Thursday, 17 October 2013
Q's Turn of Phrase
"I saw him gaze at her handsome head piled high with its midnight tresses amid which the jewels, doubtless of her dead lord, burned with fierce and ominous glare, at her smooth olive brow, her partly veiled eyes where the fire passionately blazed, at her scarlet lips trembling with an emotion her rapidly flushing cheeks would not allow her to conceal. I saw his glances fall and embrace her whole elegant form with its casing of ruby velvet and ornamentation of lace and diamonds, and an expectant thrill passed through me ..." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 5)
Does this sound like Q? A young man who embraces the rough and ready life of a New York police detective? Do not forget that the story is framed as a tale told by Q around the fire at the station house. Here Q watches Countess De Mirac at a charity ball. Later in the story, he describes an abandoned house:
"Turning around I eyed the house once more. How altered it looked to me! What a murderous aspect it wore, how dismally secret were the tight shut windows and closely fastened doors, on one of which a rude cross scrawled in red chalk met the eye with a mysterious significance. Even the old pine had acquired a villainous air of the uncanny repositor of secrets too dreadful to reveal, as it groaned and murmured to itself in the keen east wind. Dark deeds and foul wrong seemed written all over the fearful place, from the long strings of black moss that clung to the worm-eaten eaves, to the worn stone with its great blotch of something, - could it have been blood? - that served as a threshold to the door." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 7)
This is the convoluted, heavy language that, as Patricia D. Maida has suggested, became Anna Katharine Green's downfall, when her style failed to move with the times as the nineteenth century ended. Look at the overabundance of words piled high in the extract above: every noun is qualified to create a shiver: murderous, dismally, tight, closely, rude, mysterious, old, villainous, uncanny, dreadful, keen, dark, foul, fearful, long, black, worm-eaten, worn.
Green writes in a very distinct style; her voice is unique and strong. In her descriptions, she often emphasizes the emotion and passion observed or experienced by the viewer, rather than the actual physical detail of what is being viewed. Her characterization of Luttra Schoenmaker is a good example:
"But no, it was one of those faces that are indescribable. You draw your breath as you view it; you feel as if you had had an electric shock ; ... It was the character of the countenance itself that impressed you. You did not even know it this woman who might have been anything wonderful or grand you ever read of, were beautiful or not. You did not care; it was as if you had been gazing on a tranquil evening sky and a lightning flash had suddenly startled you. Is the lightning beautiful? Who asks!" (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 10)
Green describes Luttra's appearance in terms of the sensations it creates. What matters is not the physical appearance of the woman, but her nature. Green's women are generally powerful creatures with enough strength and passion to strike fear in most men's hearts (see the description of Countess De Mirac above).
Anna Katharine Green is superb at melodrama. She can create melodramatic scenes without overdoing them. This is because she writes beautifully. And this is where we have to forget about the internal narrator in Strange Disappearance: the style is simply not convincing as the language of our young action hero, Q.
For the most powerful melodramatic effect, look at Mr Blake's description of how he painted and kept the portrait of his wife in his private rooms (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 13). It is a flowing, almost breathless gushing of passion and grand sentiment. It is brilliant and wildly exaggerated. It works, just, because Mr Blake is a man who, we imagine, could use words like these.
A Strange Disappearance showcases another challenge created by the first-person narrator: in order to tell the tale, Q has to be present at all the key moments. Green manages to arrange this reasonably smoothly. There are a few occasions where the magic wears thin and we see the narrative mechanics underneath. Q has to follow Mr. Gryce and Mr Blake into the latter's private rooms in order to hear Blake reveal his secret. "The man may come." Mr Blake says about Q (Strange Disappearance, Chapter 10). Q also has to rush between rooms at the denouement of the plot to make sure we get to see all: "Feeling myself no longer necessary in that spot, I followed where my wishes led and entered the room ..." (A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 19).
These restrictions of a first person narrative illustrate the two sides of Green's fiction we are examining here for their effects on the reading experience: sensational style vs the classic detective plot.
The melodramatic, decorated language does not always flow comfortably or convincingly from the lips of Green's young, lower-class, urban characters like Q. But it does make the novel a pleasure to read and works well to engage the reader's imagination. This is why Green is superb in descriptions of landscapes, people and scenes, but not so convincing in dialogue. Characters tend to get carried away with wild and lofty curlicues of expressions - all of them, in the same way. Perhaps this is another indication of the American belief in equality (everyone can express themselves with the same grandiose style). At the end of the story, various people speak to persuade Luttra to return to her husband, Mrs Daniels the housekeeper sounds pretty much the same as Countess De Mirac. Luttra Schoenmaker, a poor girl with limited formal education is able to exclaim:
"Shall the giving or the gaining of a fortune make necessary the unital of lives over which holier influences have beamed and loftier hopes shone? No, no ... love alone, with the hope and confidence it gives, shall be the bond to draw us together and make the two separate planes on which we stand, a common ground where we can meet and be happy." A Strange Disappearance, Chapter 20)
These are pretty sentiments, and the young lady can express herself with all the drama and pomp of an accomplished theatrical diva. This is highly entertaining, if not exactly convincing. We are in the world of sensational romance.
On the other hand, the meticulous focus on the crime as a puzzle and an almost forensic approach to its solution, invests every detail in the narrative with significance. Just like Q's presence at a scene appears occasionally a little contrived, clues and pieces of evidence appear glaringly obvious. The piece of calico, the golden hairs trapped in a hair brush, the ring in the ashes, are all details that leap out as significant as soon as they are mentioned in the course of the narrative. This is in the nature of the genre. The accusation of investing meaning in every detail was levelled at traditional sensation fiction as well. But with the focus being so exclusively on the solution of the mystery here, this aspect of the narrative becomes highlighted even more in the reader's experience.
The hard, rational logic of the plot is reflected in the clear-cut structure of the novel. It is in stark contrast with the sensational scenes and the style of writing. The plot moves from initial statement of the mystery and an analysis of the scene of crime, through a neat chain of highly melodramatic scenes, to the final denouement which includes the capture of the culprits and the rescue of the damsel. Some of these scenes are Gothic (trip to Vermont in A strange Disappearance, Chapter 7) and very traditional (A strange Disappearance, Chapter 11). They all serve a very modern mystery plot and contribute to the one aim - resolving the puzzle of the strange disappearance.
I would like to argue that the sensational, melodramatic, old-fashioned, heavy, convoluted language is the reason why Anna Katharine Green is well worth reading. It is the gloriously exuberant style and unique voice that elevate the crime puzzle in A Strange Disappearance into a wild and thrilling tale of high drama and passion.