Published June 2013.
First something about Ellory’s writing style. Ellory is a master at describing everything in very visual terms. To me it’s what gives identity to the writer’s voice, ie, it’s what distinguishes their writing. How can we achieve this visual style? For starters by using physical references; they’re the main elements that pull me into a Story because it allows me to be immersed in it three dimensionally.
If a character is scratching his bum, how does he view the setting sun? Does the night fog linger over the grass look like a ninfa’s breath on a sea of rubies? Forget about inserting visual aids into the narrative. It’s not about that. Having a visual writing narrative means the writer is capable of writing seamless prose, ie, it’s embedded into the writing so that I’m not aware it’s there in the first place. It’s all about making what’s already there richer.
Let me give an example (entirely fictitious in case you’re wondering…):
“Here, Logen, have a Mars Bar,” Thelfi said.
“Sorry. No can do. I’m currently scratching my bum and crotch at the same time and consequently I don’t have a free hand at the moment. Besides, I haven’t washed my hands lately, so maybe I shouldn’t eat it,” said Logen Ninefingers sadly.
What can we say about this? It’s awful because of the adverbs and whatnot. There are no physical references. What do we get in result? Dry and workmanlike prose. Putting myself in Ellory’s shoes how would I write this? (I’m playing God here…):
Thelfi saw a Mars Bar in a sea of sticky leftover Mars Bars from yesterday’s movie session at home. She had gotten hold of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie from the Internet, and the night had been pretty wild with the Mars Bars and all. There was still one left resting on top of her bag and she still remembered her struggle to zip up her pants earlier that morning. She looked at Logen Ninefingers, a very manly Man who never said no to anything, and she laughed at the irony. “Here, have a Mars Bar.”
Logen’s eyes enlivened and he reached out with tremulous, hungry fingers. Just as fast, he dropped his hands, his voice barely a whisper. “I can’t. Let’s save it for tonight.”
Which one do I prefer? The second obviously, and not because I inserted a “Fifty Shades of Grey” cue in the text, which I’m not planning on watching before you ask (here in Portugal it’s being nicknamed “The Fifty Bruises of Grey”, I can’t figure out why…).
Coming back to the text above, the first one is a boring dialog and the other is visual and full of physical references and cues. It takes me to a different milieu that doesn’t interfere with the narrative, but instead, enlivens it.
“The Devil and the River”, despite being a very visual story, fell short of my expectations. Only two of Ellory’s books didn’t get 5 stars from me: “Candlemoth” and now this one. Why? For a handful of reasons.
Gaines’ war experiences, although important are not that important, but nevertheless we’re constantly being pulled back from the narrative (making the story tiresome at some points), which detracts from the story; consistency errors abound (eg, Gaines is surprised almost at the end of the book by the reason to Nancy’s body mutilation when he just had had to ask Webster that when he was in jail), Deus-Ex-Machina plotting (eg, the fact that Gaines “forgot” to give Webster the permission slip to allow him to search his home), coincidences throughout the book, etc.
Was this one of Ellory’s earlier efforts before he started getting published? It seems to be not up to par with his previous books. I still haven’t read “Bad Signs” and “A Carnival of Shadows”. Nevertheless out of his latter efforts came “A Dark and Broken Heart” which is a superior and superlative story, and one of my highlights of 2012.
Fortunately Ellory, even at his weakest as it’s the case here, he’s still better than some other writer’s best, because his visual writing is always top notch even when plotting-wise things fall a bit short.
NB: I think I should get a night job writing romance novels