in the small Norfolk town of Saltmarsh, premier birding country. One might say Dejeune is a reluctant detective. He likes bird watching as much, if not more, than solving murders. To some of his fellow police officers, he’s a strange bird indeed. He occasionally comes across as a tortured eccentric. One wonders how he can solve crimes. But he does. His odd individualism is reminiscent of some of the most famous detectives in fiction. Shades of Sherlock Holmes, anyone? Or Hercule Poirot?

I won’t review the plot itself. I rarely do. I prefer to let the reader discover it. On the other hand, I will say that it’s clever, with a tangled bird’s nest of false starts and red herrings. You’ll exercise your grey cells on this one. Burrows delivers big personalities whose individuality springs from their dialog and thoughts, not from what they wear or drive. He also delivers enticing chapter endings, leaving the reader with a hook. What’s going to happen next? I want to know.

Burrows writes with flair. He deploys plenty of descriptive prose, yet he doesn’t loose momentum. I feel I’m in good hands. After a little flair, he returns to the core of crime writing: logistics. Clues and red herrings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Burrows

The opening lines of A Siege of Bitterns:

“At its widest point, the marsh stretched almost a quarter of a mile across the north Norfolk coastline. Here, the river that had flowed like a silver ribbon through the rolling farmlands to the west finally came to rest, spilling its contents across the flat terrain, smoothing out the uneven contours, seeping silently into every corner ….”

My Favourite British Novel

My favourite British novel? That’s a tough one. Of course, I’ve made it easier on myself by saying “British,” thus bypassing the Irish and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Many literary historians consider Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding the first British novel. However, there is vociferous debate. Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory sometimes gets the nod. But that doesn’t matter to me. This isn’t a dissertation. It’s my personal choice.

My favourite British novel is …. London Fields by Martin Amis, published in 1989.

You’re kidding me?” I know, many people might not have London Fields on their radar, let alone as their favourite. They favour Nobel-prize winners like William Golding (Lord of the Flies) or Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). They extoll novels by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, or Zadie Smith. That’s quite a list, but give me Martin Amis and London Fields. {I’m not claiming it’s the best. It’s simply my favourite.}

Give me the sheer exuberance of Amis’ prose. Will he go off on tangents about pubs, sex, or the sky over London? You bet he will. If it’s not your cup of British novel, you’ll know within pages. Me, I knew within a page that I’d keep reading. And that I’d laugh and chortle.

Some find London Fields an acquired taste. It’s not politically-correct. It’s misogynistic. Others compare London Fields to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s inventive and discursive. Like Ulysses, it’s been called crass and pornographic. Regardless of labels, London Fields gets under your skin. It’s part noir, part berk realism, part literary fiction. Like a certain beer brewed in Nova Scotia (an IPA), those who like it like it a lot. I’m one of them.

Amis delivers an extended amusement park ride, a rollercoaster of pathos and poignancy. The capers are simultaneously low-brow and high-brow. Think Monty Python on the page. {Not a Python fan? Give London Fields a pass.}

When I want twists, over-the-top characters, and zaniness, I re-read London Fields. I don’t only read it for the singularly inventive prose (no one writes like Martin Amis), but also for the plot itself. It’s a black comic murder mystery, a Brit noir par excellence. Right up my alley.

From the opening of London Fields: “This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. (It had better.) I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive (her motive) and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed. And I couldn’t stop them, I don’t think, even if I wanted to.”

NB: This passage was written in 1989: “America was going insane. In her own way. And why not? Countries go insane like people go insane …. All over the world countries reclined on couches or sat in darkened rooms chewing dihydrocodeine and Temazepam or lay in boiling baths or twisted in straightjackets or stood banging their heads against padded walls. Some had been insane all the lives, and some had gone insane and then got better again and then gone insane again …. America had had her neuroses before, like when she tried giving up drink, like when she started finding enemies within, like when she thought she could rule the world …. In a way she was never like everywhere else. Most places just are something, but America had to mean something too, hence her vulnerability – to make-believe, to false memory, false destiny.”

PS: Sound familiar in 2019?

The heroine, the murderee, on the death of love: [The earth] seemed to have eternal youth but now she’s ageing fast, like an addict …. We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we’re all coterminous. We’re inside history now, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Fields_(novel)