The Mysterious



Even the sign looks cool…

As everyone knows, there are few greater things in life than spending time in a good bookshop. And whilst I’m a huge fan of Waterstones, and very happy that they are showing a profit, for me there is no greater pleasure than spending time and some hard-earned than in an independent bookshop.  Readers of this blog will know that I am something of a crime fiction fiend.  I try to pick up crime novels whenever I can (especially older, rare tomes) and have spent many an hour rummaging through bookshelves looking for yellowed copies of the books of my pulp heroes. I’m on the constant lookout for independent bookshops to go to, and thanks to following a number of American crime writers on Twitter, my attention was drawn to The Mysterious Bookshop, a crime hangout in New York and the oldest crime and mystery-specific bookstore on the planet.  Luckily I recently had a family occasion in that very city, so what better way to wile away an afternoon than with a visit…

A fantasy of mine, whenever I get my own house, is to indulge in some decent bookshelves.  Something like the ones in the Mysterious, if dreams could come true. Floor-to-ceiling shelves covering three walls of the shop. Man oh man.  And to navigate them, those ladders that run on wheels that scooted across the carpet as I spotted a high-up section of Jim Thompson paperbacks.  I think I probably died and went to heaven within seconds of stepping through the door. The breadth of their inventory was better than anything I’ve ever seen. The complete Travis McGee novels of John D. Macdonald.  Extensive copies of his namesake Ross’s Lew Archer novels.  The aforementioned Thompson.   A massive section devoted to Sherlock Holmes. Reams of used and vintage titles, too.  Plus plenty of rare editions and signed copies, including a signed copy of Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky (probably my favourite of the great man’s works) for $35. I debated buying it for ages, picking the book off the shelf and putting it back again more than once.  In the end I decided not to. It’s a decision I’m still not sure was the right one.

So what did I purchase in the end? Even after turning down the Leonard, I’m still really happy with my choices. I’m on a mission to purchase all the Matt Scudder novels of Lawrence Block, and I picked up a signed copy of A Long Line Of Dead Men for the scarcely believable price of $5. I didn’t actually know it was signed until I left the shop either so that was a nice surprise! I also filled a gap in my James Crumley collection with Bordersnakes, which brings his two protagonists Sughrue and Milodragovitch together for one wild ride. Lastly I bought a biography of Raymond Chandler which I am halfway through and very much enjoying.

Now I could probably have bought all these books on Amazon or eBay.  But the experience of spending time in a great bookshop, with knowledgeable staff and no pressure to leave, is one of the great joys in life.  Its these important touches that make the Mysterious so good.  You feel amongst like-minded friends as soon as you walk in the door.  And they are a big player in the scene, too. Tons of authors do readings and book launches there (including Block, the day after I flew home…sob!) and some writers produce exclusive material directly for the store.  Indeed, they give a free short story away to customers every Christmas, with the store having to feature in the story somehow.  A bit of extra publicity, and a unique tale to read on the subway home. This years story was by Laura Lippman and it’s great. Seriously, what more could you want?

I know this sounds like I’ve been paid by them to say all this, so I’ll just say that if you’re a book lover and find yourself in Manhattan, go there and experience it for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

Elmore Leonard Rules

Considering I’m one of his biggest fans and believe he was one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years, I can’t specifically remember when I first picked up an Elmore Leonard novel. I can’t even remember which one it was. It could have been Freaky Deaky – which I vaguely recall reading on a camping trip to Cornwall in my late teens. (In my opinion, the opening sequence of that novel is one of the finest pieces of writing of modern times. It’s that good). Or possibly The Big Bounce, one of his earliest crime novels. Anyway, whenever it was, it had a profound effect on me as a man, and as a writer.

Why? Well mostly because of how alive his books made me feel. It’s a tiresome cliche to say that characters ‘leap off the page’ but in this case it’s true. Most of the reason for that is the dialogue. If you want to learn how best to write the way people talk, look no further than Leonard. And if you can’t take my word for it, Martin Amis agrees, saying Leonard’s prose ‘makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.’ (That link is a terrific interview by the way – tons of fascinating titbits on the art of writing). His dialogue brings so much depth and humour to the prose, and is far more to-the-point than vast swathes of characterisation. Dialogue should tell the story and the characters’ ambitions and Leonard is a master at it.

Somewhere along the way he also noted the ’10 Rules of Good Writing’. I have the feeling that some of this was tongue-in-cheek but I genuinely find these 10 rules more helpful than anything else I’ve read on the craft.
Of particular use are numbers 3 and 4. I do try when writing to use ‘said’ as much as possible and I never use an adverb to modify the word. Reams and reams of fiction do it and I’ve never understood why. If you are writing good dialogue you should know how a character has spoken the words without having to quantify it with an adverb. Sadly this dislike of adverbs turned me off Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. A wonderful story but I just couldn’t deal with the adverbs. Of course in this matter I’m just an ordinary sinner like everyone else (I’ve used a fair few in this post), but I never use them in dialogue anymore (he said hopefully).

Rules 8 and 9 go against most of what you hear in writing classes and the like. Character description and setting description are the nuts and bolts of any novel really. But I know what Leonard means – the dialogue and actions of the characters should tell you what they are like without the need for tons of description. Similarly with descriptions of place, a flavour is all you probably want. Anything else gets in the way of the story.

Even in these 10 short rules you can see Leonard’s way with words. Rule 10: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ sums it all up. And his final rule, ‘ If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ is just genius and goes to the heart of what writing is all about. So easy to say, so hard to do.

Leonard died last year aged 89. He was still writing books well into his 80s, and still running rings around writers more than half his age. His books brought me immense pleasure and on his death the knowledge that there would be no more from this great man was a source of real sorrow. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I urge you to do so. There is a vast back catalogue out there and it will change your life, I’m sure of it. RIP Dutch.