Talking About Talking

My Sunday Thoughts dealing with Christie’s dialogue skills led me to try to make a list of the most gifted dialogue writers in Golden Age crime fiction, which in turn resulted in an interesting discovery. Most of the names that immediately came to my mind were either American (Stout, Rice, Chandler) or American-based (Quentin/Stagge) Christie is the obvious exception, but she was half-American after all. Even today crime writers most praised for their brilliance in the field massively hail from the Land of the Free.

Why? The Brits have a strong theatre background including the arguably greatest dialogue writer the world has ever known. They thus should reign supreme in the discipline – and yet they don’t, or less often than their « barbaric » cousins.

It’s a complicated issue that I’ll have to give more thought about before I try to give an answer. All I can do at the moment is consider some possible reasons, all of which have strong explanative power but ultimately leave too many holes in the plot.

The first, most obvious one is the early and strong influence of the movies on American crime fiction. The evolutions of both mirror each other and mutual borrowings abounded almost from the start, with American mysteries being increasingly written if not directly for the screen but at least with that prospect strongly in mind. This meant a less cerebral approach, a faster pacing, more action and – pace Elvis – more conversation too. Many if not most American crime writers of the period had a gig in Hollywood at some point of their careers and however successful the experience was it further influenced their work. The ability of post-war American crime fiction to pack a lot in books that look like leaflets by modern standards is a direct consequence of that.

Another one is the extreme plasticity of American English. Seen from a French perspective, basic English seems to have a pretty loose grammar structure, at least loosier than those of complex, very codified languages like German or French itself. Things are more complex than that of course, as I’ve learned the hard way over two decades of mangling the language but the truth remains that English once you’ve become acquainted with it is a highly pleasurable, efficient and malleable tool. It is even more true of American English whose « anything goes » attitude has always been a nightmare for the purists and a delight for everyone else. Being a largely oral idiom it makes for bouncier, more inventive and often funnier dialogue – provided of course that the writer uses it well.

Finally and as a consequence of the previous two, American crime fiction relies more on dialogue than its British counterpart, and it is one of the many reasons why it is so popular worldwide. Most readers when asked about what differentiates American books from others answer that there are « less descriptions » and also that they « move faster » and « use less words », all of which are made possible by dialogue being the main conveyor of information, even the sole one with such writers as the late Gregory MacDonald whose books almost read like screenplays with conventional narration reduced to the bare minimum.

There may be other explanations and if you see one I have omitted, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

3 commentaires sur “Talking About Talking

  1. Your second point, about the plasticity of American English, is novel and intriguing to me. Do you think it can explain the difference between American and British crime fiction, rather than between English and Non-English? Put differently, do you think that the difference between American and British English is sufficiently large to explain the difference in dialogue between American and British crime fiction–which was your starting point?

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