Monday, 19 September 2011

Post Mortem #1

The Night Season by Chelsea Cain

I thought it would be fun (and informative) to start a series that deconstructs books I’ve enjoyed to get at what makes them so good. This is the fourth crime novel from Chelsea Cain. I have to confess I found her earlier books a bit richly camp for my taste. Her female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, is a classic creation. January Jones (of Mad Men fame) has optioned the rights to play Gretchen onscreen, thereby ensuring her longevity. But I felt a strong impulse to laugh while reading the passages between Gretchen and the books’ hero, Archie, victim of her peculiar brand of perversion. The Night Season is different, in that Gretchen’s taken a backseat to a new story, led by Archie and Cain’s most successful creation, journalist Susan Ward. Archie and Susan make a great team, here against a backdrop of rising floodwaters and deadly toxins wielded by an ingenious psychopath. The book is dark, funny, stylish and seamless. A triumph, in other words. And worthy of analysis, to see what makes it tick so smoothly. Of course, much comes down to personal preference, but I’ve singled out some aspects which seem applicable across the genre.

1. Strong sense of place (which also plays perfectly to the title: steamy streets, falling rain and rising floods, permanent dusk).
2. Clever use of humour, which binds the reader to the author effortlessly and often.
3. Credible characters who spark off one another, coupled with the author’s skill in knowing when to bring the characters together and when to isolate them.
4. Layered tension and rising stakes. The layers come from Cain’s skill at creating intimate threats within a larger picture (in this case, the rising wall of floodwater). And synchronising the threat levels so that we get a real sense of rhythm in the story (see also 6 below).
5. Knowledge that’s imparted to the reader but kept from the main characters, so we know what’s coming even when they don’t. (Which is not to say she gives away the ending, because she doesn’t.)
6. Seamless transference of tension/threat – like a baton being passed between characters and scenes – as one situation is resolved, another takes its place. An incremental tightening of this pattern as the book approaches its first, second and third acts.
7. Tight management of multiple viewpoints to share knowledge between characters, keeping some in the dark at key moments.
8. Avoidance of intrusive flashbacks, but timely reminders of the hero’s fault-lines, at intervals when our fears for him are heightened.
9. Great, visual settings. A derelict fairground. A flooded aquarium.
10. Early seeding of ideas that come to fruition in the climatic scenes, without the need for lengthy explanations during action sequences.

That’s my starter for ten. If anyone else has read and enjoyed The Night Season, please pitch in. Likewise, if you hated it, let me know why it didn’t work for you.


JO said...

I don't know the book - and this is still really helpful. It's hard, deconstructing a book like this - and points out things we ought to know, and show how they work well in practice. Thanks.

Sarah Hilary said...

You're right, Jo, it isn't easy. But I set myself the task of doing it with this book, because it did strike me as such as a successful and seamless story. I'm glad you found the post mortem helpful.

Anonymous said...

Okay so this has become my Ten Commandments of 'stuff to bear in mind while writing'. A fascinating, incredibly useful list. Literally printing it out and putting it on my bedroom wall. xxx

Sarah Hilary said...

I hope you've got some good posters, or that bedroom wall's going to look a bit boring! Seriously, I'm glad it helps. Thinking I should do a Post Mortem #2 on things learned from Tinker, Tailor...

Anonymous said...

A new author to me - off to have a look at her books. Looking forward to more in this series, great idea.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tracey.