Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Too Much Black Mask?

There was a time when I thought the hard-boiled writing style, as pioneered in Black Mask magazine, was the only way to write. I'm certainly not the only one, nor am I the only one to extol the virtues of the magazine and the writers who wrote for it and how they wrote, both individually and as a group. But I got to thinking today...has Black Mask been too much of an influence? Have today's crime writers neglected the development of their own voice in order to continue a writing tradition that doesn't necessary work all the time?

I think I almost fell into that trap. The stripped down style of Hammett. Chandler, Stark, et al, was wonderful to read and I worked hard to emulate it. Allegedly, I did it very well. The editors who bought my first handful of stories thought so, and even one who turned a story down said I had a "talent for this sort of thing" but as I moved from my 20s to my 30s I started reading different authors (like Leslie Charteris and PG Wodehouse and F. Scott Fitzgerald) and found a whole new way of storytelling that was just as wonderful as the hard-boiled style (you could make a case that Fitzgerald stripped his prose a little, but not to the same point Hammett did).

Based on reading Charteris alone, I started writing The Rogue Gentleman, and while there is still a mix of the hard-boiled in spots, the writing is much more filled out than what I had previously done. I wasn't comparing myself to Dashiell Hammett or Paul Cain or Frederick Nebel or any of the other hard-boiled masters. I was finding my own way and, I think, finally developing a voice that sounded like my own. Allegedly, I've done well with it.

With all of the adoration given to Black Mask and the hard-boiled style, is it choking off greater creative effort? Hard-boiled certainly teaches you the basics. Less is more. Get the action going. Be clear, pay attention to important details, have realistic motivations. But at some point, those training wheels have to be taken off and the writer must find his own voice. To continuously try to keep the tradition alive for the sake of the tradition itself doesn't do the crime and mystery genre any favors, and only continues the idea that hard-boiled fiction consists of dummies in trench coats and hats who talk out of the side of their mouths and carry a gat in each hand and end every sentence with "sister" or some other wise crack and lines like, "I got hit with a brick as heavy as Texas and after that the lights went out. I woke up with a slight headache that a couple of beers took care of, picked up my coat and hat, and went to find the fat man so I could give him back the brick."

Hard-boiled doesn't work all the time. Sometimes you need the extra details, the emotions, all the things that Joe Shaw said to cut. Sometimes you don't need them, too. Finding that balance is the key. I think I've found it, though I reserve the right to go back to the pure hard-boiled style when I feel like it. Because, while it's a good way to teach writing, it's also friggin' FUN.

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