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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Dexterous twists

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

The article has been modified

Those born after 1980 took to the American style of writing in exactly the same way as they took to TV - with unseemly eagerness. To an impatient generation, it was quick, less pretentious and far more appealing than the more sophisticated English one that tended to meander a lot


Ruth Rendell's death last week revived a thought that has been pestering me ever since P D James died. Is British, or more accurately, English - or even more precisely, south of England - crime writing substantially different from American crime writing? Indeed is this generally true of all British-American writing?

Indians who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s - and perhaps even the 1970s - with the south of England type of writing developed a certain resonance with it. It was like a tuning fork responding to certain frequencies, you know, the softer, more elliptical way of saying things, the unaffected understatements, the exaggerated politeness, the feigned casualness - I am sure you know what I mean.

But then the Americans arrived in the 1980s. And they were the exact opposite of all the little things mentioned above.

Those born after 1980 took to that in-your-face style in exactly the same way as they took to TV - with unseemly eagerness. To an impatient generation, the American style of writing was quick, less pretentious and far more appealing than the more sophisticated English one that tended to meander a lot.

With this changed - for the want of a better word - the definition of a good book, or, more precisely, the definition of good writing. Or, even more precisely, of a well-crafted sentence because American writers express even the most complex thoughts and insights in short, simple sentences of 20 words or less, in a style more suited for newspapers than novels.

Reading them, I cannot but admire the people who edit these books. They edit to communicate, not to show off their writing skills. I also wonder what the authors say and feel about it.

That said, even when the plots are superb and the narrative rivetting - as with writers like, say, John Grisham, Mark Gimenez and others - it is pure cookie-cutter stuff. You know precisely what to expect of the form. But the substance can surprise you quite frequently.

In a sense, it typifies the huge emphasis America places on uniformity and predictability in everything that it does. There are rules, perhaps unwritten ones and, therefore, conventions, really, that have to be followed by everyone.

Some exceptions
But there are exceptions and to those unfamiliar with American crime writing of the last decade or so, let me give three examples of these exceptions. One is John Verdon; the other, whom I discovered just two weeks ago despite her being an earlier writer than Mr Verdon, is Gillian Flynn. And the third is Daniel Silva.

Ms Flynn has written three novels so far. She used to be a journalist and a screenplay writer. Then in 2006, she produced her first book called Sharp Object, which is a real shocker. Even though it is like an American potboiler in form - short, simple sentences - it is brilliantly written just as the others three are.

Mr Verdon came along a bit later and has written four books, three of which I have read. He retired from advertising and built furniture for a while, it seems, before starting to write crime thrillers. The first one was published in 2010 and the fourth in 2014. The main character is a doubt-ridden man called Dave Gurney, an ex-policeman from New York who solves murders for the local police.

Daniel Silva has been around for much longer, since 2001 or so. He writes international spy novels that remind you powerfully of John le Carre. His main character is an introverted art restorer, a killer retired from the Mossad.

Bon aperitif

These three writers are a lot more like the English writers in their understanding of what a novel should also contain. It is the characters that hold your attention. Like Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, they reveal themselves slowly, by word, deed and thoughts. The plot and the mystery are always in the background.

They are not heroes. Quite the opposite, in fact. They are complex but obsessed individuals. It is about them you want to read rather than find out who committed the crime or murder. That, as you read on, becomes quite incidental.

It is wonderfully intricate writing, unsullied by American-style editing. You need time to enjoy these books because virtually every paragraph contains sentences that give immense pleasure and satisfaction. The story unfolds slowly after numerous side forays.

These are not books you read on the plane when you go on a holiday. They are the ones you read after you arrive and before catching the flight back.


(In the second paragraph first line "ever since Colin Dexter (and then P D James) died" has been modified to "ever since P D James died." Mr Colin Dexter is still alive.)

First Published: Mon, May 18 2015. 21:42 IST
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