Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Wolfe lowered herself into the basement…”

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"It was probably nothing..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 9. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’ve read a novel or seen a movie so many times that you practically know every line, your perspective on its strengths and weaknesses inevitably differs from that of someone who only experiences it once. It’s a little like the difference between a tool that you use just occasionally and one that becomes a regular part of your working life. If the blade on a vegetable peeler is slightly dull, it’s only a minor annoyance if you peel potatoes a couple of times a month; if you’re peeling a hundred a day, it’s a tragedy. And you find yourself correspondingly grateful for features that a more casual user would never notice, like an eye gouger or a handle that fits comfortably in your hand. The hard part about buying tools intended for ongoing use is that you often don’t know what you need until you’ve lived with it for years, and a quick glance in the store won’t tell you much. Experience helps, as do reviews and advice from others, but there’s no substitute for an ongoing trial in the field, which is why a site like The Sweet Home revisits every product it recommends after a year of regular usage. And the same holds true for works of fiction, which don’t often reveal their quality until after an extended period of engagement. (Authors try to replicate this process by reading a manuscript repeatedly over a shorter length of time, the artistic equivalent of accelerated life testing in engineering.)

I’ve probably read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris more often than any other work of popular fiction, and I’m frequently surprised by what parts hold up for me the best. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie just once, you tend to remember a few big set pieces—Lecter’s escape, his exchanges with Starling, the final showdown in the killer’s darkened basement—and with good reason: they’re all great scenes, and it’s unlikely we’d be talking about this story at all if Harris hadn’t conceived and executed those pivotal moments so expertly. As time goes on, though, the sequence that I find myself revisiting the most, especially with an eye to the writing, is the early scene when Starling explores the storage unit belonging to the late Benjamin Raspail. It covers about twelve pages in the paperback edition, and although it climaxes on the memorable image of a severed head in a specimen jar, for most of its length, it’s merely tense and methodical. Yet I honestly believe that this is some of the best writing that Harris, or just about anyone, has ever done in the field of suspense. And along with Frederick Forsyth’s loving account of testing the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, it’s the scene I read whenever I need to be reminded of why I fell in love with this genre in the first place.

"Wolfe lowered herself into the basement..."

So what makes the chapter live for me, when more conventionally dramatic moments in the novel have faded with time? As with most great scenes in fiction, it’s an instance of pleasure in craft unfolding in parallel with the action itself. Starling is excited, but very careful, and the chapter provides her with many small moments of delightful ingenuity—using oil from a dipstick to lubricate a stubborn lock, raising the rusted gate of the storage unit with the jack from her car—that put us permanently on her side, if we hadn’t already been won over by her competence and determination. We’re won over by Harris, too. In outline form, the scene could have been routine in a way that, say, Lecter’s jailbreak would never be; we’re pretty sure, given the buildup, that Starling is going to find something interesting, but it’s too early in the story for us to really be concerned for her safety. So what Harris does is build the chapter up detail by detail, never hurrying, leaving us confident that we’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff. The writing is effective but never showy, as it can sometimes be when Harris indulges himself, with a lot of nice turns of phrase (“The padlock jumped like a frog in her hand”). And you feel that Harris lavished even more care on this scene than usual, since it works only to the extent that it gives us our first real taste of Starling in action.

It was perhaps inevitable that I’d try writing an extended homage , which we find in Chapter 9 of Eternal Empire. Looking back, I’m not sure how conscious this was: I knew that the scene opened with a promising lead and ended with the discovery of a body, and I had a limited number of pages in which to pull it off. Following Harris was a case of taking a useful model and trying to stick to best practices, and while I can’t claim that this scene is the equal of its inspiration, it’s still one of my favorites. Like Starling, Wolfe has to solve a succession of small problems to end up where the story needs her to be, and I tried to make each step as logical as I could, although I didn’t have room to be too clever or complicated. This involved a few pieces of sleight of hand, all designed to make the contrivances go down a little more smoothly: Wolfe finds the address because of a page that’s missing from an old road atlas, which I thought was more acceptable than having it written down in plain sight, and once she’s down in the basement, I have her look in the wrong place first—finding a mouse’s nest—so it doesn’t feel that the body was waiting for her on a silver platter. The first draft was cut to the bone, just to keep things moving along, and the result, at least to my eye, is a nice tight string of beats. Whether or not it holds up on the twentieth reading is something I can’t really say. But I’ve read it a lot, maybe more than I wanted, and it works pretty well for me…

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2015 at 10:19 am

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