If you hang out with writers or writer wannabes for any length of time, you’ll hear them talk about Voice. They mention the word with awe and respect, like the Voice is Gandhi’s or Caruso’s or God’s (a Voice, according to the clergy and Kevin Smith, that would literally Blow. Your. Mind.) and every writer wants one. A strong narrative voice. A recognizable voice. An exciting voice. You might think that all these adjectives had made the word-nerds squishy-brained but the fact is Voice is often the hook that pulls a reader into a story. For example:
Listen my children and you will hear- Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Hear those fourteen words again and suddenly you are a kid again, curled up with some pals by a wing chair because the storyteller in the center has promised you tales of derring-do. Fourteen words and the narrator’s in charge. That, my friends, is Voice.
All of this is build-up for a novel I just finished called The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. My mentor, Javacia Harris Bowser (she of Writeous Babe fame) mentioned it as a topic for research but scanning it for data brought to light a fabulous tale graced by that starriest of gifts, a Great Voice.
Ninety percent of the Voice in this book belongs to Flavia de Luce, an eleven-year old chemist with a passion for poisons. She lives in the kind of drafty English country house once favored by Dodi Smith and Agatha Christie near a small, English village. Family and the villagers all interact with Flavia but few of them seem to realize they are sharing space with the female version of young Sherlock Holmes. (Of course, that’s a weapon in our heroine’s arsenal and one she won’t hesitate to use.) Flavia is intelligent, acerbic, tenacious, and so emotionally detached that she should give most grown-ups pause. However, what our heroine lacks in sweetness, she makes up for in courage and a sense of fair play that extends to everyone except her own sisters. One of the delights in “Sweetness” is the undeclared war between the de Luce sisters and it carries the ring of truth. When you are growing up, no one can upset you faster or more than your own brother or sister, probably because they know you so well. Flavia is the smartest de Luce daughter but Daphne and Ophelia are bigger and they can put their sister in her place. Whenever they do, it stimulates Flavia’s interest in revenge!
If you liked Agatha Christie novels or I Capture the Castle, if you doted on Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm or loved the arch humor in Jane Austen’s books, (there’s a Voice for you!) try The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. You’ll fall in love with Flavia de Luce or, more accurately, you’ll fall in love with her voice.
How does an obsession begin? Usually with something unknown, an experience or event outside our frame of reference with an overwhelming amount of detail. We want to understand how it happened, to put it into context, but the matters that trigger obsessions usually resist easy categorization. So, we dig deeper, thinking one more visit, one more review of the facts and we’ll figure out the problem and finally lay it to rest. Obsessions don’t work like that: they’re spirals into a black hole of nothingness, they’re the itch we cannot scratch and that’s why they’re dangerous. It’s the rare person who conquers an obsession; most survivors have to stage an escape.
Obsession is the key beneath James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, the novel grounded in the infamous murder of Elizabeth Short, a crime that still shocks almost seven decades after it happened. Ellroy’s novel focuses on two (fictional) detectives assigned to investigate her murder. In the post-war world of Los Angeles, officers Bleichert and Blanchard both enjoy the minor celebrity perks of being former boxers and members of the L. A. P. D. and both are reasonably happy in their lives until coincidence places them in the neighborhood when Elizabeth’s body was discovered. Although the city becomes fixated by the case, the investigators are in danger of being consumed; Blanchard, because Elizabeth’s runaway history reminds him of a runaway sister and Bleichart because her rootless life mirrors his own. The men comb the remnants of Elizabeth’s seedy existence for clues while reporters and politicians manipulate facts for their own gain. As Blanchard begins to fall apart, Bleichart must unravel a maelstrom of corruption that hides Betty Short’s killer before he falls apart himself.
The story is told in the bold, electric prose that made James Ellroy famous but his subject stimulates this question: why, of all of the murders in history, is Elizabeth Short’s one of the few that people continue to find so fascinating? The case is still officially unsolved although you could fill a bookcase with the published tomes identifying different murderers. Is it her beauty that draws us or her youth? Lots of pretty girls ran to Hollywood like Elizabeth and learned the bitter difference between movies and movie-making, though few suffered as she did. Are we drawn in by the lurid details of what was done to her body, is this what fascinates us? This is certainly part of the part, but another part is Elizabeth herself. Beyond a few facts we know very little of her, what she cared about, how she felt. That cipher of a personality leaves us free to imagine what the world looked like for a young woman who liked to dress in black. The only thing we can be sure of is that her story didn’t end well.
Ellroy’s book helps decipher her story and it helped pave the way for his strong literary career. Nevertheless, Ellroy admits that Short’s murder haunts him still, along with his own mother’s death, ten years later. I hope he finds periods of peace in his life from time to time. That’s the most a person can hope for when he lives with an obsession.
Fans are the double-edged sword to creative people, everyone knows that. Actors, artists and poets makes a living (occasionally a good one) because the fans like and purchase their work, which is great. Develop a big enough fan base and an artist will encounter those who want to thank him or her personally. A smaller group than that will mistake their enthusiasm as the basis of a personal relationship. Gain enough popularity and the artist will face fans that expect to control his/her life and work. Take this to the extreme and the artist will certainly die.
Stephen King covered this in his novel, Misery but he gave Annie Wilkes a few bits of leavening humor. What other professed lover of words would cut herself off from expressions of anger, so her profanity is limited to words like “cock-a-dooty”? As destructive and strange as Annie is, at times she’s also comical. That endearing shade of grey is missing from King’s newest novel about toxic fans, Finders Keepers. It suggests admiration may be the most dangerous response in the world.
At odds are two readers of a twentieth-century novelist. Both readers are young males when they find their author’s most-lauded works, a series of novels reminiscent of John Updike’s “Rabbit” series. The younger man loves the structure of the books, the style, and the weave of fiction and autobiography that pulls each individual tale. The elder identifies with the series protagonist in the way Mark David Chapman glommed onto Holden Caulfield and judges the world by his internalized champion’s standards. Two young men from damaged backgrounds, years apart and unknown to each other, but both obsessed with a writer’s unpublished stories but with a difference: the elder man wants to keep the stories for himself; the younger man would share them with the world. The world is safe when the first fan hides the manuscripts until the younger man inadvertently finds them.
This problem falls into the hands of Bill Hodges, King’s retired detective of Mr. Mercedes. It falls to Bill and his friends to piece together the disjointed story, find the manuscripts, and rescue their custodian before the murdering maniac can tear them all limb from limb. If King has improved one aspect of his writing over the years it is pacing and Finders Keepers is a genuine page-turner.
So look out for the book, if you are interested. And you are especially moved by someone’s work, politely tell them, and then move on. Don’t expect them to be pals or your Jedi Master. They are artists with their own lives and work and besides, they’ve learned to be careful of fans. Among the adoring who just want to shake some creator’s hand, stands the maniac armed with a gun.