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Monday, May 17, 2010

Murder By Dialogue, or Say What?

I’m reading Stefanie Pinkoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham. This mystery won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, a pretty big deal among mystery aficionados. It’s drawn comparisons to Caleb Carr’s The Alchemist, as both take place around the turn of the 20th century, when psychological profiling and forensic science were new in crime detection.

Stefanie Pinkoff was at The Malice Domestic Conference in April, and she graciously signed my book. I couldn’t wait to get home and read an award-winning best first novel, especially one that promised atmospheric trudges through the streets of New York, and complicated characters in search of their own redemption. While Ms. Pinkoff delivers an obviously researched detective story, and therein lies its weakness.

There are too many lines like this:

“I’m taking part in a broader research effort pioneered by criminal scientists in Germany, France, and Italy to further our understanding of criminal behavior by using the collective wisdom of different fields, including sociology, psychology, anatomy, and, of course, law.”

And this:

“Her research centered on the Riemann hypothesis, a mathematical problem that has resisted every attempt to prove it since Riemann first published it in 1859.”

That just doesn’t sound like conversation to me. I know, I know; the character is a scientist and a lecture is the most efficient way to reveal lots of facts in a short period of time. My question: what’s the rush?

My feeling is that Ms. Pinkoff was loathed to let a shred of research go unmentioned, however cumbersome it rendered her dialogue. And while I realize people may have spoken more formally in 1905, but that doesn’t mean there were no conversational short cuts, or period idioms that may have helped advance characterization or local color. Even from scientists with classical educations, this dialogue clatters from their mouths like gold coins or silver spoons. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Effective dialogue must double or triple-function; if it merely ‘informs,’ I’m yawning. I get no sense of character from the examples above (and if you don’t like these examples, there are plenty more); there’s no subtext, no indication that the characters themselves, have a history. With the exception of the occasional sarcastic remark, or period exclamation, Ms. Pinkoff’s dialogue is, for the most part, on the nose.

As an actor, I find lines like that hard to memorize. If the author had broken the information up, let other characters ask question in ways peculiar to them, even allowed some meta-speech once in a while, or tentative phrases, even fragments, these heavy speeches might actually come to life. Do you really think people said things like this?:

“After his last arrest, the police made him a unique offer: if he wished to avoid jail, he might put his skills to good use and join the police…you may have heard of him in your line of work because he is responsible for so many of your modern practices, such as having policemen work in disguise. Or ‘undercover,’ as you would say.”

If it were me (and how many Edgar Awards have YOU won, Irene?), I would turn all these speeches into exchanges. Exchanges give your characters opportunities to find their voice, and are more fun to read.

An actor might be able to infuse a unique physical or vocal quality to the speeches above, but on paper? It just kind of lies there, (dare I say it?) like something



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