Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I know that J.K. Rowling has become a subject of some controversy in recent years. Some of her stated opinions, particularly her positions on trans-women and womanhood in general, have alienated her from large parts of her public. I’d like to completely avoid the topic of her politics here, not because I agree with them, but because there are some aspects of her written work that I admire and would like to discuss. If you think that it’s impossible or improper to discuss an author’s strengths if you find her politics abhorrent, I suggest, without rancor, that you skip this post.

I’ve talked a lot here about the differences between fiction and Literature. I feel strongly that we should have different standards of greatness for different kinds of books, standards which take the goals of the books into account. I see no reason why we cannot consider, say, ‘World War Z’ a great book just because we also consider ‘East of Eden’ a great book – they are both great, just in different ways.

Robert Galbraith (who is J.K. Rowling) published the first of the Cormoran Strike series, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, in 2013. ‘Troubled Blood’ is the fifth novel of the series. All five books follow the career of two private detectives: the one-legged ex-boxer, ex-military policeman Cormoran Strike, and his business partner Robin Ellacott. The two meet in the first novel, when Robin accepts a temp position in Strike’s obscure little detective agency. By the fifth novel, they are partners in a quite-famous detective agency, two opposites working together, solving murders and nurturing their growing intimacy.

If that sounds like a worn premise, you’re right: it is. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s a reason that the British detective novel has endured: the genre is built upon a very robust narrative structure. It lends itself to iteration, and resists boredom. Murder mysteries require only three ingredients to be successful: complicated and interesting murders, tolerably good characters, and writing that stays out of the way.

J.K. Rowling can obviously handle plot and character with both hands tied behind her back. So today, I’d like to talk about that third element: writing that stays out of the way.

When we describe writing as ‘good’, we usually mean positively good. We mean that it is lovely, the language beautiful, the descriptions apt. We mean that we notice it. We almost never talk about writing that is negatively good, that serves its purpose so well that we do not notice it. We do not have words for the idea, in literature, that some writing serves its best purpose by vanishing.

Genre novels are story-driven: plot is their purpose. They are not often thought of as literary, for the simple reason that they are usually badly written. That doesn’t make them bad – again, language is not their purpose – but it often makes them more difficult to read. When the writing is poor, it disrupts the reader’s focus. You stop and think, ‘Ugh, what a terrible description’, or, ‘He used that metaphor already’, or, ‘No one would ever say that in real life’. It compromises your immersion in the story.

And that immersion is crucial to the experience of genre novels. Because they’re all about plot, plot is what you focus on when you read them. A perfect genre experience is to read without noticing the language, to inhabit the story and not the writing. And while that might sound easy, writing invisibly isn’t simply a question of not writing badly – it is a skill, and there aren’t that many people who do it well.

J.K. Rowling does it brilliantly. J.K. Rowling is famous for her stories, but in my opinion, her actual writing is at least as skilled as her world-building. No one thinks about her that way, as great master of prose craft, but she really is. She just has a different goal than high “literary” authors.

Rowling somehow always manages to deliver crystal clear stories without obstruction from her language. Her prose slides through your brain as easily as your own thoughts. When reading her, you never stop and think, ‘What does that mean? What just happened there? Why did she use that word?’. Her language is basically a perfect delivery system for what matters to her: her stories.

Let me put it another way: she has flawless negative style. Her writing is characterized by a total absence of noticeable tics, habits, or flourishes. There is nothing to distract from the meaning, which is nevertheless always expressed well and coherently.

Here are two passages picked (truly) at random from ‘Troubled Blood’:

“With three days to go before Christmas, Strike was forced to abandon the pretense that he didn’t have flu. Concluding that the only sensible course was to hole up in his attic flat while the virus passed through his system, he took himself to a packed Sainsbury’s where, feverish, sweating, breathing through his mouth and desperate to get away from the crowds and the canned carols, he grabbed enough food for a few days, and bore it back to his two rooms above the office.” (p. 316)

J.K. Rowling

Another:

“So furious did Roy Phipps look, that Robin quite expected him to start shouting at the newcomers, too. However, the hematologist’s demeanor changed when his eyes met Strike’s. Whether this was a tribute to the detective’s bulk, or to the aura of gravity and calm he managed to project in highly charged situations, Robin couldn’t tell, but she thought she saw Roy decide against yelling. After a brief hesitation, the doctor accepted Strike’s proffered hand, and as the two men shook, Robin wondered how aware men were of the power dynamics that played out between them, while women stood watching.” (p. 413)

I know that this writing isn’t beautiful in the normal sense of that word, but I am deeply impressed by it. Rowling makes reading easy; she removes all drag on the brain from language. When you read her, it’s like there is no barrier between the text and your understanding of it. It’s smooth.

And the thing I admire the most about it is that Rowling has not sacrificed any precision or complexity in order to achieve that smoothness. The sentences are structurally sophisticated; they are branching, phrasal. They contain description, they are vivid. And they are very clear: their meaning is unmistakable.

This writing isn’t flashy, it isn’t emotionally powerful, it isn’t poetic. There is an almost total absence of rhetorical flourish: no poetry – just information. Nevertheless, it is really, really good. It takes a lot of control to produce writing this tight: a lot of discipline, a lot of facility.

I know that Rowling will be remembered for ‘Harry Potter’, for the world and the wizards and the stories, and fair enough: she writes great stories. But I think she’s also a great writer, in the technical sense of the world: she is great at writing, exceptionally so. And I hope that someone also remembers her for that.

The Likeness

By Tana French

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“This is Lexie Madison’s story, not mine. I’d love to tell you one without getting into the other, but it doesn’t work that way. I used to think I sewed us together at the edges with my own hands, pulled the stitches tight and I could unpick them any time I wanted. Now I think it always ran deeper than that and farther, underground; out of sight and way beyond my control.” (p. 3)

I wrote a few weeks ago about ‘In the Woods‘, the first book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I believe that I loved it very much; I think, in fact, that I did a crappy job reviewing it because I wanted to hurry up and read this.

The Likeness‘ is the second of the Dublin Murder Squad series. Detective Cassie Maddox, exhausted and heart-broken after the events of ‘In the Woods‘, has retired from the Murder Squad and has been hiding out in the Domestic Violence division. One day, she gets a call from her old mentor from Undercover, Frank Mackey, to come see a dead body. Confused initially, for she has left Murder behind her, the call becomes clear when she learns that the body is carrying ID which states her name as Alexandra Madison. Lexie Madison: that is the name of Cassie Maddox’s old undercover alias.

So who has adopted Cassie Maddox’s discarded alias? This new Lexie Madison is a graduate student. She lives in Whitethorn House, a old estate she shares with her four closest friends, also graduate students. It soon becomes clear that the most unusual thing about the already unusual victim is this incredible close friendship. These five students, outsiders, belong utterly to each other, share a bond which is more like a family than any friendship Cassie Maddox has ever seen. And now Lexie has been stabbed to death, and left in a cottage near Whitethorn House.

And when Cassie Maddox sees the body, she realizes that there is another reason she has been called to this particular crime scene: not only does Lexie Madison wear her name, Lexie is also wearing Maddox’s face. The two women could be twins, they look so alike.

In order to exploit the remarkable similarity in their appearances, Mackey convinces the press to suppress the news of the murder, and sends Maddox into Whitehorn House to live with Lexie’s friends, to learn her life, to discover who might have killed her.

The Likeness‘ is two mysteries rolled into one: the mystery of Lexie Madison’s death, and the mystery of Lexie Madison’s life. The solution to both of these mysteries lies somewhere in Whitethorn house, among the four friends who loved her so deeply.

Honestly, my expectations for this book couldn’t have been a lot higher. I loved ‘In the Woods‘, and I barely paused for breath before starting ‘The Likeness‘. I don’t think I’ve ever vaulted from one mystery novel to the second in such rapid succession – normally, I have rules about this sort of thing, and I like to make sure that I don’t read books by the same author in succession (I know, don’t I sound fun?)

High expectations are not, usually, a great way to go into a book. It’s a little like deciding that someone is your soulmate on first sight: you just don’t have the info you need, and you’ve now prevented yourself from appreciating any lesser, more normal outcome. In the end, I was not at all disappointed by ‘The Likeness‘, but, while ‘In the Woods‘ grabbed me immediately, it took me a little time to acclimate to this novel.

Settling into ‘The Likeness‘ meant willingly suspending some disbelief about the unlikeliness of the premise. All murder mysteries are, more or less, unlikely: the realism quotient of the genre is low. However, anyone who has ever had a friend, or a family member, or a romantic partner, will know that this premise is particularly outlandish. No matter how alike two unrelated people may look, they would never be able to fool an intimate. If your best friend walked out of the house one night, and was replaced by an undercover cop who looked like just them and had seen a few videos of them, do you really think they would fool you for more than a day? Come on…

But, of course, that is so much not the point. Weirdly, the murder also isn’t the point. The point of ‘The Likeness‘ (as in ‘In the Woods‘) are the relationships. As Cassie Maddox lives with Lexie’s friends, as she wears Lexie’s face, she falls in love with the group, with the house, that Lexie loved. And she almost gets lost.

So, yes, it took me a little while to settle into ‘The Likeness‘. My own high expectations and the outrageous premise worked against my enjoyment for a little while, until something else sank in: Tana French has a totally different project than any other mystery writer I’ve ever encountered.

Tana French

A theme is beginning to emerge from French’s works: they are about the souring of love. This is a brave and unusual theme for a detective novelist. Detective novels nod at the warmer human emotions – someone occasionally kills from jealousy, or spurned love. But, mostly, as in life, people in murder mysteries kill from baseness: from greed, or sickness, or alienated rage.

In Tana French, it seems, people kill from love. Her novels are studies in love, not in the ordinary, pedestrian, every day love we all know, but the rare, deep, once-in-a-lifetime loves which some of us are lucky enough to be defined by. Both ‘In the Woods‘ and ‘The Likeness‘ are about these loves, about what happens when they break, but even more about the way we grow around them, what they make us into, and why it is that, when they do break, the consequences are catastrophic for us.

I think that this focus, this obsession of French’s with deep love, is what imparts so much beauty to her books, more even than her creepy, adjectival Irish English. These are stories of relationships – the murders haunt the periphery of these stories. They are the lurking threat which accompany the love, and it is the love which really interests French.

And this theme works for me on a profound level. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll tear through a paperback about a sicko psychopath with a sex dungeon and a penchant for taunting the police. I’m not too fancy for sex crime novels, or greed crime novels, or labyrinthine revenge crime novels – I like those novels, too!

But there is something about the curdled love which seeps through Tana French’s novels that just holds me in place, roots me to the spot, until I finish them. I love these novels, and while I’m reading, I belong to them. I’m upset when they end. They make me uneasy in my soul. I’m going to read every single one.

In The Woods

By Tana French

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracted confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.” (p. 3)

Perhaps no literary form elicits such universally strong feelings as the detective novel.

I know of no reader who is indifferent to the detective novel. Actually, I know of no reader who does not love them – the trouble is, we all love different ones.

And our preferences feel significant. Like our political affiliation, or the movies that make us cry, the kind of detective novel we love feels like it reveals a lot about what kind of reader we are.

Everyone, of course, admires Agatha Christie. She is the Shakespeare of detective stories: she may not move you, personally, but no one would deny her her exalted place, first in the canon.

But, beyond Agatha, what kind of detective story do you love? Do you prefer the cold, cryptic little tales of Sherlock Holmes? Do you like the gory, plotty American novelists, the elaborate sadistic murderers of James Patterson and Patricia Cornwall? The poetic, moody novels of Benjamin Black? The cerebral, funny British women: Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers?

Me, I like them all. But I love very few: ‘The Daughter of Time‘, ‘And Then There Were None‘, ‘Christine Falls‘, maybe. And no author has ever commanded urgency from me. Detective novels, for me, are treats, picked up once and a while, chewed through quickly, and then put down, left behind, details almost entirely forgotten. They are more an escape than a book; I inhabit them, but I don’t take them with me, and I don’t rush on to the next one.

This casualness in my relationship with detective novels is, in large part, the fault of the form. The great strengths of the detective novel are also their great weaknesses: they are highly circumscribed, formulaic. The genre has conventions which must either be observed, or else deliberately eschewed: either way, the conventions dictate the story.

The narrowness of these conventions make detective novels blend together. Which was that series, the one with the lone-wolf detective who doesn’t play by the rules? The one who has a substance-abuse issue and a troubled past? Oh, that’s right: every single one.

But this narrowness is also, I think, why people love these novels so much. The highly predictable nature of these novels make the small differences between them significant. They look so like each other, but when you spy a difference you love, you appreciate it all the more for its subtly.

I have found one that I love. In fact, I have found one that I love so much that I suspect that I may love the author and not just the novel. I have found one that I love so much that I ordered, in one burst, all the other books in the series, before I was even one third finished with it.

I’m not the only person who feels this way. Tana French has been blowing up my pop-culture recommendations lately. I’ve heard her name on every podcast I listen to, read it on every book club reading list that crosses my path. And, normally, this kind of ubiquity prejudices me against the object. I am perverse, and childish – I hate liking something that everyone else likes.

But Tana French is better than my immature contrarianism. ‘In the Woods‘ is the first of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels. That meta-title, ‘Dublin Murder Squad’, makes these novels sound macho, high testosterone and swaggering, in a way that ‘In the Woods’ is emphatically not.

In the Woods‘ is about the investigation of the murder of a little girl. The body of twelve year old Katy Devlin is found outside the housing estate where she lived; it is also the estate where Detective Rob Ryan lived, decades before, and from which his two best friends went missing one day, from the woods. They were never found, and Rob has no memory of that long-ago afternoon. Now, he and his partner Cassie Maddox have been sent back to find out what has happened to Katy.

Of course, the devil of the detective novel is in the details – you learn almost nothing from the premise. This premise, a murdered child, an unlikely coincidence, this could be any detective novel. But Tana French has written something beautiful, and strange, and she has managed to do so within the confines of this genre, which requires extra skill.

Bad detective novels are about crime – good detective novels are about people. ‘In the Woods‘ is about friendship. It is about the deep and abiding love that grows between people, and what happens when it is ruptured, or when it curdles. It is about friendship as a binding force, and about broken friendship as a denaturing force, deranging. It is about what is means to have a friendship so close that it is closer than family, and then to lose it. It about grief and how it hardens us.

Tana French

There is so much I admire about this book. I admire the story: it is subtle and careful. Most detective stories rush into plot – they are split between poor dialog and action sequences. It is a genre characterized by speed, and tidiness, which cannot bear a long pause, or a loose end.

French, on the other hand, is a patient author. She lingers with her characters for their own sake – they are the point of her novel, not the murder. Her world is not a tidy one, and not all crimes will be solved, not all motives answered. She is not dealing in archetypes here, but endeavoring instead to imagine people, and people are messy. They are not, like crimes, solvable, and so she does not solve them. Most detective novels are about one big mystery, and if there other mysteries, they orbit the main mystery and will be solved with it.

But, in French’s world, people are all mysteries, and so mysteries spring up between them, and a murder, or a disappearance, is just one of the many possible difficulties that might happen in the endless collisions between unknowable beings. And so most mysteries, in her world, will never be solved. And even if you learn who, when, where, and how, you will never really understand why.

And she is a lovely writer. I have a prejudice that Ireland produces especially beautiful writers of English, that the prose that they make has a particular lyrical quality which I have always loved. Detective stories are not the place for Joycean prose-poetry – those kind of verbal gymnastics would be, frankly, annoying – but you hear the poetic bent in French’s prose, in her descriptions, in the moody, creepy pall which hangs over her Dublin.

This book owned me completely, and so here is the plain truth of it: I don’t want to write anymore about ‘In the Woods‘ – I want to go read the next Dublin Murder Squad book, ‘The Likeness‘, which has already arrived and is hollering silently at me from my desk. This is the highest compliment I know how to give an author, really: I don’t have time to write about them – I have to go and read them.