Editors Note: From September of 2004 to around May of 2005 my wife and I lived in Strasbourg, France. I started this blog as a way of journaling my experience there. Over time I grew tired of writing about baguettes and ventured into pop culture. This was one of my first forays into such things. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I still don’t. But here’s a little discussion on a couple of mystery writers.
So I finished my Chandler and the Mary Higgins Clark book. I had thought of reviewing the books, but I’ve never given a real review of a book, and frankly, I’m not sure how. These two books were very similar and yet vastly different in quality. I found Chandler’s “The High Window” to be very good and Clark’s “All Around the Town” to be quite awful. So here I will try to describe why I liked one and not the other.
I say they are both similar and they are. Both are in the mystery/suspense genre. Both involve murders and subsequent investigations to solve them. Yet in terms of how they are written and how they get to the solution are vastly different.
As always Chandler writes in the first person from the perspective of his classic detective, Phillip Marlowe. Clark writes in the third person. As a reader of “The High Window”, you only know as much as Marlowe does. We see the world threw his eyes, follow his clues, and do not know who the culprit is until the very end. Or at least I didn’t. This is not all that odd for me since I tend to let mysteries take me where they want without spending a lot of time trying to determine who the culprit is before I am given the final solution. But Chandler never points the reader in a specific way to misdirect. You meet new and often suspicious characters throughout the story, but never see what they are doing when they are not with Marlowe. This leads to a more realistic story. You read along with the one man and thus are him in a sense. You are given no special insight into what is happening.
Clark writes in a nearly all-knowing third person. As a reader, you learn information that not any one character knows. Several times you are misdirected into believing one person or another committed the crime only to be later led to believe you were mistaken. This happens until the final few pages when SURPRISE it wasn’t who you thought. I literally groaned in disbelief when given several plot points. The general story involves a kidnapping, the kidnappee who later develops multiple personality disorders, and some villains who are also televangelists. All three are plot points that are so cliched and overused it makes me ill. While Chandler writes different and interesting characters who act realistically, if often brutal, Clark writes cardboard characters with stock personalities and then manipulates them to rush the reader along to a final pinnacle.
My biggest objection is one that I find hard to define. I want to say that both writers give ample details about their characters and settings, but Chandler gives the right details whereas Clark gives the wrong ones. To better reveal this I have chosen two selections from the books below.
“A long-limbed languorous type of showgirl blonde lay at her ease in one of the chairs, with her feet raised on a padded rest and a tall misted glass at her elbow, near a silver ice bucket and a Scotch bottle. She looked at us lazily as we came over the grass. From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. Her mouth was too wide, her eyes were too blue, her make-up was too vivid, the thin arch of her eyebrows was almost fantastic in its curve and spread, and the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings.
She wore white duck slacks, blue and white open-toed sandals over bare feet and crimson lake toenails, a white silk blouse, and a necklace of green stones that were not square-cut emeralds. Her hair was as artificial as a night-club lobby.”
“His office was deliberately cozy: pale green walls, tieback draperies in tones of green and white, a mahogany desk with a cluster of small flowering plants, a roomy wine-colored leather armchair opposite his swivel chair, a matching couch facing away from the windows.
When Sarah was ushered in by his secretary, Carpenter studied the attractive young woman in the simple blue suit. Her lean, athletic body moved with ease. She wore no makeup, and a smattering of freckles was visible across her nose. Charcoal brown brows and lashes accentuated the sadness in her luminous gray eyes. Her hair was pulled severely back from her face and held by a narrow blue band. Behind the band a cloud of dark red waves floated, ending just below her ears.”
Clark tells us how we’re supposed to feel about the setting and character before she actually describes it. “His office was cozy,” she says and then describes it in bland, descriptive terms. Or Sarah is attractive to Dr. Carpenter, yet she is also sad because it tells us so: “sadness in her luminous gray eyes.” It’s as if it is written by a first-year writing student, who has been told to supply lots of descriptive details. The details seem taken from a big box labeled “character details.”
Chandler gives some of the same details describing the type of clothes she has on and that there is a bottle of Scotch nearby, but he doesn’t tell us how to feel about it. He doesn’t tell us the lady is an out-of-luck alcoholic showgirl. He gives us the details of having the Scotch nearby, of how shabbily she is made up that let us know what type of person she is without actually stating so in bold type. Chandler’s style is also laid out. Within the physical details is a sarcastic wit that shines.
With all of this, I don’t care if anyone reads Mary Higgins Clark or even really likes her. The written word like any art is often in the eye of the beholder. Truth be told I couldn’t write a book as well as Ms. Clark did. Now I wouldn’t have evil evangelists or multiple personalities in my book, but the quality would be just as shabby I suspect. But just because I cannot produce a good novel doesn’t mean I cannot critique them. Honestly, I don’t know who is going to be interested in my critiques of novels that were written in 1942 and 1992 anyway. I write them to try to hone some of my limited writing skills and to get a better understanding of why I find certain books really good, and others quite terrible.