Saturday, October 09, 2010

How not to do historical fiction

Following recommendations, I picked up Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy. This has got to be a cult classic of some kind, because two more people, seeing me read it outside the theater and on the subway, broke out in spontaneous praise for Kerr. But I have to admit I gave up after the first novel, March Violets, and didn't finish the trilogy. A couple of things kept tripping me, preventing full immersion.

One is Kerr's relentless use of hard-boiled similes. Taken separately, they're inventive and evocative, but when you have three per page, it becomes a tiresome tic.

A building's red-brick walls "heaved into sight like the muddy flanks of some horny-skinned dinosaur."

A black door is "polished so keenly they could have used it as a mirror in a negro jazz-band's dressing room."

"He edged towards me like a crab with a bad case of corns."

"The voice emptied slowly out of the Boris Karloff mouth, with its slightly protruding teeth, like grit from a bucket."

"She produced a small lace handkerchief which seemed as improbably in her large, peasant hands as an antimacassar in those of Max Schmelling, the boxer…"

The last brings me to the other thing that bugged me: the constant overexplaining of terms and references — something that's particularly common in historical fiction. "She poured herself a glass of Bowle, Berlin's favorite summer drink, from a tall, blue-glass pitcher…"

So Berlin Noir went back to the mid-Manhattan library, unfinished. I replaced it with Sofi Oksanen's Purge, a Finnish-Estonian literary novel that's getting excellent reviews in France. Only a dozen pages in so far, but it's very promising.

And today I did my first trade at the Mystery Swap run by the Community Bookstore in Park Slope: Bring in a mystery novel, pay $1 and you can take one from their stash. I brought a couple of books, gave my $2, and made off with Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case and Maj Swöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Terrorists.


Antoine said...

Agree entirely about Kerr. Many fifteen-year-olds write this way before they learn that similes and metaphors must surprise to be effective. Most of Kerr's are horribly contrived, drawing attention to themselves rather than the thing they seek to illuminate. He needs an editor. Better still, he needs another job.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Yep, agreed. Kerr has been compared to Raymond Chandler, but he's more a bad Mickey Spillane.