Good Bad Books

George Orwell used to talk about reading “good-bad” books. These were well-written books whose aims were not particularly serious. Eric Ambler was a writer of such books. I recently read him for the first time. His novels have all the gimcrack of genre fiction: rising plots and action, but the writing itself is damned good. Here’s a section from early in his novel “A Coffin for Dimitrious.” An Englishman named Latimer is in Smyrna treating an ethnic Russian named Muishkin to dinner.

At the Russian’s suggestion they went out to a restaurant, a place of subdued lights and red plush and gilt and stained mirrors, where French food was served. The room was full. Many of the men were ships’ officers but the majority were in army uniforms. There were some unpleasant-looking civilians, but very few women. In one corner an orchestra of three laboured over a foxtrot. The atmosphere was thick with cigarette smoke. A waiter, who was very angry about something, found them a table and they sat down in upholstered chairs which exuded wafts of stale scent. “Ton,” said Muishkin looking around. He seized the menu and after some deliberation chose the most expensive dish. With their food they drank a syrupy, resinous Smyrna wine.

Muishkin began to talk about his life. Odessa, 1918. Stambul, 1919. Smyrna, 1921. Bolsheviks. Wrangel’s army. Kiev. A woman they called The Butcher. They used the abattoir as a prison because the prison had become an abattoir. Terrible—damn awful atrocities. Allied army of occupation. The English sporting. American relief. Bed bugs. Typhus. Vickers guns. The Greeks—God, those Greeks! Fortunes waiting to be picked up. Kemalists. His voice droned on while outside, through the cigarette smoke, beyond the red plush and the gilt and the white table cloths, the amethyst twilight had deepened into night. Another bottle of syrupy wine arrived. Latimer
began to feel sleepy.

There is a lot going on here and almost every sentence operates efficiently to set the scene, reveal character, or set up what is to follow. Take this sentence, for example, “In one corner an orchestra of three laboured over a foxtrot.” Calling three guys shunted into a corner an orchestra nails the restaurant’s shabby, half-hearted attempt at elegance (just as the verb “laboured” reveals the music’s quality). Better still is the notion of band playing dance music in a room filled primarily with men.

Less competent authors would write a sentence of description and another to reveal character, but Ambler accomplishes both at once. Where he might have written “Muishkin ordered after some deliberation,” Ambler writes, “He seized the menu and after some deliberation chose the most expensive dish.” This describes an action but it also reveals Muishkin’s character. He is a mooch who will order the most expensive thing so long as he is not paying, yet he also feels obliged to feign deliberation. We have shifted perspective by this point, too. It may be the anonymous narrator’s voice at the start this passage, but we are clearly in Latimer’s point of view by the second paragraph. He’s the one sizing up Muishkin.

Then, just as easily, we begin to slide toward Muishkin’s perspective with his potted life history, which morphs from a list almost to spoken dialog. By the time we get to: “The Greeks—God, the Greeks!” we are firmly in Muishkin’s voice. Then the lens pulls back to the twilight outside to show how much time has passed: “Another bottle of syrupy wine arrived. Latimer began to fell sleepy.” What follows is a scene of dialog crucial to moving the plot forward, but this wonderful little transition is efficient and evocative with great atmospherics (a waiter angry about something, the syrupy wine). The subtle shadings of even minor characters make this good-bad writing.

There are, of course, bad-bad books. I once tried to read an Anne Rice novel. The prose was so astonishingly hapless I couldn’t get through ten pages. Not so with Ambler. It’s always a treat to stumble across a genre writer who gives you more than just the yarn, one who gives you real artistry if not real art.


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