Decision making, Spenser style

From Robert B. Parker’s Cold Service:

You need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you have to know. And you need to have it in mind. You need to know what part of what you want to do can be done now, and what needs to wait, and what it needs to wait for. Is there anything you don’t understand in this situation? Anything missing?

From Chapter 34, page 157 in my edition.

Everybody knows Parker’s detective Spenser, and I’ve quoted him before on this blog. I copied out this quote on the back of a postcard and have it propped up on my desk, next to my kid calendar. I appreciate it because it sets out a decision-making process.

I wouldn’t say that I spend my day making more decisions than the average worker bee, but perhaps it’s that I spend more time thinking about the decisions I make than the average worker bee. So any kind of guidelines to decision making are welcome; that’s why it’s propped up on the desk.

More interestingly, Parker wrote the quote, he’s a writer and was focused on putting words together, slapping covers and a generic title on them, and moving on to the next one. But the words come out of the mouth of Spenser, his detective. Consider therefore the research necessary to fully inhabit the world of Spenser. Research is more than just having a sea captain inform you about the tides in San Francisco Bay, as Isabel Allende did for her novel Ripper, which I just finished reading. It also includes research into motivations and styles of work.

Consider wondering how fully does the novel’s protagonist think like the kind of person he or she is supposed to be. This is obviously most applicable to crime novels, as the detective is often a professional detective.

“The saddest thing in the world? A broken violin.”—Frédéric Dard, Le bourreau pleure

‘L’objet le plus triste du monde ? Je crois que c’est un violon brisé. En tout cas, c’est la vue de la boîte à violon écrasée sur la route, avec les cordes de l’instrument s’en échappant, qui m’a le plus serré le cœur. Elle symbolisait l’accident plus encore que la jeune femme étendue en bordure du fosse, les doigts griffant la terre sèche et les jupes relevées sur des cuisses admirables.’

“The saddest thing in the world? I think it’s a broken violin. Certainly, seeing the violin case smashed on the roadway, with the instrument’s strings coming out, is what touched my heart most. It said ACCIDENT more strongly than the young woman stretched out on the side of the ditch, her fingers scratching the dry earth and her dress flopped up to show off her admirable thighs.”

— Frédéric Dard, Le bourreau pleure

What a rare treat it is to pick a book in a foreign language at random from a shelf in a friend’s mother-in-law’s home and read a first sentence like that one. I immediately asked to borrow it and finished the book on the bus ride home. (or The Executioner Cries) is from 1956, and reads like Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, set in Spain.

On a languorous Spanish vacation, the narrator runs over this girl, then fetches her back to his hotel. She recovers quickly from the accident. She turns out, however, to be amnesiac and can’t remember her name, who she is, or what she was doing in Spain, since she speaks French like a native. The narrator promptly falls in love with her and vice versa. Who is she? He traces her through the labels of her clothes to a suburb of Paris, discovers her identity and her past, and then, in best Thompson fashion, exits his own relatively conventional life to join her in the kind of twisted existential misery that could sour you permanently on the notion of “following your heart.”

On a cursory check, I don’t see Le bourreau pleure ever having been translated into English. Dard is best known for his San-Antonio series of spy novels, but this one also is still in print, fifty years after initial publication.

Fortuitously, I recently read this intriguing guide to how to write a novel in a weekend, authored by the legendary Michael Moorcock, famous for his Elric of Melniboné sword-and-sorcery novels and his bizarre and genre-defying Jerry Cornelius novels. Having last picked up a Moorcock when I was in high school, back in the 20th Century, I recall them as being completely impossible to understand or remember after having read, but lots of books are like that to me (a reason why I have such trouble working on this blog; imagine finding books to care about, week after week). Still, you have to give the fellow credit for figuring out a pretty simple formula for novel-writing.

The entire way through the Dard book, I am thinking of how it pretty much fits the model of the Lester Dent master pulp-novel formula, which Moorcock lovingly describes. You could call Bourreau formulaic, with the proviso that Dard uses the formula to the same frightening effect that Thompson did. Take the novel as a metaphor for life. Then reduce the novel to a formula, as in classic Lester-Dent pulp fiction. That’s life as we live it, most of us, according to a formula: one cup oatmeal, three cups coffee, and $2.25 for the subway to work.

Dard’s couple ends up fleeing to a broken-down old house outside an anonymous Spanish town, in a setting that resembles a Krazy Kat comic strip:

The loneliness of the place had something depressing about it. It didn’t exactly resemble Spain; rather it was like the Australian desert, something flat and infinite, with low, flat, black trees. Whose idea was it to have built such a tumbledown house in this desolate spot?…At that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking that if Hell existed, it would resemble where I was now living.

My question is this: who is really living in Hell, the character or the reader? Bourreau comes to its conclusion too soon afterward for the answer to be resolved.

“When we have the money, it’s right back on this road again”—Mr. Slaughter, R McCammon

‘Now don’t think I have the slightest intention of letting him go,’ Greathouse said. ‘That would be a crime against humanity. But listen, Matthew: we can make him believe we’re in accord, and then when we have the money, it’s right back on this road again, across the river and on to put him behind bars. What do you say?’

Mister Slaughter, Robert McCammon, Part II, Chapter 9

Idiot! Of course you say, “No!” Stop! STOP! Of course, he’ll say “OK” (or something less anachronistic).

Of course, this is where the book really starts. All 121 pages previous were just back-story, introducing the characters. Here’s where the protagonists make their choice to let out the insanity that the rest of the book—a serial-killer thriller set in Colonial New York—must by rights encompass. Why the author didn’t start right here, I don’t know. That would have made some kind of sense.

Did people say “crime against humanity” in 1702?

‘I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt,’ Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open


But this cold will pass. The woodlice will come out of the walls again with the spring rain; the snails will sail slowly through the young weeds on the path. There will be warm, wet mornings dark with cloud, and I’ll be out with my plastic bag and a stick to get a free dinner of snails, the petit gris. I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt, boil them out of their shells and cut the shit off them, then do a cold garlic butter with parsley and eat them off the special plates that Margo bought in the market. I shall eat them by candlelight and pretend it’s a dinner party. [Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open, Chapter 17]

…I soon found number eighteen; it was the door that banged in the dark wind and had a pile of costermongers’ garbage three feet high beside it. The door banged because it didn’t lock, and it didn’t lock because the traders used the street-level passageway for parking their barrows and empty crates. I stood at the foot of the stairs in the gloom for a minute, then got my flashlight out—where would anybody be in modern London without one? I looked for a push button to light the cement stairs that yawned in front of me; there was one, but it didn’t work. On the inside of the street door was a wire basket full of mail. It looked like disagreeable mail, the kind that arrives in buff envelopes, and evidently nobody ever read it, because it looked as if it had been there a long time. [Chapter 20]

‘But you weren’t prepared to try the famous knack on anybody else, were you? No, because anyone with any balls would have told you to fuck off, and you’d have burst into tears, just like you’re about to do with me. You’re like a sinister little boy, Eric; every time the beastly horrid sand-castle falls in you burst out crying and try and kick someone smaller than you are. I bet you think of yourself as the detritus of your society—it’s a good excuse for a wallow in self-pity. But all you are, Eric, is just a wanker.’ [Chapter 20]

I’m still working my way through Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open, but I had to post these three, coming so closely on top of one another (all three within 20 pages) as they did, and each one so perfect in its own way. I’d unexpectedly come upon this Derek Raymond book at a different branch library, so after the week before last’s pleasure at reading How The Dead Live, I couldn’t leave it be but had to borrow it.

Aux escargots! To the first passage we go. How do you tell a poor man? He’s someone who can’t afford a long word. Out of the 128 words I’ve quoted, there’s only two of three or more syllables: vinegar and candlelight. It’s not the book’s narrator who’s talking, it’s the victim, quoted speaking on an audio tape he left behind. A regular clue.

But the only clue you get out of this passage is how exquisitely close his life is to the bone of subsistence, and yet how much pleasure he derives out of the search for nourishment. Even though his life (as described earlier in the chapter) has been reduced to cycling through one punishing task after another in order to ward off complete destitution, he still envisions waiting more than a week to completely prepare for a nice dinner. It’s left for the reader to decide whether he would actually let the little gastropods alone for nine days, or just skewer and roast them that first spring evening.

The second quote is delivered by the book’s nameless protagonist, a police officer (naturally). Describing the desolation of a squat through the mail that it receives is a stroke of genius, and to me a peculiarly English one; I can’t imagine Bill Pronzini’s nameless San Francisco detective nailing the exact color of envelope that “disagreeable mail” comes in, but the descriptor evokes for me both the desperation of the departed tenants to whom the mail is addressed, as well as the liberation of the current crop of squatters living there, who pay no attention to the mail basket because their names aren’t known to creditors, yet.

And the third quote I tossed in because you’re like me, and you always wondered what exactly a “wanker” was. Now we know, right?
Retweet this!

“Moss choked the blocked teeth of the keyboard” D. Raymond, ‘How the Dead Live’

Another mildew picture


Rain, which I could see pelting through a glassless window, had now set in for the night. It tapped monotonously on floors, on tables and broken chairs as we passed—a gilt clock without its dome and smothered in verdigris stood with its hands forever at twenty to ten on a dripping mantelpiece. Pictures, eighteenth-century prints and maps, askew on the walls, some lying on the floor in their own glass, gazed at us in the light of Mardy’s gaslamp—light that also glanced across a tallboy with jammed and swollen drawers, on a stricken chandelier with half its lustres missing. It danced over a music-room with a concert grand in it; moss choked the blocked teeth of the keyboard. It slid over partitas spread wetly on a stand, on a drenched metronome with its pendulum rusted out to the left, and the water streaming down the walls glittered in it.

—Derek Raymond, How the Dead Live, Chapter 9

I’ve read one of these Derek Raymond novels before, but How the Dead Live strikes some neverbefore heard chord in the Gothic repertory. Half a Chandler knockoff, half a Poe knockoff, it’s completely original in the depth of its existential flagellation. The nameless protagonist, a detective, proves to himself that he’s alive by constantly abrading his personality against the worthless rotten inhabitants of a Kentish village, the way my cat self-medicates her swollen gums.

The 80-room ruin holding pride of place in the minimal plot, the one the narrator describes in the quote: is it a metaphor for the ruined England of the early eighties? Or a metaphor for the creakiness and rot at the heart of the detective novel? I wouldn’t call this one exactly a fresh approach, but there is something to be said for the grand gesture of degradation.

Retweet this!

‘She bought screwdrivers, iron files, hacksaw blades and hammers; baling wire, nylon twine and bungee cords.’ –M. Connelly

The pleasures of reading mass-market literature extend to the
simplicity with which you can excerpt your favorite parts for later
commentary. As you can see from the first attached picture, forty-nine
out of the 50 chapters of Michael Connelly’s Void Moon remained
in the airplane where I read them. I saved chapter 5, which has the
best writing in the entire book.
The list can function as a shortcut to good writing. It’s all nouns,
and no prescriptivist, not even Elmore Leonard, would suggest that you could improve your
writing by leaving the nouns out. A good list creates a minimal,
dynamic, ready-for-action mood, quite like the mood of Void
that this chapter introduces. Cassie Black has decided to
rededicate her life to crime. Connelly provides one last simile
(though he confuses the role of arteries and veins) before crossing
the Rubicon into list territory:

The charge of outlaw juice was boiling in her blood now, banging through her veins like hot water through frozen winter pipes.

 She began by changing her body clock, dramatically shortening her sleeping hours and pushing them well into the morning. She offset the sleep deprivation with a regimen of energy-enhancing vitamins…Within a week she had dropped from seven to four hours of sleep per night.…

 After carefully making a list of every conceivable thing that would help her overcome any obstacle on a job, she memorized its contents and destroyed it…

 She bought screwdrivers, iron files, hacksaw blades and hammers; baling wire, nylon twine and bungee cords. She bought a box of latex gloves, a small tub of earthquake wax, a Swiss Army knife and a painter’s putty knife with a three-inch-wide blade. She bought a small acetylene torch and went to three hardware stores before finding a small enough battery-powered and rechargeable drill. She bought rubber-tipped pliers, wire cutters and aluminum shears. She added a Polaroid camera and a man’s long-sleeved wetsuit top to her purchases. She bought big and small flashlights, a pair of tile worker’s knee pads and an electric stun gun. She bought a black leather backpack, a black fanny pack and belt, and several black zipper bags of varying sizes that could be folded and carried inside one of the backpack’s pockets. Lastly, in every store she went to she bought a keyed padlock, amassing a collection of seven locks made by seven different manufacturers and thereby containing seven slightly different interior locking mechanisms.

 You couldn’t write an entire book like this, but it makes a nice
change from the following paragraph, which in its subjunctive mood is
echt Connolly. His characters are always introspectively
calculating the angles and predicting their lots thereby:

If the tool satchel were ever discovered by Thelma Kibble or any other law enforcement officer, Cassie would have a degree of deniability that might keep her out of lockdown. The car was not hers. Without prints on the tools or evidence of her having purchased and made them, it ultimately could not be proved that they belonged to her. They could hold her and sweat her but they would eventually have to let her go.

One of these days I am going to crack open Jacques Ellul’s The
Technological Society
again and drawing on his distinctions between
craft and technique, write a big academic treatise on the false
techno-realism of thriller novels. If I knew so much about what it
took to break into a Las Vegas hotel room, I would be doing it myself
and not writing novels about it. Luckily the march of progress makes
books like Void Moon, from the late 90s, seem as hopelessly
anchored in the past as Sherlock Holmes’s exploits in Arthur Conan
Doyle’s The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans

‘On the floor, [the omelet] looked like what the Greeks call acheiropoietoi’ —Ask The Parrot by Richard Stark

He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown. Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black ocean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption. On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call acheiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.

Ask The Parrot, Part Two, Chapter 1, Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake)

I read Ask The Parrot on Monday, less than a day after a 16-hour transcontinental flight from the last secret town on my itinerary to New Jersey. I read the first 98 pages between three and four in the morning as an antidote to jet lag, then put it down and got another hour of sleep. When I picked up the book again, this particular paragraph was the first one I read.


Westlake, who just passed away in recent months, is hardly a hard-boiled writer, though he does write about hard-boiled topics. Ask The Parrot is one of his Parker novels, about a bank robber on the lam who plans a racetrack robbery. A more typical paragraph is this one, from the first chapter:

Seen up close, there was a tension in the man that seemed to be a part of him, not something caused by running into a fugitive in the woods. His hands were clenched on the rifle, and his eyes were bitter, as though something had harmed him at some point and he was determined not to let it happen again.

But the sheer transport of joy involved in describing a tipped-over stale breakfast as acheiropoietoi obviously caught my attention and that’s why I’m sharing it with you. It goes to the heart of figurative writing. Digressing as the first quote, about the omelet, does, allows the tension of the scene to dissipate in the reader’s mind while the characters still labor within its constraints. It’s not Parker or Lindahl, the two characters in the scene, who are describing the omelet one to another, but the author describing it to the reader. It breaks the scene open and allows the reader, for the space of a breath, to perceive the book as a text, rather than as a story.

Robert B. Parker, “Rough Weather”

The frustrating thing about Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels is that lines like these come up all too often:

‘We both live in worlds where the cynicism is age-old and millennium-deep,’ Ives said. ‘We are both cynical, and with good reason. But you are not cynical, Lochinvar. I find it refreshing.’

Who speaks like this? Even a malicious evil genius wouldn’t speak like that.
But then a couple pages later:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.


Lazy afternoon

It wasn’t like swimming through molasses, rather a pleasant diversion
from exertion, like a local anesthetic is a diversion from pain. The
day was sunny and brisk, with the wind out of the north. I just didn’t
go that fast, is all. It was a day for sailing gently along, like the
five parachutists I watched drifting out of the sky, their round wings
rocking them gently to the ground not five hundred meters to my left.
Would they want to proceed any faster? I certainly did not.

 To place the capstone on the lassitudinous afternoon, I finished up
Janwillem van der Wettering’s Tumbleweed one of his better
Grijpstra-and-de-Gier mystery novels. There was a whole cache of such
I found in a spare room last month, and I’ve been reading them
serially, on the theory that if one is mildly amusing, five will
provide days of mild amusement, just the thing I’m longing for. I had
read a bunch back about 10 years ago, borrowed from the Brooklyn
Public Library. I had forgotten that they are crime novels that have
nothing to do with crime. Someone is killed brutally, then Grijpstra
and de Gier and their boss, the commissaris (who is never given a
name), talk to the friends and acquaintances of the victim and
eventually come up with a criminal, who in all books of the series is
uniformly urbane and sympathetic. Guilt is assigned, but it’s all so
existential! The crime just happened, just like the cops were there to
solve it, just like the parachutists fell out of the sky.