The next moment, in stepped the most beautiful blonde bombshell that these old gumshoe eyes have ever seen — oozing of raw sex appeal. … She leaned back hard against the door, as if to prevent herself from fainting, and then said, so softly, venerably [sic]: “Help me, Mr. Spade. I’m in trouble. I’ll do anything you ask. It’s murder.”
That is from the first paragraph of Alan Zacher’s mystery novel I’m No P.I. The Very. First. Paragraph. Oh, this does not bode well, I thought, when I spotted that venerably.
You might be cringing at that hokey opening situation, too, but it’s the protagonist’s daydream, and the protagonist, Tom, is a single, permanently unemployed fifty-five-year-old man living in his mother’s basement. The daydream fits. The “venerably” is the only misspelling or incorrect word that I noticed in the book, but the writing does have other problems.
Creative writing classes teach us to be descriptive, to evoke the scene in the reader’s imagination by the use of telling detail. Telling and relevant detail, that is. In I’m No P.I., we get long, detailed descriptions of what our hero is wearing, for no reason other than that the writer decided a descriptive passage (any descriptive passage) was warranted. We also learn way too much about the layout of his Mom’s house. I think I could produce a blueprint from his description, and the book isn’t the kind of Agatha Christie style novel where it would matter.
The plot might not stand up to full cross-examination, if I were feeling cranky, and I’m not sure the arithmetic of everyone’s relative ages works out. Villain #1 was painfully obvious, though Villain #2 came as a surprise, to me, anyway.
But you know what? I finished the entire book in one evening, curled up in bed. And if you were to ask me if I liked it, I would have to say that I did.
As I said in a comment on someone else’s blog recently: I read genre, so plot is one of the reasons that I read. I can forgive a writing style that doesn’t impress me, if the plot will carry me along, and as long as the writing doesn’t make me wince too much. And Zacher’s story did carry me along. It was the way he wrote the hero: the man is a loser, but he’s so nice. No, more than nice — he’s a good man.
This is a man who really cares about his elderly parents, who makes up for living in their basement by taking care of their house. He drives his mother to the nursing home to visit his senile father every day. He sits up with his mother every night to watch the Thin Man movies because it makes his mother happy. As a practical joke, he fools his mother into thinking that he wants to be a private investigator — and his mother finds him a case with the next door neighbor (whom he’s known all his life). And he does it, because he cares about his mother, and his neighbor, and for once in his life he wants to finish what he started.
I like the voice that Zacher gave to his protagonist. Reading Tom’s version of events, and “hearing” his self-deprecating sense of humor, I am reminded of certain people I have known. These are people who are perhaps ineffectual in certain aspects of their lives, people I wouldn’t want to be, but I still like them and enjoy their company. Just as I enjoyed Tom’s company, as I read the novel.
In other words, it was an enjoyable story, with entertaining characters (well, and a few flat ones), contained in an okay book. It was — a good read.
And really, that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Just in case my earlier critique makes me sound snobbish about the book, let me spell it out. Alan Zacher is something that I am not: he is a Fiction Writer. I probably never will be. But I wanted to be, once. And the only reason that I noticed some of those things about his writing is that I made exactly the same mistakes, too. Such mistakes can be overcome — I’d like to think I did, and I’m sure he will.
But there are other things you need the knack for: characters that engage the reader (whether they like them or hate them), a talent for storytelling, energy of language, passion and enthusiasm that infect the reader who picks up your story. The lack of these things is harder to overcome than a less than elegant writing style. And these are also the things that many readers (especially ones who are not writers) will mostly evaluate the story by.
The dancer La Meri wrote, “Motivation and dynamic quality are the raisons d’etre of the dance. All other techniques are merely adjuncts of these. … With these two present an incomplete technique is overlooked; without them a perfect technique is as if not.”
It’s true about dance. It’s true about good reads, too.
Of course, if you have all those things I mentioned, and perfect technique on top of it, well, then you have a great read.