"From the hilltop I can see rolling green hills and a clear unlimited horizon. The prairie flowers have erupted into crimson, yellow, orange and blue. They sweeten the air. I smell smoke from the fire and the sweat of horses."
Murder Manhattan Style Reviewed by Sarah Hilary available at: http://www.ninthmonthpublishing.com/books.html
A great friend of mine, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, was fond of giving this advice to aspiring writers: "Keep the mythic distance!" By which it was generally assumed that he meant never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough, to screen or page, to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.
Warren Bull is happy to show us these processes (and occasionally flaws) between thought and page, first draft and last, unpublished and published prose. At the end of each story in his collection, he footnotes how it came about, or what its fate was at the hands of a precarious small press publishing industry (one story was accepted for an anthology that was subsequently "scrapped due to finances"). I was torn between admiring his candour and wishing he’d not revealed so much of his craft. I wanted to believe in the storyteller’s magic by which he recreates scenes from 1850s mid-America, with its cowboys and Indians, or New York in the 1930s.
There are stories here that transport the reader, perhaps because Bull is a psychologist and effortlessly taps into the minds and voices of his characters. More than one story is written convincingly from the perspective of a young girl. In A Lady of Quality, the heroine is African-American, called from the cotton fields to work as a servant in a white household. Bull writes her voice so authentically that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more stories told by this narrator in the collection.
Diversity is another of his talents. Bull takes us from "Bleeding Kansas" in 1858 to a modern day Manhattan ghetto where justice is dealt out with equal brutality. There are upbeat, funny stories. There are downbeat, noir stories. Don’t be fooled by the shlocky cover (not the first time a short story collection will be ill-served by its publisher’s cover choice, and probably not the last), these stories cover distances and time, and mood, without losing a beat.
One or two stories suffer from odd pacing, ending too abruptly or moving too fast during sections which should unravel more intricately. Locard’s Principle feels as if it’s an exploratory outline for a novel, rather than a short story. But Bull is a master at the opening paragraph; there isn’t one here that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Acknowledging Funeral Games as darker than his average story, Bull fails to point out it’s also one of his very best, opening with a corpse and progressing as smoothly as a Raymond Chandler tale, through a sequence of excellent surprises to a satisfying denouement. Heidegger’s Cat is another example of Bull at his best, its political subtext as interesting as its pin-sharp, real-time action.
While it was interesting, in one sense, to read Bull’s footnotes to the stories, I’d suggest he drops them from any future collection; they seem amateurish, while the stories themselves are anything but. Keep the mythic distance, Warren!
Susan Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008. He fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I, II and III, and in the Crime Writers; Association anthology. MO Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009 and Highly Commended in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010. Sarah is currently working on a novel. He agent is Jane Gregory.
I would like to thank The Short Review and Sarah Hillary for this thoughtful review. It’s flattering and humbling for one of my stories to be compared to Raymond Chandler’s work. It’s also wonderful to hear praise about voice, diversity and the opening paragraphs.
Now, I like the “shlocky” cover. It was designed by Ginnie E. L. Fenton, known as Gin Elf, whose work is seen at Mysterial-E and on many book covers. I made decisions during its development and approved the final cover art. So my publisher is hereby officially off the hook and I am squarely wriggling on it.
The reviewer made a major point of advising me to “keep the mythic distance…never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough to screen or page to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.”
This was a new concept to me. I explored the idea with others and concluded that I clearly chose to write a personal book including intimate details about myself and my craft. I can understand a reader’s desire to imagine whatever he or she wants to imagine about the writer who created the stories. No doubt many readers imagine someone much more magical or mysterious than the actual author. When I attend a magic show I want to be amazed. I don’t want the magician to step to center stage after the finale and explain how misdirection, hours of practice and physics created the illusions.
Given the particulars of this book I feel a closeness to many of the people I went out of the way to mention. I don’t know that wanted the usual distance between author and reader. However, Hillary did me a favor in pointing out how different the footnotes were from the stories. I will think carefully about what choices to make in the future.
Which do you prefer as a reader and/or a writer mythic distance or more intimacy?