Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My heart was hardening

for the first half or so of Stephen Booth's The Dead Place; I read all of Booth's mystery novels in a fit of great enthusiasm a few years ago (before I was blogging I think), liked the characters and the high-quality writing and the good Derbyshire landscape stuff & recommended them to various friends including M. who recently loaned me this one. But somehow it didn't win me over at first--I found myself wondering whether it's weaker than the others, or if my tastes have changed & I wouldn't like the earlier ones now either, or if perhaps I have just hardened my heart in general against series crime fiction (like Tod Goldberg).

Two minor details symptomatic of my irritation, each given twice rather than once which drew my ire:

(1) "personal stereo." Yes, this book is written in fairly impersonal third-person narration, with two point-of-view characters we alternate between. But in this case (and of course there are always exceptions, this is just the basic rule) the language needs to be fairly close to the way the characters are perceiving things, and both of these two are, say, latish twenties or early thirties. "Personal stereo"--ah, that's completely out of date! Maybe it was once standard usage in England, surely it never was in America (you always would say walkman or discman even if it was the off-brand), and now wouldn't you say iPod or MP3 player or whatever? It is the way an older person might speak of something completely foreign to him, it is hardly the phrase a 28-year-old English cop uses to name/conceptualize the thing the teenager's got on his head or whatever. Dowdy.

(2) I am admittedly a hyphenation freak, I love hyphens and have inflexible theories as to how they should be used, but not only is the phrase fine-tooth comb a cliche, it should NEVER be given (especially not TWICE!) as "fine tooth-comb." That shows someone just not attending to the meaning of words.

And there are a few other continuity glitches of a kind that particularly annoy me (a woman's wearing jeans on one page, corduroys on the next, that sort of thing).

However I found the second half more gripping than the first, so perhaps it really was just my mood? Or perhaps the second half is a return to original form. We will never know, but other opinions on Booth are welcomed in the comments.


  1. Ah, the joys of the tooth-comb. I would definitely only use the adjective "fine" in front of that if I were describing beautiful prosimian dentition. And most prosimians I've seen do not have fine tooth-combs. They have ishy tooth-combs.

  2. I read the first three of Booth's books, but not the one you have just read (I think...poor memory..but The Dead Place is his latest I think).
    I enjoyed the first very much, but I felt that the second two dropped in quality, both in characterisation and plotting. I felt he had created a good "niche" in the first book in terms of atmosphere, situation (locality) and character (the protagonist's family and work-relationships, including how they are both disturbed by Diane).
    I am afraid that I concluded in the end that the author was trying to spin out a series beyond its natural end. You know how some series read as if they just write themselves? I am sure they don't, but as a reader they convince that the author had it in mind to write a series all along: characters develop, themes continue, etc. Of course JK Rowling is the modern shining example of this kind of author/series.
    Other series seem to become more contrived as they go along. I think Booth's falls into that category: he is straining to develop the situations he's set up in the first book, to the extent that inconsistencies are coming in. Not just in the small ways you point out, but in the ways that the characters behave (eg Diane).
    I suppose the end result of this is the "soap", where a character suddenly finds a long-lost mother or behaves completely against type. I don't think Booth has got there yet!
    Jim Kelly is an author who may fall into the Booth category. I adored his first book "The Water Clock", finding it really different and poignant. However, his second, though good, seemed to have this same "straining for effect". I have not read the third yet.
    Incidentally, over in the UK we do refer to "cords" and "jeans" interchangeably, and also we do use the phrase "personal stereo" -- I think iPods and MP3s have become ubiquitous (as opposed to desirable fashion item) only in the past 12 months. So this language may not be the author's fault.
    I agree about the fine-tooth comb, it crops up so frequently in crime fiction, and I find it very irritating. However, the placing of the hyphen will be the domain of the subeditor, not the author.

  3. Lynn: that's excellent!

    Maxine: Yeah, not well conceived as shaped sequence with characters unfolding, the early stuff worked better. I read "The Water Clock," btw, and wasn't super-taken with it, I think I will not seek out the subsequent ones now that you've mentioned it. And thank you for correcting me on the "personal stereo" business--to my ears it always sounds extremely clunky and like what you would only find in a crime report, but it must be a usage question... Don't you think that more and more it depends on the author putting the hyphen in the right place in the first place? I feel that surely a subeditor wouldn't have actually made it wrong if it had been right to begin with (or the author could have caught it in proof)...

  4. Maybe book publishing is different from journal publishing (the last being my area), but on a journal an author would lose against the sub every time on hyphen placement;-)

    In my experience very few people know about hyphen placement. Unfortunately, those few who do are also extremely strong willed on the subject, and disagree passionately with each other. Hart's Rules (sub's bible) is ambivalent on it. The subject reminds me of the best couple of pages in "Eats, shoots, and leaves" about subs inserting and removing each others' commas (in this instance, for "commas" read "hyphens"). I did not like Lyn Truss's book much apart from that bit about the subs and commas as it rang so true (I manage a lot of subeditors! And I am always nagging them not to change punctuation on proof just because they disagree with the sub who edited the text).

    Incidentally, on re-reading my earlier comment I hope I did not come over as didactic. Apologies if so. Sometimes opinions can seem too hard in written form. I agree with you that "personal stereo" is a bit clunky, and although people over here do use it I guess they are mostly people "of a certain age".

  5. No, no, not didactic at all, I am always delighted to hear from someone as obsessed with hyphen placement as I am! I have a copy-editing/managing editor-type background, at one point I had practically memorized the relevant sections of the Chicago Manual of Style. And strong-willed/passionate disagreement are extremely good phrases to invoke! I fear I often exert my will over the punctuation of my students--as I'm in "eighteenth-century studies" but it is incumbent on everyone to talk about "the eighteenth century" I find myself with many opportunities for correction....