Thursday, January 31, 2008

Strangers on a Train, in a Bookbag

For a time tonight, as I made my way home from work on the L, a pair of books by very dissimilar authors shared space in my shoulder bag. Is it possible to imagine a greater difference, in tone, outlook, or theme, than that between Patricia Highsmith and P. G. Wodehouse? And yet . . .

From P. G. Wodehouse's "The Crime Wave at Blandings," collected in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937)
[T]hose who read thrillers are an impatient race. They chafe at scenic rhapsodies and want to get to the rough stuff. When, they ask, did the dirty work start? Who were mixed up in it? Was there blood, and, if so, how much? And--most particularly--where was everybody and what was everybody doing at whatever time it was? The chronicler who wants to grip must supply this information at the earliest possible moment.
From Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
A comment about first chapters in general: it is a good idea to provide lines of action in the first chapter. . . . There is action or the promise of it in every good novel, but in suspense stories, the action is apt to be of a more violent kind. That is the only difference.
I start to imagine. . . . Pressed up together like that in my bookbag, the two authors find themselves forced into a conversation. Wodehouse is a bit awkward and nervous; Highsmith a bit cranky and distracted. But they soon discover that they both have books they've been wanting, desperately, to write . . . but they're holding back, worried about what will result, the possible consequences.

What, Highsmith suggests with a disarming laugh, if they were to agree to secretly write each other's books? To her surprise, Wodehouse perks up. Criss-cross, he cries. Criss-cross! It would be the perfect crime of art . . . because no one would ever suspect!

From Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone. I am so law-abiding, I can tremble before a customs inspector with nothing contraband in my suitcases. Perhaps I have some severe and severely repressed criminal drive in myself, or I would not take such an interest in criminals or write about them so often. And I think many suspense writers--except perhaps those whose heroes and heroines are the wronged and victimized parties, and whose villains are off-scene, unattractive or doomed--must have some kind of sympathy and identification with criminals, or they would not become emotionally engrossed in books about them. The suspense book is vastly different from the mystery story in this respect. The suspense writer often deals much more closely with the criminal mind, because the criminal is usually known throughout the book, and the writer has to describe what is going on in his head. Unless a writer is sympathetic, he cannot do this.

From "Crime Wave at Blandings"
Lord Emsworth tottered to a chair and sank into it, staring glassily at his niece. Any Chicago business man of the modern school would have understood what he was feeling and would have sympathized with him.

The thing that poisons life for gunmen and sometimes makes them wonder moodily if it is worth-while going on is this tendency of the outside public to butt in at inconvenient moments. Whenever you settle some business dispute with a commercial competitor by means of your sub-machine gun, it always turns out that there was some officious witness passing at the time, and there you are, with a new problem confronting you.

And Lord Emsworth was in worse case than his spiritual brother of Chicago would have been, for the latter could always have solved his perplexities by rubbing out the witness. A prominent Shropshire landowner with a position to keep up in the county, cannot rub out his nieces. All he can do, when they reveal that they have seen him wallowing in crime, is to stare glassily at them.


  1. I particularly like this post!

  2. Glad you liked it.

    Thanks to Spinster Aunt for suggesting I check out Highsmith's book--I hadn't known it existed until she mentioned it the other day!

  3. This post is freaking awesome! I love the idea of two authors having a conversation in your bookbag and co-conspiring on the train!

    Also, it's really damn cool that you read that Highsmith book -- I just finished her "Little Stories of Beastly Murder."

    Well, now I have to run out and read this P.G. Wodehouse story, god damn it.