There can’t be many who know the mystery field better than Bill Pronzini. His fiction has earned him the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, France’s Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and multiple Shamus Awards. His critical/biographical work has been recognized with a Macavity Award, and he is the editor of at least a hundred anthologies. He is also a voracious reader whose observations on writing and editing are well worth reading, especially since he’s come across some of the genre’s instructive low points as well as its high points. . . . —Janet Hutchings
It always amuses me, in a wry sort of way, when I hear of writers who insist on contract clauses stipulating that their work must be published exactly as written, without any editorial suggestion or “tampering.” To me, this seems not only the height of ego-flexing, but a potential disservice to the author and his or her readers. The simple fact is, there’s not a writer living or dead, no matter how accomplished, how critically acclaimed, who ever failed to perpetrate a line of awkward or downright bad prose; whose work would not benefit from editorial input and/or judicious wielding of a blue pencil. Not even Will Shakespeare wrote perfect sentences every time he set quill pen to paper.
Consider the mystery/suspense genre. The casual observer might think that bad writing—and I mean really bad writing—is for the most part limited to unpublished manuscripts by novices; novels and stories that no amount of expert editing can render publishable. Not so. Thousands of remarkably poor works have been bought and published over the years, many of them bearing the bylines (or pseudonyms) of well-established professionals. Most are of average awfulness, to be sure, and not a few of those might have been elevated in quality if they had been properly edited, or indeed edited at all. One can’t help but wonder if some of their authors also had “no tampering” clauses in their contracts.
There is a special breed of bad published crime fiction, however, that defies the editorial process; that not even the likes of Maxwell Perkins could have salvaged. Why these books and stories were bought in the first place is an insoluble mystery in its own right. Absurd plots, trite characters, ridiculous descriptive passages, inane dialogue, strings of fractured similes and metaphors . . . whatever their flaws, they have one thing in common: they are quotably, sometimes hilariously funny. In their own unique way the worst of the worst are every bit as distinguished as the genre’s quality classics. Yes, and they also provide a capsule study course in how not to write mystery and detective stories.
I have been reading and collecting crime fiction as long as I’ve been writing it, close to half a century, and one of my guilty pleasures is the accumulation of the consummate howlers mentioned above—what I like to call “alternative classics.” My reading tastes are eclectic, so these works span the entire criminous spectrum, from Golden Age whodunits to hardboiled detective tales, spy stories to historicals, thrillers to cozies. The quantity as well as the “quality” of them might surprise you. Not only was I able to assemble enough to fill two books some years ago, Gun in Cheek, an affectionate history of bad crime fiction, and its companion volume, Son of Gun in Cheek, but in the years since I’ve dug up enough others to fill at least a third book.
To give you an idea of just how bad published crime writing can be, following is a sampling of some of my favorite “alternative” lines and passages. As difficult as it might be to believe that some of these actually made it into print, you have my word that they did. Attributions have been omitted in all cases to protect the guilty.
I let the edges of my eyes siphon up the pleasure of her tall, slender figure in a blue evening gown that made a low-bridge criss-cross right above where the meat on a chicken is the whitest.
It was a morning gown of blue silk, one that stressed the grace of her figure and matched her complexion.
The whites of his eyes came up in their sockets like moons over an oasis lined with palm trees.
She unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt.
The next day dawned bright and clear on my empty stomach.
Below his hat were enough eyebrows to stuff a pillow.
He ran his eyes over my silence.
One of her breasts bobbed into view like a cantaloupe rolling off a display in a fruit store.
Her lips . . . rose from her face with the vivid freshness of lovely, sparkling champagne bubbles.
Pritchard sat up like a full-grown geranium.
Judith just didn’t look like a hot urge having its fling.
She laid a hand on my arm and I knew I really had her in the palm of my hand because her face was contorted.
He put his vocalizing on arrested motion.
He nodded once, mostly with his eyes.
She was visibly excited, yet not a vestige of her features betrayed her.
Her voice had a unique deep resonance, like a cannon fired in a cathedral.
I wanted to see the murderer of that beautiful creature seated in the gas chamber. I wanted it so bad my saliva glands throbbed.
When the gentleman who had been waiting for me walked into my office, it was evident by the look of fear in his eyes that he was frightened.
From the moment he crushed Cora’s skull, he knew it was going to be a rotten Monday.
When would this phantasmagoria that was all too real reality end? he asked himself.
The realization of what all this meant exploded inside my head and shot me from the mouth of a cannon.
It was full summer in Boston and the heat sat on the city like a possessive parent.
A pitiful sigh swayed above them, and Dr. Farmingham looked upward. With frightened, unveiled eyes Eva begged him silently. The immense inner beauty of her entreaty made him delirious with wisdom.
A shy man, he had learned to do without women. Until Poppy Ames unleashed his libido and put it right up front where he could really see it.
“Somehow, I am terribly afraid out here [swimming] tonight—more afraid even than I was back there on the schooner.” “You needn’t be!” Ronald cried out buoyantly.
“Who taught you to walk in that fashion? Your steps are feline and catlike.”
“You have been a misogynist long enough. It’s not good to remain in a state of protracted animation.”
“I think your philosophy deplorable,” Tessa murmured with a Sphinx-like groan.
“Except for that rich old bitch who is like a terrible hurricane is, and for this innocent young thing who is the period at the end of the other one’s ideas, the flood behind her thunder, the silent backing up, I would have had that money, finished the research, and be living abroad with you.”
“I wish you would not speak so loud,” she cautioned. “There is no guarantee that one of those Yard men may not be a lip reader.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve got a heater in your girdle, madam!”
Thoughtfully he dropped his eyes down at the glass in his hands. A strong highball, whose strength was already beginning to gain an affection over his brink.
He looks like a basilisk [Jean thought]. She wasn’t quite sure about it— what a basilisk was, much less what one looked like—but its sound had the feeling of his face.
There’s something about being tied up that paralyzes your sense of freedom.
Eager editors played Ellen’s trial to a fare-thee-well, while an equally avid public welcomed the concupiscent and caitiff affair as an antidote for estival doldrums.
It was a whirlwind courtship that ended in marriage at St. Malachy’s three years later.
Almost the four corners of the U.S.A. are represented: Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Kansas, New Jersey.
He poured himself a drink and counted the money. It came to ten thousand even, mostly in fifties and twenty-fives.
[Cult leader] Simeon Taylor was killed—beheaded and left to die on a roadside in a Southern town.
I looked at her breasts outlined against the soft fabric of her dress, nipples like split infinitives.
See what I mean about the need, the sometimes desperate need, for editing?
Of course, editors are no more infallible than writers. Even the best of them is occasionally guilty of overlooking a chucklesome absurdity and allowing it to sneak into print. I ought to know.
It so happens I’m responsible for one of those quoted above.
No, I won’t tell you which one. I’ll just say that it appears in my first published novel. My editor at the time, one of the very best, did quite a bit of work on the manuscript; she missed that youthful clunker, but I have no doubt that she caught and blue-penciled any number of others. I’ll be forever grateful to her for sparing me any additional embarrassment.
Bill Pronzini’s latest books are the Nameless Detective novel Hellbox and the Carpenter and Quincannon novel The Bughouse Affair (co-written with Marcia Muller and due out in January).