The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald (1949)

How does he do it? How does he make you turn those pages, rapaciously reading? And what’s hidden in his noir style that gives it that compelling impetus?

Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of ‘noir’. ‘A genre of crime film or fiction characterised by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.’

No wonder I like it so much.

So what’s under the bonnet? Let’s have a look at a couple of style tools from a couple of the books in the 18-book Lew Archer series (The Moving Target being the first).

Like his forerunner Raymond Chandler, Macdonald uses someone’s surroundings – usually a room – to describe their character and aura.

Colour works.

The waiting room was finished in cool green cloth and bleached wood. A blonde receptionist with cool green eyes completed the colour scheme and said: ‘Do you have an appointment, sir?’

Or mix and match.

The waitress had a red-checked apron that matched the tablecloth and a complexion that matched the coffee.

That’s all very well for the bland and bleak. How to ratchet it up a bit? Liven it up. Hey, maybe even a bit of menace. This is after all, a detective series.

How about a killer colour contrast?

A woman in a red sweater and slacks was curled like a scarlet snake in one corner of a green canvas porch swing.

Bingo. Now we’re talking. Something dangerous on something soft.

Which brings us to observation. Noir detectives take you with them, usually using the first person. The narrative style is to get you hooked on observing with them. It’s their job, and they have to observe everything. It’s a matter of life or death.

Hatred flashed in the ocean-coloured eyes and disappeared, like a shark-fin.

With so much at stake, that observation has to be sharp. And when the chips are down, any resulting actions need to be slow and almost ponderous to avoid sudden movements or accidents. Repetition is a lovely tool for this.

‘Now take it easy, this is a gun I have at your back. Don’t you feel it?’

I felt it. I took it easy.

Dig that pace.

Or this less obvious repetition of an idea, for impact…

She thrust herself out of her seat, a gaunt Mexican girl with hair like fresh poured tar. From her clenched right fist, a four-inch knife-blade projected upward.

How’s that for determination. Love the thrust coming so early, about twenty words before the knife even thinks about coming into the paragraph.

Glad she isn’t my landlady.

What about the moral ambiguity? Well, in Macdonald’s case, it’s often tip-toeing around Lew Archer’s acute observation of the female form. After all, you can almost hear him say, that’s where the real power lies.

She was dressed to attract attention in a black-and-white-striped linen dress with a plunging neckline and a very close waist. I gave her attention.

Please don’t tell me you missed the repetition of ‘attention’ there.

The violence of her reaction was surprising. Her whole body leaned in the zebra-shaped dress, and her breasts pressed together like round clenched fists in the V of her neckline.

I’m off to the gym.

Thanks for being here.

Note: the first quote is The Moving Target. The rest are from the second book in the series, The Drowning Pool.

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Keen? Here’s a list, in order, of the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald:

  1. The Moving Target (1949)
  2. The Drowning Pool (1950)
  3. The Way Some People Die (1951)
  4. The Ivory Grin (1952; aka Marked for Murder)
  5. Find a Victim (1954)
  6. The Barbarous Coast (1956)
  7. The Doomsters (1958)
  8. The Galton Case (1959)
  9. The Wycherly Woman (1961)
  10. The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
  11. The Chill (1964)
  12. The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)
  13. Black Money (1966)
  14. The Instant Enemy (1968)
  15. The Goodbye Look (1969)
  16. The Underground Man (1971)
  17. Sleeping Beauty (1973)
  18. The Blue Hammer (1976)

Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)

With the prolapse a little less livid, I’m able to sit still long enough to do something I’ve always wanted to do.

Don’t worry, you can open your eyes.

Take a deep breath.

It’s an OCD’d glossary bringing together the Looking-glass book containing Jabberwocky that Alice finds when with that wacko the White Knight, and the compelling definitions of the words in the first verse of the same poem given later on by that cocky fancy-pants Humpty Dumpty. (I think he was pushed.)

The full poem and Mr Dumpty’s pontifications are about 70 pages apart.

You feeling it, too? Bit of a buzz, huh? Who needs tequila.

I’ve put Humpty Dumpty’s explanations for the wonderful oojahs in comments and laid them over the first verse and taken a screenshot. I’ve also done a transcript of this image at the end of this post in case the screenshot’s crap on a mobile. Must get out more.

Wallow in this.

‘You seem very clever at explaining words. Sir,’ said Alice. ‘Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called “Jabberwocky”‘?

‘Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. ‘I can explain all the poems that were ever invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented yet.’ [Git.]

This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:

[Da-da!]

Peachy, eh? Not easily done. In straightjacket with a pen in my mouth.

Thanks for being here.

[Illustration by John Tenniel]

Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)

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[Transcript of above screenshot:]

Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig [‘“Brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon – the time when you begin broilingthings for dinner.’], and the slithy [‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’] toves [‘Well, “toves” are something like badgers – they’re something like lizards – and they’re something like corkscrews… also they make their nest under sun-dials – also they live on cheese.’]
Did gyre [‘To “gyre” is to go round and round like a gyroscope.’] and gimble [‘To “gimble” is to make holes like a gimblet.’] in the wabe [In reply to Alice’s ‘And “the wabe” is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?’] “Of course it is. It’s called “wabe” you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it.’];
All mimsy [‘Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).’] were the borogoves [‘And a “borogrove” is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round – something like a live mop.’],
And the mome raths [‘Well, a “rath” is a sort of green pig: but “mome” I’m not certain about. I think it’s short for “from home” – meaning they’ve lost their way, you know.’] outgrabe [‘Well, “outgribing” is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle…’].

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595)

Your favourite bit, aside from knowing a bank where the wild thyme blows, Methought I was enamoured of an ass, and My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones?

Mine’s got to be, apart from Oberon’s joyfully puerile And loos’d his love shaft smartly from his bow, pissed-off and indignant papa Egeus whinging about his daughter Hermia being courted by the relentless Lysander.

Sit back and enjoy wonder boy Lysander in action. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

This man has bewitch’d the bosom of my child:

Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,

And interchang’d love-tokens with my child:

Though hast by moonlight at her window sung,

With feigning voice, verses of feigning love;

And stol’n the impression of her fantasy

With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,

Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweet-meats; messengers

Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:

With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart...

Get in. Ten out of ten for effort.

The bard’s best play? Perhaps so, it’s fun, funny, ardent and sexy.

And that’s not all. It has one of the most alluring lines in literature, from the gorgeous Titania:

Go with me, and I will give you fairies to attend on you.

Got to go. Tania’s in a taxi outside.

Thanks for being here.

[Illustration by Sir John Gilbert, R. A.]

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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Better than illicit sex. Honey on toast. Chocolate and beer.

Maybe not chocolate and beer.

Sweet is the unputdownable book in which sod all happens.

…life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history and fiction.

Thriller writer Raymond Chandler said if you’re ever stuck on what happens next, get someone to walk in with a gun in their hand.

Well, Pym’s self-effacingly unattached protagonist Mildred Lathbury does it with a pot of tea.

But first, why Excellent [Women]? Try shrewd, modest, appreciative, funny.

Here she is on spaghetti, being late, eggs, and, of course, the nectar of the gods.

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite someone eating spaghetti?

She’s not wrong. Try it naked in front of a mirror. Not a good look.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she smiled, and I heard myself murmuring politely that I had arrived too early, as if it were really my fault that she was late.

So true. Like apologising when someone bumps into you, or drops one.

… I had a fresh egg to poach… delving for it in the bubbly water where the white separated from the yolk and waved about like a sea anemone.

Gripping stuff. 1952. Rationing. Egg. Fresh. Indulgent. Can make a day.

[with a distressed friend]… she stammered in a burst of tears. I was astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.

Love the astonished there. Love the irrelevantly. Don’t wave it about like that Milly, it might go off.

The tea was made now and it was as strong as it had been weak on the day Helena left him. I wondered why it was that tea could vary so, even when one followed exactly the same method of making it. Could the emotional state of the maker have something to do with it?

Yep. It’s my Oolong, doctor.

Thanks for being here.

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As You Like It by William Shakespeare (1599)

Your favourite bit, aside from the boinging Cupid have mercy!, the clichéd all the world’s a stage, and that gloomy Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Mine’s got to be the frisky rat-tat-tat of love-struck cross-dresser Rosalind’s quick-fire questions.

A little game I like to play in my Lilliputian upper storey is, if she was addressing me (Cupid have mercy!), what would be my one-word answer? If I was her bosom buddy (Cupid have mercy!) Celia, that is.

Let’s remind ourselves of that randy ramble.

[Rosalind to Celia after Celia said she bumped into Rosalind’s dreamboat, Orlando…]

Alas the day! What shall I do with my doublet and hose? What did he, when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes he here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.

Ten questions in fifty-seven words. Eight hes. Two hims. You can see her glaring, eyes like dinner plates. One wonders what’s on her mind, though, really.

I’m currently favouring, “Pardon.”

Thanks for being here.

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Adrian Mole The Cappuccino Years by Sue Townsend (1999)

Jeepers, need nappies for this one.

With more great lines than the movie Scarface, this book is chronically funny. Do not eat peanuts while reading.

They say that great lines can make you fart with laughter.

Well.

Anyway, let’s focus on Ms Townsend’s particular talent in plying the three big no-gos of punctuation.

Writers tend to veer away from using italics, screamers [exclamation marks], and caps because they can blow up in your face. But the maestra Townsend knows how to wield them with alacrity.

Of the narrator protagonist Adrian Mole, The Daily Telegraph said, “As a twit he stands alone.”

I concur. The Cappuccino Years finds Mole still a total loser in his thirties. Burned out relationships. Burned out marriages. Burned out house. So…

Italics? Make ’em cringe-worthy.

‘Her glossy lips were open, showing Harpic-white teeth. Her eyes said bedroom.’

Lovely. Oh, go on, let’s have another.

‘The man is a sartorial disaster area. He is the Pompeii of menswear.’

Oh, no there I go again.

Screamers? Here are some deft ones, with some potent italicisation.

Christ, she’s a wanker’s dream! She’s a dislocated wrist! She’s duvet heaven!’

Hang on a sec, need to open a window.

Caps? Be brave, and lavish and slather.

[After a long and knee-slapping all-caps rant about being a father] ‘THIS IS NOT HOW I EXPECTED MY LIFE TO TURN OUT!’

And I say: THANK YOU, Sue Townsend!!

See, us amateurs shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near ’em.

Thanks for being here.

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