Good writing

About a month ago, I wrote about some of the poor-quality writing now deemed popular. Writing by the numbers, without depth and characterisation and lacking a sense of place. Needless to say, without insight as well – though I suspect that’s very last century.

Happily, the last three books I’ve read have been super examples of how to write literary suspense.

I have a theory that different sorts of people like different types of writing. I’m hardly going out on a limb there, but I’m not talking about genre in this instance, but rather how something is written.

Some people live through their senses. They like movement and action, and if they can’t see, hear, or feel it, then it hardly counts. Others are more cerebral. They approach things more slowly via their mind. They enjoy entering into the depths and being made to think – and made to see.

I’m an example of how crude this generalisation is and of some of its truth. I’m a very physical person. A sensualist. I’m very aware of my physical self. Yet, even more so, I’m led by my mind – inquisitive, restless, imaginative, and rational as well. I don’t mind it when I get physically excited, but you can’t beat it when the mind is too.

That’s my issue with some of the populist fiction these days. It’s lightweight and unconvincing. I can’t believe in it and certainly can’t begin to feel it. The best fiction is immersive. You’re there, feeling it, understanding it because it is rooted in and explores human nature. The rest is cheap distraction.

The first of the three books is by Benjamin Black, which is the nom de plume of John Banville – a Booker prize-winning author. He has the writing chops. The book was Snow, a richly atmospheric detective novel set in rural Ireland in the 1950s.

It was interesting on multiple levels. I found the background relating to the Catholic church quite fascinating and brought to mind my Catholic grandparents on my dad’s side and their stories of Archbishop Mannix in Melbourne. Among other things, it’s a story of class, prejudice and entitlement, and once more, I could relate knowing that when my parents married, my dad’s parents didn’t attend – because my mum was a proddy.

But then there’s the writing and the sheer atmospherics of the piece. Imagine a country manor in the middle of winter, the snowbound fields, an odd family and the interloper detective, who is a different soul. You could argue that parts of the book are overwritten, and some of the descriptions dense and run on longer than they might. This is not a book for the sensationalist. The writing is so delicious and rich that I couldn’t help but delight in it. I could feel the cold and the darkness and the mystery about me.

The next book is quite different and written over 80 years ago. The Mask of Dimitrios is by one of the early doyens of espionage writing, Eric Ambler. It’s a compact and highly efficient reveal of a mysterious and compelling character. The protagonist is a bit of an everyman, intelligent but hapless too, intrigued to trace the life and events of the titular character once he stumbles across his traces.

For someone like me, I found the historical background in itself quite fascinating. It feels very expert, as if Ambler is in total command of his craft. The mystery is lovely, and the quality of the characterisation can be gauged by the fact that Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet played two of the major roles when they made a movie of it. As a travelogue, it’s pretty good too.

The final book of the three is Polar Star, the second book in the Arkady Renko series (after Gorky Park) by Martin Cruz Smith.

Renko is one of the great modern characters. Whenever I read one of these books, I can’t help but see and hear William Hurt, who played Renko in the movie of Gorky Park. He’s a soulful, self-effacing character with a melancholy wit and a dogged intelligence. He’s unwilling, or pathologically unable, to let things lie until they are resolved – no matter the mischief it brings him.

For mine, Arkady Renko and Bernie Gunther (the Phillip Kerr invention) are the two serialised characters in modern literature I enjoy most.

Polar Star is a great book of its type. This one is set on a Russian fishing trawler in the Bering Sea in the middle of winter. It’s frosty and dark and atmospheric. There are the usual array of interesting characters – the devoted party member, the foreign intriguer, a host of petty and homicidal criminals, worn-out functionaries, mysterious women, and a sassy love interest. It’s incredibly rich in atmosphere and authentic in depicting character and motive.

There’s a fourth book I could add to the list that I’m currently halfway through: London Rules, by Mick Herron. I’ve read all the books up to this and they’re great fun – intriguing and full of subversive, cynical wit. I recently watched the TV adaptation of his first books on Apple TV, with Gary Oldman in the role of Jackson Lamb. Highly recommended.

Herron is an excellent writer, but so is Cruz Smith, and the other writers I’ve mentioned here, and I’ll add John le Carre into the mix. Forget the genre; these are great craftsmen in the art of writing.

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