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May 26, 2009



Dear God, what a vocabulary!

And, yes, we've said it before, more simply: the solution scene is awkward beyond words. It is particularly so in the traditional mystery which relies on the puzzle-solving game plan. Many readers still love and expect those. But these aren't really novels. They are mental games that allow readers to play against the author: let me see if I can beat you by guessing the murderer halfway through!

I had rather thought we had moved away from that to writing novels about people who become entangled in a crime and have to deal with the moral and psychological issues involved.

Dana King

While I may agree about the endings of crime fiction, anyone who mines his thesaurus for terms such as “oneiric purgatories,” “elegiac opera,” “quotidian gazette,” “vulgar facticity,” and “banished from an Eden of oscillation,” then has the chutzpah to pronounce one book to be “the only flawless novel ever completed” sets off my bullshit detector early on.

David J. Montgomery

He's putting people on. Nobody is that pretentious.

John Dishon

Maybe he just knows his craft. What is it with this scorn for knowledge amongst so many crime writers? He's a writer, words are his business. Why would a writer fault another writer for knowing more words than the average person and knowing how to use them? Those words aren't that big anyway, and you can get his point even without knowing what every word means.

David Montgomery

We're all a bunch of hayseeds and we hate book learnin.

mark haskell smith

In his defense, I could say that Mr. Mieville has a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and is considered one of the foremost Marxist scholars in the world, but I'd rather say that I spent a day with him once and far from being pretentious, he's one of the nicest, funniest people I've ever met. He also has the strange habit of discussing Star Trek minutia (when there's no cannabis involved!) and drawing pictures of space monsters in a notebook.


It is true that he uses the words correctly, but that doesn't mean they were suitable to the purpose. There is a touch of pomposity here, though perhaps he's putting us hayseeds on.


What Mark said. But then, I was once mocked for using "milieu" in a sentence, and that's a word I use in speech all the damn time. Some people naturally drop in or write with ten-cent words; it's just how they talk or how they write.

More to the point, and perhaps surprisingly, I agree with John Dishon in this case. What is with the scorn or disdain? Detective novels, at least of a certain stripe, involve a slew of possibilities being winnowed down to one, and too often, the act of doing so results in disappointment. But at the same time, that's also the challenge for the writer, to mitigate against such defeatism, and for the reader, to express genuine surprise at what comes to pass.

What Mieville didn't get into, and which may be the larger question to pursue, is the balance between cerebral/intellectual gamesmanship and emotions/viscera. I gravitate more towards the latter only because I want to care about characters and motivation in my crime novels, but if there's nothing whatsoever embedded within those pages that need to be turned, I get bored awfully easily. Make me care, both cerebrally and emotionally. The rest is details.

Kathleen George

He's got that intruiging physics metaphor going on. BUT to argue the content: there are many kinds of crime novels (and plays). Hamlet and Macbeth count in my book. So does Crime and Punishment. Sometimes we can know and still be compelled by other questions, other probabilities-- Sometimes the alternate reality is only a hair's breadth away from what happened. In that imagined reality (hopefully evoked) the criminal did not do what he or she did.

Ray Banks

"So saying, Johnny Oxford pointed his finger at ... Men are you skinny, do you have sand kicked in your face?"

Ah, not often Galton and Simpson get a nod these days.

denise hamilton

I find it refreshing that Mieville has a brawny vocabulary and isn't afraid to use it. If that's the way he thinks and writes, why should he dumb down his prose because it might offend someone? And for every person it offends, I bet there's another person who thinks it's cool, even if they don't know what every word means. (I count myself in that category and have actually looked up some of his words because they intrigued me) He's clearly intoxicated by language and its uses. Another author who does this is Elizabeth Hand. I love her writing as well. But I also enjoy Hemingway and Georges Simenon, who spent hours whittling away adjectives from his novels. By the way didn't another great Brit writer, James Meek (The People's Act of Love) write a manifesto last year in praise of big vocabulary words. Don't have a link but he made some great points. Chacun a son gout!

John Dishon

Raymond Chandler didn't limit himself to ten-cent words either.

Jersey Jack

Chandler never sent me to the dictionary in the middle of a story, a trip no reader should have to make.

David Thayer

Great stuff but his thesis falls short because crime fiction is broader his essay implies since he's talking about mysteries for the most part. Those manly Virgils emerge from a very precise reality in the darker precincts of noir. ( All those thugs we remember from the playground are native guides through Purgatorio.)

China has the right idea though in that most crime novels are doomed to fail or disappoint. That's what makes the endeavor so exciting for readers and writers.


Interesting account of something that I'm sure we've all thought at some point: the fun part of a mystery is the mystery, not the solution. As regards a perfect crime novel, I would also suggest "The Part About the Crimes," which is the middle section of "2666." It's a mystery with no solution, partly because it's inspired by real life, where the situation keeps getting stranger and never steps towards making sense. It's kind of wonderful.

Dana King

My quarrel isn't with using the uncommon words, it's with their frequency. There's as much skill is knowing how to use your vocabulary so the readers who are into that sort of thing are pleased, and other aren't lost. Piling them on like that is showing off.

There's an old musicians' joke: A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the saxophone, but doesn't. Knowing all the words is one thing. Knowing how many to use, and when, is something else again. Anyone can memorize words.

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