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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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Wednesday, October 12

Ed McBain's Style

Here I go again, talking about an author’s style. And, as I’ve said before, style is such a tough concept to explain. Broadly, it includes meanings, metaphoric language, descriptions, cadences, word choices, sentence structure. In other words, style really is the man or, not to be sexist, woman. Salvatore Lambino, Evan Hunter, Ed McBain started out in his 87th Precinct series as a pulp writer of cop stories, grinding out short novels pretty much like all the other pulp writers were doing back in the 50’s and 60’s (John D. MacDonald—remember Travis McGee?—and Mickey Spillane—remember Mike Hammer?—to name only two of the better known). Not necessarily well-written but eminently sale-able. But both MacDonald and Ed McBain took it up several notches as their series continued, with styles that kept getting better and better. And now I’d like to examine a sentence from McBain’s Vespers, a novel written late in his career, a sentence that shows the beauty of his cadences and word choices and sentence structure. Please bear with me as I first talk about it in those irritating traditional grammatical terms, and then illustrate the structure using my shorthand method.

Here’s the passage: “Men and women strolled together [with] hand in hand, glancing into brightly lighted store windows, buying pretzels or hot dogs or ice cream or yogurt, or souvlaki or sausages from the bazaar of peddlers’ carts on almost every corner, browsing the several bookstores that would be open till midnight, checking out the sidewalk wares of the nighttime street merchants, stopping to listen to a black tenor saxophonist playing a soulful rendition of Birth of the Blues, the fat mellow notes floating out of the bell of his golden horn and soaring upward on the balmy air. It was a night for lovers.” (Vespers, Ed McBain)

First, he begins simply with “Men and women strolled together hand in hand.” It was I and not McBain who inserted the understood preposition (with). Simple enough, right? A compound subject, intransitive verb, pair of prepositional phrases telling how they strolled. And then his words begin strolling leisurely along after that opening clause. We find five present participial phrases in a row, all pointing back to the “men and women” but also feeling adverbial because they all partially explain how they strolled. The second participle (buying) has six objects. The third participle (browsing) has an object that’s modified by an adjective clause (that would be open). The fifth participle (stopping) does some strolling of its own with an infinitive (to listen) explaining why they stopped, then a prepositional phrase with the object “saxophonist” modified by “playing.” And finally we have a participle (floating) that has its own subject (notes) and attaches itself loosely, adverbially, to the verbal “playing.” And then he finishes with the lovely, short sentence in contrast to the previous lazy sentence: “It was a night for lovers.” What you just read in this paragraph is the old-school grammatical explanation of the structure of this sentence, and almost no one either understands what I just said or cares about what I just said. So, again, bear with me. Here’s what the sentences look like in my simplified version of sentence structure.
I don't know if McBain was aware of the structures he was using or if he was simply playing it by ear. Some writers know the grammatical way they write and do so like a pianist looking at sheet music; some writers (I suspect it's most writers) just feel the way they want to say something and do so like that lucky pianist who doesn't need any sheet music. Faulkner, one of the greatest stylists of all time, probably wrote by feel rather than by grammatical structure. Hemingway wrote by grammatical structure and would agonize over sentences for hours before finally settling on what he considered acceptable. I think I miss the classroom and wish I was in front of a classroom full of writers who were listening attentively to my explanation of what McBain did in this passage. I hope I have at least one reader, one fledgling writer, who takes my instruction to heart.
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