Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Dry Voice of Omnicient - More From Richard Lockridge

Continuing with my thoughts on Frances and Richard Lockridge....

Richard Lockridge wrote in an artsy, almost arch, style.  He combined stream-of-consciousness, with omniscient, with a dry "reporting" style which was common in early police procedural (think Dragnet).  This combination actually makes sense if you think of it this way:

The story is narrated by an invisible reporter who can report people's thoughts and emotions nearly verbatim when he needs to.  This allows him to give us the voices and deep subjectivity of the point of view characters, while being able to see into the experience of several at once, and also having the detachment of an objective voice overall.

When I look at it that way, it reminds me a little of Dashiell Hammett's stories narrated by the Continental Op -- especially Red Harvest.  The Op is a pro, dispassionate sometimes to the point of being dissociative.  He isn't omniscient -- although he will give you a good guess as to what is going on in the heads of others -- but he reports on some of his own emotions and behavior as if he is reporting on someone else.

And I use the word "reporting" intentionally.  With the Op, a story often feels not like he's telling a tale, but making a report.  This is a common thing in both hard- and soft-boiled fiction, where the voice might be less detached, and it might feel more like the narrator is trying to entertain you.  For instance, Archie Goodwin is glib and sarcastic as he tells his story, but you will notice that when he makes an official report, it is in exactly the same glib and sarcastic (and precise) voice in which he tells the story.  Raymond Chandler and Damon Runyon and a few others may sometimes make you feel like you are being told a story in a bar, but that person you are listening too feels like a reporter or detective, someone who files official reports all the time and it colors their storytelling style.

Of course, those early hard-boiled reporting voices were not omniscient (except for maybe Runyon) but their style developed in modern writers to a new dry, objective omniscient, which allows the reader closer to the characters while it keeps the narrator's emotion under control. I've seen Robert Crais use an omniscient version of the reporter voice very effectively. Sometimes he even mixes first person and third person so he can do that.  I also love the way Stuart Kaminsky used it in his Chicago police procedurals featuring Abe Lieberman.

But Richard Lockridge was not writing hard-boiled fiction.  As I said last week, he did have elements of the old Dragnet-style police procedurals ("Just the facts, ma'm") but he was really writing in a more touchy-feely genre: a combination of cozy mystery and romantic suspense. And these genres require a lot more emotion.

Furthermore, Lockridge was something of an arty writer, who liked stream-of-consciousness as a literary trope.

The result is both aggravating and effective.  Aggravating because it often feels artificial, and because stream-of-consciousness is so freaking confusing sometimes; in particular with all those incomplete thoughts about things the audience doesn't yet know.  This is not a big problem throughout the bulk of a story, but when it happens on the first page, it can truly put a reader off.

One example is in The Dishonest Murderer.  It starts with a couple of pages inside the head of the protagonist, who is trying to rationalize an odd event she just witnessed -- but we don't know that. It's a page and a half before we know that there even was an event driving these half-thoughts.  I mean, it's not utterly confusing.  We get lots of great establishing information about the character and her situation and all that, but it's annoying enough that, if I didn't know I liked the Lockridges, I would never ever have gotten past the first page on this one.

There are times when it is useful to withhold information from the reader, though, and just giving us character thoughts without explanation is a tried-and-true way.

For instance, Lockridge sometimes used this stream-of-consciousness style was to give us a teaser of the victim of the story.  I would describe it as the equivalent of the scene in many TV shows where we see the victim doing something, like hiding some mysterious object and rushing away, only to be met by the killer, who we don't see.  Selective camera work keeps us from seeing key information, and Lockridge's oblique style would do the same thing in this situation.  It makes for a nice teaser that way.

But I think where it works best is in those moments when he gives us more information, not less.  Omniscient can let us know not only what the heroine is thinking, as she worries about her deep dreaded secret, but also gives us a glimpse of what the maid is thinking, or the cop.  So we not only get the woman's paranoia, we also know enough to see where she's right and wrong.

I also think that the dry reporting voice can also let us get closer to a character.  Becuase we've got a buffer between her feelings and our own, we can actually look closer.  Maybe even feel more, because it's safer to get so close.

It's also good for a "fair play" detective story, because we have a better sense of reliable and unreliable narrators. This differs a little from some of the hard-boiled narrators I mentioned above, because even though they give you dry facts, they themselves are not really omniscient, and can be fooled.

Tomorrow, back to the subject of serial fiction. I'm going to muse a bit on my options for what's next, as well as talk about some of the bigger issues in writing the online novel.

See you in the funny papers.

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