Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Time and Place

By Cornelia

I recently taught a writing intensive with the wonderful Kathryn Wall at the Book Passage mystery writers' conference. Our topic was the use of time and place in mysteries, and it was a fun thing to prep for, since we both picked out some passages from our favorite books to illustrate how it can be done most effectively.

I chose passages that were mostly to do with time--ways that different decades and centuries can be indicated on the page without necessarily stating a date.

I thought it would be cool to post some of them here, along with a few more favorites (click on the red text, below, for more information about the books and authors cited).

Istanbul. Three-thirty in the afternoon, the violet hour. Serebin stared out the window of the taxi as it rattled along the wharves of the Golden Horn. The Castle of Indolence. He'd always thought of it that way--melon rinds with clouds of flies, a thousant cats, rust stains on porphyry columns, strange light, strange shadows in a haze of smoke and dust, a street where blind men sold nightingales.

--Alan Furst, Blood of Victory

I looked around at the pilot. He was a short little man, his cap backwards on his head, wearing an oil stained sheep-skin coat and big gloves. Then the plane began to move along the ground, bumping like a motorcycle, and then slowly rose into the air.

We headed almost straight east out of Paris, rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted slowly by some giant, and the ground began to flatten beneath us. It looked cut into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares, and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting.
--Ernest Hemingway, “A Paris-to-Strasbourg Flight,” The Toronto Daily Star, 1922
from By-line Ernest Hemingway, edited by William White

Up to the farmhouse to dinner through the teeming, dusty field, the road under our sneakers was only a two-track road. The middle track was missing, the one with the marks of the hooves and the splotches of dried, flaky manure. There had always been three tracks to choose from in choosing which track to walk in; now the choice was narrowed down to two. For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative. But the way led past the tennis court, and something about the way it lay there in the sun reassured me; the tape had loosened along the backline, the alleys were green with plantains and other weeds, and the net (installed in June and removed in September) sagged in the dry noon, and the whole place steamed with midday heat and hunger and emptiness.

There was a choice of pie for dessert, and one was blueberry and one was apple, and the waitresses were the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain—the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference—they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair.

Then, bumping each other with our hips to make room, the three of us would press together in front of Mrs. Silver’s full-length mirror to comb our hair and practice looking cool. We wore our hair long at the sides, swept back into a ducktail. The hair on top we combed toward the center and then forward, with spit curls breaking over our foreheads. My mother detested this hairdo and forbade me to wear it, which meant that I wore it everywhere but at home, sustaining the distinctness of two different styles with gobs of Butch Wax that left my hair glossy and hard and my forehead ringed with little pimples.

Unlit cigarettes dangling from the corners of our mouths, eyelids at half mast, we studied ourselves in the mirror. Spit curls. Pants pulled down low around our hips, thin white belts buckled on the side. Shirts with three-quarter length sleeves. Collars raised behind our necks. We should have looked cool, but we didn’t.

There is a more prominent accent around here, which is known (nationally as I've discovered) as Locust Valley Lockjaw. This condition usually afflicts women, but men often display strong symptoms. With Locust Valley Lockjaw, one has the ability to speak in complete and mostly understandable sentences--including words with lots of broad vowels--and do so without opening one's mouth, sort of like a ventriloquist. It's quite a trick, and Susan can do it really well when she's with her bitchy friends. I mean, you can be having a drink on the club patio, for instance, and watch four of them sitting around a nearby table, and it looks like they're silently sneering at each other, but then you hear words, whole sentences. I never get over it.

It was never a question of if one of the Crabtrees' Dobermans would get loose and go after Genny. It was when. Those animals were just this side of wild and mean straight through. They had been trained as guard dogs by Ona's oldest boy, Lobe. He'd employed some half-assed Crabtree methodology, probably a booklet found among the impulse items they kept by the register at the Loganville Piggly Wiggly: 30 Days to Deadly Dogs. Add in general Crabtree carelessness, and apply these factors to a swinging gate held closed by a long chain that had to be wrapped three times around the posts before it was padlocked. It was the algebraic formula for doom.

Lindsey lived in one of the Palisades' alphabet streets. Highly prized real estate, each street in the residential grid started with a successive letter of the alphabet beginning with Albright and ending with Kagawa. The Ramseys lived on Galloway, between Fiske and Hartzell. Total yuppie land.

Practically every driveway sported a BMW or one of those four-wheel drive vehicles that ate through brakes like candy. Munch worked on a lot of those at her shop in Brentwood and had even invested in the special tools necessary to remove the hubs. She didn't understand the attraction of Chevy Blazers. Jeep Cherokees, Land Rovers, and those monstrous ten-passenger Suburbans that the sushi-eaters drove. It wasn't like they ever went off-road, and trucks were much more expensive to keep up. Maybe that was the point.

There were victim walls like this every few miles in the city now. They sprouted up in parks and at hospitals, on schools and on subway platforms—anywhere people could think to tape up pictures. As soon as one photo went up, people rushed from their apartments and houses to fill the entire wall with pictures. There could be no single photograph of the missing; every wall had to be covered, every space filled. And as a survivor, you had to stop and look at the pictures because that was what was required of you.

Of course, these people weren’t missing people anymore; they were dead people now. Everyone knew they were dead. There were no stories of people from these walls being found alive (and still: the dream of amnesiacs wandering suburban hospitals) and yet Remy stopped and looked anyway, and as the walls made this quiet shift from the missing to the dead, he looked at them differently, mentally riffling the faces and pausing on the familiar—a glimmer of recognition and hope—until he remembered that he’d just seen that face on the wall in Washington Square, or at St. Vincent’s, and eventually Remy came to wonder if maybe he hadn’t known them all, every one of these people….

I'd love to hear back from you guys about passages and settings you're particularly fond of. If you could visit a time and place from one particular book, what would it be?

p.s. If anyone's in the vicinity of Burlingame, California, tonight Cara Black and I will be having a talk at the library at 480 Primrose Road at 7:30, and would love to see you there.


  1. Oooh, fun question, Miss C, and your excerpts were way cool...but I can't narrow it down to just one place. I have three:

    First, Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings, also known as the Last Homely House: "Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, 'a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.' Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness."

    Second, 110A Picadilly Street. Would love to hang out and talk books with Lord Peter Wimsey. I love that time in English fictional history: the manners, the fashion, all of it.

    And third, the 2050's from JD Robb's Eve Dallas series. There's this cool thing called an auto-chef, that stores all your food and beverage, and all you have to do is punch a button to get whatever you want to eat or drink, prepared just the way you like it. And the cars can fly. And Roarke is hot ;-)

  2. Great post, Cornelia. I'll post a passage when one pops out at me.

    I hear great things about Book Passage.


  3. Rae, I've always wanted to hang out by Bilbo's fireplace and watch Gandalf blow smoke rings. That's the image that most sticks with me from Tolkien.

    Jim, glad you liked it. I should've posted bits from all of us Nakeds' books, but it felt a little too BSPish so I posted from people I don't know IRL instead--except for Joshilyn's one about the Dobermans.

  4. Raymond Chandler’s take on L.A. is still fresh, poignant, and quite often funny. In his novel, The High Window, his description of Bunker Hill reads like a Carl Sandburg poem.

    “Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows and spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glassy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.”

  5. Damn he's good, Patty. What a great passage!

  6. Not that I want to go there, but there's that passage in TO KILL A MOCKINGIRD where Scout describes Maycomb:

    "...but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

    That last line, that image, just DOES it. Yes indeed.

  7. Exactly, Andi! This is a passage that Kathy quoted for the workshop, synchronously enough. She added the next paragraph, too. The one that ends with "they had recently been told that there was nothing to fear but fear itself."

  8. The "soft teacakes" line is so good it's daunting. Makes want to give up writing and open a Burger King.

  9. Paul, we could call it Naked Burgers. I'll handle the fries, if you want. And then you can go home and write brilliantly and I'll bring you Happy Meals. Or I guess we'll have to call them Nudie Meals or something... we can have teacakes on the menu, too.

  10. I need to ponder this, Ms C!

    Entertaining story in today's Guardian newspaper about a disgruntled writer sending chunks from Jane Austen books to publishers, most of whom allegedly didn't spot this!,,2129738,00.html