Friday, March 02, 2012

A mystery full of question marks

A leading Leonardite among this blog's readers suggested yesterday that Elmore Leonard had shot his literary bolt by the time he wrote Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995).

I've read too little from Leonard's 60-year career to judge which have been his stronger and which his weaker periods, but Riding the Rap certainly seems a weaker book than Pronto.  Each features as its protagonist Raylan Givens, a courtly U.S. marshal from Kentucky thrown up against some serious criminals in Florida and Italy. The situation is ripe for social comedy, but Riding the Rap violates one of the keys to Leonard's low-key humor: Its characters sometimes seem to know they're being funny, which is a lot less funny than when they play it straight and leave the laughs to the reader.

Hints of romantic tension seem thrown in merely because Leonard felt the need to inject drama. Especially irritating to this copy editor/reader, Leonard tacks on question marks to declarative statements. Presumably this is meant to suggest the rising intonation some speakers use. Leonard makes the interesting choice of giving this stereotypically female tic to male characters as well as female ones, but the tic is still no less annoying in print than it is in real life.

Compounding the superfluous question marks, the book several times omits question marks where they are called for. This may be mischief on Leonard's part, or it may be sloppy copy editing, but whatever the reason, it's a bloody distracting pain. Y'know? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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27 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I haven't read one since Tishimongo Blues and that came out in 2002. But I liked it and didn't notice a diminution of powers.

Of course, I am not a copyeditor either.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the only connection I can imagine between the love/hate relationship with question marks and any diminution of powers would be if the question-mark was a deliberate, attention-grabbing gimmick. But I won't able to judge that until I've read more of Leonard's work from more of his career.

I'm still reading Riding the Rap, and I'll finish it. I don't think it will turn out to be a bad book, but it's not as good as the first in the series.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Paul D Brazill said...

Pronto is one of my favourite Leonard books.As a boozer, I like the fact that so much of plot points turn on that old boozer's mantra-'you know, I've never told this to anyone before.'

Riding The Rap is good fun but Raylan is better.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Are those question marks tacked onto declarative statements associated with the romantic passages, by any chance, Peter? I've always associated the rising intonation of questions in speech with those young and usually pretty women who seem to live in a state of permanent uncertainty. They are sometimes referred to, I believe, as 'Valley Girls'.

However, I've come across it in print again elsewhere recently and, spoken or written, it always drives me bananas. The editor, if there were one, should have got those out of Leonard's book. If I'd read it and it were my first, I'd not go back.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I like that "I've never told anyone this before ..." Leonard handles it without seeming condescending to or pitying the character. In fact, I did not even associate that trait of Harry's with his drinking.

Thanks for the heads-up on Raylan.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I, too, was going to invoke Valley Girls. And no, Leonard does not restrict the superfluous question marks to romantic passages in Riding the Rap.

I was disappointed to see Leonard resort to the device because I always thought his dialogue was highly compressed, distilled to its essence to convey the impression of authenticity. The question marks, on the other hand, have the effect that including all the hems and haws and "You knows?" and throat-clearing that we all use in real conversation would have. It's an authentic transcription of reality, but it's crappy dialogue. If you've come across it elsewhere, I suspect you've come across writers and editors who don't know the difference.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

Leonard's sequels never fare well. RIDING THE RAP is weak compared to PRONTO; BE COOL can't compare to GET SHORTY; UP IN HONEY'S ROOM is a pale copy of THE HOT KID. I don't RAYLAN is as good as either of its predecessors.

His peak lasted longer than he was given credit for yesterday, though the period mentioned was his prime. One book from earlier deserves mention and seems to be forgotten as a book is HOMBRE. People forget it was a book first. It may be the best things Leonard ever wrote.

I can't speak for the extraneous question marks, but I can, I think, account for the one that are missing from questions. Sometimes speakers make declamatory statements out what read like questions just based on the words. I think that's what he's getting after.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

I agree with Dana about HOMBRE, a book way ahead of its time that even now, taken as a literary novel, is about the strongest of his works, though I don't pretend to have read them all.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, interesting comment on Leonard's sequels. I saw the movie version of Hombre, and I've recently bought a book of Leonard's Western stories.

I'll keep in mind what you send about the dropped question marks. Whatever he had mind, I suspect he may have been up to some kind of mischief, dropping and adding question marks deliberately, adhering to what he thought of as the rhythms of real speech rather than the rules of punctuation. But I don't think it works.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard and Dana: I bought the Western stories because Pronto reminded me of Westerns. Also, I'd read Edward Grainger's Cash Laramie stories a while back and asked for suggestions of Westerns that might appeal to crime-fiction readers.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I've always associated the fake question mark in speech with Australian speech patterns. I don't know if they do it so much now, but when was meeting a lot of them on my travels in Europe, you could always pick them out by the way they would turn everything statement into a question.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I like nearly everything that Elmore Leonard writes, But two of his best crime thrillers, in my view, are "City Primeval" and "Fifty-Two Pickup."

"Fifty-Two Pickup" was made nto a very good film.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

City Primeval will be at the top of my list should I decide to read any Elmore Leonard that has no obvious connection with Westerns. I saw part of the movie version of 52 Pick-Up years ago. Roy Scheider's character exacts a delicious revenge.

March 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I haven't met enough Australians to be able to pick up that speech quirk. Are you telling me that those tough Foster-swilling, Australian Rules-playing, er, Australians talk like a bunch of valley girls?

March 03, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I have to say they were mostly girls we met in the youth hostels, and such, so maybe they were simply different valleys. I should be able to remember from Australian films, but at the moment I'm not sure.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Paul D Brazill said...

Seana's right about Aussie intonation. The first time I met an Australian was on my first trip to London. At that time, every barman in London was Australian -they're all Polish now- and when he told me the price of the beer I thought it was a question and started to wonder if I was supposed to haggle.Only added to the stress of being in the big city.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I've never read any Leonard. Don't shoot me. Don't know if he would be my kind of thing. How mainstream are they? Every time I pick one up, it smacks a bit of mass market to me.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I've never pictured Australia as having many valleys. But that makes for a good Western title, doesn't it? The Girl From Flat Valley.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Geez, Pau;, maybe someone should have posted a sign at the entrance: "Check your accents at the door, boys."

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, I haven't read much Elmore Leonard, so I won't shoot you for having read none. I would guess that if he seems a bot mainstream and mass-market, it's because his success has made him that way. Think of how many movies and television shows have been based on his novels and stories: Get Shorty. Out of Sight. 52 Pick-up. Jackie Brown. Here's a list: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001465/filmogenre

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

City Primeval is excellent, and 52 Pick-Up is great fun. They're good examples of how Leonard can make his crimes lighter or darker and be effective at each.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: I presume you mean a mix of lighter and darker in each book, rather than one book light, the other dark. But yes, I enjoy that difficult mix, so I suspect I'd like those books.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Peter, I believe that should be "The Girl From Flat Valley?"

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you should be able to see know that I corrected my amusimg typo some time ago.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sorry for the typo in amusing typo.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Peter, I was speaking in Australian.

March 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: My favorite use of Australian slang is in the title of a crime novel I read a few years ago: Crook as Rookwood. Crook apparently means sick or doing poorly, and Rookwood is a big cemetery in Sydney. So "crook as rookwood" means "you're screwed."

March 05, 2012  

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