One of my favorite quotes about writing is this one from Saul Bellow:
“Writers are readers inspired to emulation.”
That notion calls to mind three recent posts here at Writer Unboxed: one by Dave King on how much he’s learned about dialog from Aaron Sorkin; a second by Kathleen McCleary on how incredibly helpful reading fiction has been for her current work in progress; and just yesterday Greer Macallister’s exploration of writing lessons to be learned from the hit play Hamilton.
Accordingly, I’ve decided to provide my own contribution to this emerging mini-genre, and discuss a book I return to often for the numerous lessons it’s offered.
The novel is titled Bellman & True, written by British novelist and screenwriter Desmond Lowden. He adapted the book into a film of the same title (follow this link to watch the trailer), and that title comes from an old Cumberland song, “D’ye Ken John Peel,” specifically the lyric:
Yes, I ken John Peel and Ruby too.
Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True.
From a find to a check, from a check to a view,
From a view to a death in the morning.
There’s a pun in the term “bellman.” Above and beyond its use to denote both a hotel employee and a town crier, it ‘s also criminal slang for someone who specializes in getting past bank alarms.
From a view to a death in the morning.
I saw the movie first, and as good as it is—it’s not just one of my favorite crime films, but one of my favorite films, period—I recently spent a sunny Sunday reading the book. I’ve now ordered everything else I can find that this man’s written—most of which, sadly, is long out of print and can be had for a song.
Don’t confuse obscurity with lack of talent.
This book provided me with one of the most gratifying reading experiences I’ve had lately. As I said, I read it in a day—it’s a mere 183 pages—almost in one sitting. I’ve only done that with three other books: James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and Kim Addonizio’s brilliant poetry collection, Tell Me.
Don’t confuse obscurity with lack of talent.
The book is briskly paced, deftly executed, with brilliant dialog and a well-researched and richly detailed high-tech bank heist at its core.
But what makes it truly unforgettable is the writing, which accomplishes its effects not with surface pyrotechnics but “writing from the inside”—developing its depth and richness and texture from fully imagining the characters, the setting, the situation, the action.
Consider a couple character sketches, which are deceptively simple:
Of Hiller, the hapless hero:
He was middle-aged, with thinning hair, but there was something of the schoolboy about him. It was the tweed suit, ready-made, from a High Street tailor’s. The sort of suit you bought on leaving school for your first job. The man had kept to the same style ever since, though heavier now in the stomach and seat. And he’d looked after them well, as he walked he kept the suitcases carefully away from his trouser creases.
Of Hiller’s stepson, known only as “the boy”:
He was small, the back of his head was soft and rounded. But his face was pale, sharply pointed with the effort of being eleven years old.
Of Anna, a former high-priced call girl (“on the game, what you’d call the big game, South Africa and the Bahamas”):
She had two suitcases, a radio, and a little girl called Mo. The girl sat quietly while her mother took over the spare bedroom next to Hiller’s room. She swept it, scrubbed it, and all the time she kept the radio at her side as though she needed a wall of sound around her. . . She wore no make-up, she was strangely neutral, like a fashion model walking from one job to another, her face and hair in her handbag, and no expression for the journey in between.
Even minor characters get mindful treatment, such as this shop clerk:
The man was grey-haired. He had bacon and a suburban train-ride on his breath, and he caught the smell of whiskey on Hiller’s.
Lowden’s setting descriptions are equally evocative. This one manages to convey the place, the situation, the character and a sense of menace all in one, while being not in the least bit showy:
The room, when they reached it, was small. There was an old striped carpet, and a basin in the corner held up by its plumbing. Hiller went straight to the window. He stood close to the glass and smelled the sourness of other people’s breath. Across the street he saw the four houses in a row that were empty, their insides gutted and piled at the kerb, their windows dark. And Hiller felt safe. No-one could see he was here.
But the truly great reward of the book is in the interactions between Hiller and the boy, specifically the stories Hiller tells him to keep him entertained.
Hiller has a bit of a drinking problem (to put it mildly), and his storytelling conveys not just that, but an imaginative intelligence squandered in drudgery and a misbegotten marriage to the boy’s mother, who has abandoned them both:
‘Tell me a story,’ the boy said.
‘Don’t know any stories.’
The voice was slurred. The boy knew the time was right. ‘Yes, you do,’ he insisted.
‘If you say so.’
‘Cowboy story?’ Hiller tried. ‘The one about Pissoff the Peon? Shot people from behind, mostly in the stomach?’
‘Not that one.’
‘All right. The one about the vicar, who always wore slippers with bunnies on them?’
‘Not that one.’
‘What one then?’
Hiller sat back, his pipe sappy between his wet lips. ‘The Continuing Saga of Sod’s Law,’ he said at last. ‘You Can’t Win.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Where’d we got to?’
‘This place with the sign outside,’ the boy said. ‘It was called Lulu Land.’
‘Ah, yes, Lulu Land.’ Hiller nodded. ‘Short Life beer, fourpence a pint, all checques accepted. And the juke box played nothing but Wagner, went through Tristan from the overture on.’
The boy didn’t understand. ‘Who was there?’ he asked.
‘The usual people. Sooty Ann Gorge, Mousey Tongue, and Alcide Slow Drag Pavageau.’
‘And the Princess?’
‘Yes.’ Hiller sighed, a short flat sound in the darkness. ‘She was there.’
‘The Princess who smoked French cigarettes? And was only beautiful when she wasn’t looking?’
‘That’s the one.’ Hiller’s hand shook as he picked up the bottle.
The boy was silent. He’d known the Princess too. ‘And was I there?’ he asked finally.
‘Course you were.’ The warmth of the whiskey got into Hiller’s voice. ‘We were all there. We played Skittles and Brittles and One Jump Ginger. And we had a dog that ate nothing but Income Tax Men.’
‘What else did we do?’
‘Sometimes we’d go out in the Hupmobile. We’d have our pints in quart mugs so they didn’t spill while we were driving. And when we got back we’d light the fire with coal-bills. It was good there. We had only one rule. We didn’t let in anyone with a Rover TC.’
‘A Rover what?’
‘TC. A Rover Tinear Cruoris.’
‘I’ll tell you.’ Hiller spoke louder suddenly. ‘People with Rover Tinear Cruoris’s live in four-bedroom fake Georgian houses. They marry St. Bernard dogs called Darling, and they have nasty little kids in green jump-suits who come in through the window on a wire, and say Gosh and all that sort of thing.’ There was real anger in his voice. ‘What’s more, they keep a cross-index file on everyone earning more than five grand in the Southern Counties. And if you mention Stoke Poges, they say you must know Mannering.’
The boy sat forward, not understanding, but drawn to the anger because it was like a child’s. ‘And then?’
‘Well, we made just the one mistake in this place of ours,’ Hiller said. ‘We let this man in, and we didn’t know he had a Rover Tinear Cruoris. He didn’t seem like it at first. The Princess liked him. He had things weighed up, you see. He had a camel hair coat, and he knew the going price of Manganese.’
‘But the Princess wouldn’t have liked any of that.’ The boy was hurt. ‘She wouldn’t have liked him at all.’
‘No, she wouldn’t.’ Hiller’s voice was soft as he lied.
Because he’d been just one of the men the Princess had liked. She’d always surprised him, every time.
‘Let’s kill him off,’ the boy said, ‘with a digger-tractor, sharp, with bits of stones sticking to it.’
‘That’s it,’ Hiller said.
The brilliance of this exchange is the multitude of things it accomplishes: We see Hiller’s struggle with drink and his tender if troubled relationship with the boy; we see the flickers of mawkish anger beneath the wit, especially anger at vapid bourgeois pretension—and resentment of the financial success that has eluded him; we learn of the Princess (“only beautiful when she wasn’t looking”), who is the boy’s mother, and the infatuation they share for her, despite her cruel desertion of them both; and we feel that desertion bitterly, even though (or perhaps because) its extremes are merely hinted at.
We also learn of Hiller’s love of music, not just opera but jazz (Alcide Slow Drag Pavageau was a famous bassist).
We see his wicked sense of humor, especially in his puns: Sooty Anne Gorge (for soutien-gorge, i.e., brassière), Mousey Tongue (Mao Tse Tung), and ‘Tinear Cruoris,’ which refers to tinea cruris, i.e., jock itch. The obscurity of the jokes passes muster because the reader is often allowed, through the deft use of omniscient narration, to stand in the same position as the boy, i.e., struggling to understand.
Finally, the section presents the theme of Sod’s Law—You Can’t Win—which motivates the action, i.e., Hiller’s hapless, deepening, fateful involvement in a major bank heist.
The theme of Sod’s Law—You Can’t Win—motivates the action.
The foregoing passage does all of this through marvelously inventive indirection, while sounding very much like these two people talking. The speech tags and stage business surrounding the dialog are spare but richly evocative—nowhere more so than in the seering: Because he’d been just one of the men the Princess had liked. She’d always surprised him, every time.
My favorite heroes are seldom the stalwart, valiant, Galahad kind. I prefer the muckabout or lost soul, the despised and disregarded outcast who comes through in a selfless act of courage.
As I noted at the outset, I’ve gone back and reread the section over and over, hoping to learn more intimately the dozens of writing lessons to be gleaned from it.
The other great joy of the book is watching Hiller’s character deepen, and his love for the boy solidify.
My favorite heroes are seldom the stalwart, valiant, Galahad kind. I prefer the muckabout or lost soul, the despised and disregarded outcast who comes through in a selfless act of courage. He just feels more honest, more convincing to me, and his arc is more gratifying because it travels a more difficult and unlikely trajectory.
Hiller is just such a hero. It’s easy to assume that he’s doomed, because of his clueless involvement with men far more vicious than he realizes. But it’s not as simple as that, and Hiller is not that simple a man. And his fondness and concern for the boy crystallizes in their mutual realization they only have each other, and it’s never been otherwise.
It’s not as simple as that, and Hiller is not that simple a man.
Hiller engages me in ways more conventional heroes just don’t. He’s not just the clichéd “tarnished hero.” He’s a recognizable man with a complex past and an almost overwhelming problem in the present, caused by his own thoughtless flirtation with evil. And by the end he isn’t the same just more so, like so many heroes one comes across, especially in the crime genre. Without giving too much away, he achieves a recognizable nobility, that of a man who gets up off his knees.
Did you find the excerpts quoted above compelling or not? If so, what was it that worked for you? If not, why did they fall short?
What book or books have recently “inspired you to emulation?” What lessons did they provide?