In a recent review of “The Redoubt,” by Devorah Fox, the fourth book in the fantastic Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam series, (Do yourself a favor and read the books) I noted how she had structured the story using weather as an indicator of King Bewilliam’s state of mind, the used tale-telling to frame the story in a way that recalled Chaucer.
The tales told in “The Reboubt” by the cast of characters who joined the king on a trade mission, carry the story along but more, act as guides to the mood of the king, and also are a real-time commentary on the king’s plight and future action.
The tales are a marvelous device to carry the story forward. But more they are also a metaphor for the writer’s journey from the birth of an idea to the completion of its examination.
I thought of this because one of my birthday gifts is an annotated Edgar Allen Poe.
Annotations are the things that our college professors used to point out in English 302 that showed how the author referenced a Biblical passage, mirrored Shakespeare, stole the plot from the Ancient Greeks, or just dazzled the reader with language.
Then I wondered if those professors would be impressed to find out that writers like Devorah Fox and myself use these techniques as the literary and psychological guides for our stories.
In “A Game Called Dead,” the second Frank Nagler mystery, the story is structured on a college video/real life game called “The Hunter’s Lair,” which the students begin to call “A Game Called Dead.”
The goal of the game is to get The Hunter, the hero. But the Hunter is not defenseless. It is the conflict laid out in first pages of the story and climaxes in the last, tense chapter.
Ironton, N.J., detective Frank Nagler, our hero, studies a webpage dedicated to the game for clues. Does he read the clues correctly? His interpretation of the clues drives his investigation.
Murder mysteries are about stripping away the secrets of the characters. Nagler has his secrets, the bad guy has his. It is part of the game, a way to break down the defenses of each character to bring conclusion to the game.
Another character caught in this game is college dean Harriet Waddley Jones. She finds herself in the middle of the investigation of the murder of a college student while planning to write a book about Charlie Adams, Ironton’s famous serial killer.
Her interactions with Nagler, who arrested Adams years before, drive her inward.
In this scene, Waddley-Jones faces herself:
“And yet they really don’t know why they came, she suddenly knew. They did not know the secrets of the place. But she would not tell them that night. Soon, but not that night. She closed her eyes and saw Dawson’s headline: “The Story of Student A.” ….
Harriet Waddley-Jones wanted to stand before the dark crowd that night and tell them what she knew of that time on the campus, to tell what she knew about Student A. But she knew she could not, not then. The meaning of the night – to honor three young women – would have been lost in that story.
Not tonight. Instead, there are things I will say that will sound like the truth, but will be lies; things I will say that will sound encouraging, but are not. ….
For a moment Harriet Waddley-Jones stood on the edge of that truck and closed her eyes; all the sounds and shufflings, all the voices, for a moment became silence and the darkness behind her weeping eyes became light.
She stepped to the microphone, knocked on it a few times and sent booming raps out over the gathering. The image that filled her mind was that of Frank Nagler’s face after the Charlie Adams hearing. Firm jawed, resolute but soft at the eyes where the endless disappointments had settled. Like this crowd, she thought; like myself.
“I know you are in pain,” she said softly, then waited as the crowd hushed itself. “I know you want the pain to end. I know you are alone and want the loneliness to cease and want color and sound and light to fill your days. I know you want love to replace all that which you have lost. I know this because I, too, am in pain. All the events these past few weeks have brought forth have scoured my soul, rubbed raw all the things that I have carried and thought were scabbed over. There is too much death,” she said, her voice rising, “too much anger and sorrow, too much blame and too little forgiveness.”
A hush fell over the gathering. Great hissing “sshss” and shouts of “QUIET!” were heard until silence took hold of the crowd like a soothing hand, calming the noise, and the shuffling ceased like a sweet mist settling slowly; for a moment the night was crystal and silent, one body moving with purpose and devotion.
Into that silence, Waddley-Jones strongly cast her voice, the leader’s tone recovered, but softened. “Oh, how we hide behind this shame, hide from any peace. How we revel in the pain and sadness and say that ‘joy is not for me’ when joy is the simplest thing to make. Come out of the darkness. We have much to say, much to say together. It is time to put down our burdens. Join together. Join me.”
Another technique professors pointed out is how authors used language to engage the reader. One professor I recall spent 20 minutes talking about a scene in “Huckleberry Finn” when Twain described making stew in a camp, and how all the ingredients “swaps around” with the others. Of course “stew” was a metaphor for society and the ingredients were people and their beliefs and actions, and so on.
In the following scene from “A Game Called Dead” I was not seeking so noble an outcome. Instead, I wanted the reader to feel the language as part of their enjoyment of the story.
This is scene featuring a make-shift drum line, the sound of which resonates in the story as a sign of hope.
I wanted the words to bounce of the page, and I think they do:
“Thump, thump, thump-a-thump. Then, tap, and tap, tap-tap-tap; then thump-a-thump, then crash-crash; thump-a-thump, then crash-crash. Notes between notes, sounds between silence, then a flurry, uncountable birds rising from tall grass, a thousand wings, chaotic flapping. Then the tempo shifting faster; so many hands and sticks, the sound in layers, colliding, then rising, engulfing the air, swooping in and out, the source obscured – one, maybe all – then in a moment the syncopation lost, the notes combined, one atop the other, rising, rising, louder as if passing through a pipe, sound with a single reason to be, pausing, then bursting out the end and shattering into a thousand single notes and beats and sounds, breaking, exploding, sprinkling back to earth to be gathered again by busy hands, shaped into something new and sent skyward one more time; then a voice, a single “Oh, oh.” Then another, “Oooo, ooo!” Three, in harmony. “Oh, Oh-oh, hey!” Oh, Oh-oh, hey. Thumpa, thumpa. Then Hey, then Oh; then Hey-ho. Then five voices singing Hey, and five others, Ho; then underneath a rising “Ah,” stepping up the scale, each Ah higher and louder, till twenty voices found a note and wordless, carried it on; just sound, harmony wrapped in harmony, song wrapped in rhythm, voices grabbing music from hard streets, moving, moving forward, pure sound, celebrating itself, celebrating life; joy.”
“A Game Called Dead” and the first Frank Nagler book, “The Swamps of Jersey” are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and in several NJ bookstores and libraries.