I know some of my readers must get bored whenever I talk about a writer’s style, but the old teacher in me just can’t resist. What follows is a long segment from Ed McBain’s (rest his soul) Widows, a very good episode in the 87th Precinct series.
Gloria Sanders was covered with blood.
This was ten o’clock on the morning of July twenty-fifth in the nurses’ lounge at Farley General Hospital, down on Meriden Street. Her white uniform was covered with blood, and there were also flecks of blood in her blonde hair and on her face. They’d had a severe bleeder in the Emergency Room not ten minutes earlier, and Gloria had been part of the team of nurses who, working with the resident, had tried to stanch the flow of blood. There’d been blood all over the table, bed, blood on the walls, blood everywhere, she had never seen anyone spurting so much blood in her life.
“A stabbing victim,” she told Carella and Brown. “He came in with a patch over the wound. The minute we peeled it off, he began gushing.”
She was dying for a cigarette now, she told them, but smoking was against hospital rules, even though the people who made the rule had never worked in an emergency room or seen a gusher like the one they’d had this morning. Or the kid yesterday, who’d fallen under a subway car and had both his legs severed just above the knee. A miracle either of them was still alive. And they would let her smoke a goddamn cigarette.
Arthur Schumacher’s taste for blue-eyed blondes seemed to go back a long way. His former wife’s eyes were the color of cobalt, her hair an extravagant yellow that blatantly advertised its origins in a bottle. Slender and some five feet six or seven inches tall, Gloria strongly resembled the one daughter they’d already met, but there was a harder edge to her. She’d been around a while, her face said, her body said, her entire stance said. Life had done worse things to her than being bled on by a stabbing victim, her eyes said.
“So what can I do for you?” she asked, and the words sounded confrontational and openly challenging. I’ve seen it all and done it all, so watch out boys. I’d as soon kick you in the groin as look at you. Blue eyes studying them warily. Blonde hair bright as brass, clipped short and neat around her head, give her a stern forbidding look. This was not the honey-blonde hair her daughter Lois had; if this woman were approaching you at night, you’d see her a block away. She reminded Carella of burned-out prison matrons he had known. So what can I do for you?
I wish I’d written that.
Note the effect of the first lone sentence to start the chapter.
Note the structure and punctuation of “There’d been blood all over the table, bed, blood on the walls, blood everywhere, she had never seen anyone spurting so much blood in her life.”(the movement from table to bed, then repeating “blood” to introduce the next two phrases; the use of a comma to hook the next sentence in instead of a semicolon or a period)
Note the author movement to interior omniscient in the paragraph beginning “She was dying for a cigarette . . .” (not using quotation marks for what she told them, the way he makes it sound like what she would be saying to herself even though he keeps it in the 3rd person) Note also the two fragments written as sentences (they’re both noun clusters)
Note the use of “blonde” as an organizing device (blood in her blonde hair, blue-eyed blondes, then a description of it as “blatantly from a bottle, blonde hair bright as brass, not the honey-blonde of her daughter,” then the image of her hair like a beacon in the night)
Note the cadence of “She'd been around a while, her face said, her body said, her entire stance said. Life had done worse things to her than being bled on by a stabbing victim, her eyes said.” (the position and repeating of “face said,” “body said,” stance said,” and then the clever echo of it in the next sentence, “her eyes said”)
Note the opening and closing of the final paragraph (the first question actually spoken and in quote marks, the final question only Carella’s mental repeating of it to illustrate the sound of her challenge)
Note the way he uses suppositional dialogue to get at the character of Gloria—her question in the last paragraph suggests that she might have said to them, “I’ve seen it all and done it all, so watch out, boys. I’d as soon . . .”
I hope I haven’t bored any readers. But this is a very instructive passage, and oh so very well said. McBain (Evan Hunter) may have started out as a writer of pulp fiction in the early books in the 87th Precinct series, but about a third of the way through he began writing much more carefully constructed stories. If you tackle the series, you’ll see what I mean.