Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Three Coffins

The magical life of Henning Nelms

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Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on June 22, 2012.

“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.

I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.

The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #9: The Silence of the Lambs

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The Silence of the Lambs

(Note: For the last two weeks, I’ve been counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

What makes a novel worth reading more than once? In the case of a mystery or thriller, the answer isn’t always clear. After our first read, we know who did it and why, whether the hero will survive, and whether the villain will get away with it: we’ve seen every chase, every reveal, every twist of the plot. If enough time has passed, the details can get a little fuzzy, so it can be fun to revisit the mystery again—I’m not sure I could tell you who the killer was in The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit, mostly because the culprit’s identity is secondary to more immediate pleasures. But after you’ve revisited a novel enough times, it can be hard to explain what keeps you coming back. I’ve read The Silence of the Lambs from cover to cover on perhaps ten occasions, and I’ve seen the unsurpassed movie version at least as many times, so it’s safe to say that it no longer holds many shocks or surprises. Yet I know I’ll keep reading it for as long as I enjoy popular fiction, and I suspect that it may eventually become the novel I’ll read more than any other. The reasons are hard to pin down, but they clearly don’t have much to do with the specifics of the story, as much as I still admire the ingenuity with which it unfolds. Rather, as with most great suspense novels, it’s more a question of detail, craft, and attitude, which the best works of Thomas Harris—which also include Black Sunday, Red Dragon, and even long sections of Hannibal—display to greater effect than any other novels of their kind. And The Silence of the Lambs remains the best of them all, the one book, along with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, that epitomizes the heights of the genre in which I’ve unexpectedly found myself making a living.

Harris is first and foremost a master of detail, both in terms of lavish research—I’ve seen Red Dragon recommended to aspiring thriller writers simply as a primer on criminal investigation—and in small, telling moments of observation and character. The scene I’ve reread the most isn’t the first one that might come to mind: it’s the tense, beautifully rendered chapter in which Clarice Starling searches the storage garage that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. In the hands of another writer, the sequence might have been a routine nailbiter, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches: the way Clarice, resourceful as always, fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. (Chapter 9 of my novel Eternal Empire is basically an extended homage to this scene, as my own heroine Rachel Wolfe, who owes a great deal to both Clarice and Dana Scully, searches for evidence in the basement of a derelict house.) Plenty of thrillers are filled with such lore, of course, but Harris delivers the goods with a panache inseparable from his larger themes. The Silence of the Lambs is a relentlessly grim story, but it’s also a celebration of intelligence and competence even under the bleakest circumstances. In the figure of Hannibal Lecter, this tendency is taken to an almost inhuman degree: Lecter has nothing but his mind, and his ability to transcend his physical prison is what makes him so improbably seductive. (It’s also why he’s so much less interesting when he isn’t confined to his cell.) And I can’t help but take the story’s most vivid characters as reflections of the author himself. All novelists live by their wits, whether to escape their own prisons or to explore the world’s darker corners, and for a few—too few—great novels, Harris was one of the best explorers we had.

The magical life of Henning Nelms

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“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.

I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.

The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.

Written by nevalalee

June 22, 2012 at 9:57 am

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